LINCOLN — Iowa quarterback James Vandenberg was threatening to break the streak last Friday, having completed 8 of 14 passes at the midway point of the third quarter and moving the Hawkeye offense to midfield.
Then it started to go the way it has for so many opposing signal-callers this season against Nebraska.
Vandenberg followed with an incomplete pass before an interception by Daimion Stafford. Then another incompletion before his next pass netted just 1 yard. The senior finished 3 of 10 with two interceptions after his decent start in the wind and cold.
At 11 of 24, Vandenberg was right there with the season completion rate by NU opponents — a nation-low 45.5 percent — and became the seventh straight quarterback failing to complete better than 50 percent of his throws against the Huskers.
“We never really talked about that coming into the season,” NU junior Ciante Evans said. “But now that it's coming up big, we've just got to continue to strive to do what we do and get the ball on the ground.”
It has started with Evans and other cornerbacks getting up on receivers and challenging routes. “They're very aggressive,” Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said.
Those cornerbacks have been helped by an improving pass rush, the play of linebackers on underneath routes and safeties providing help in the back.
“We play a type of defense where we put bodies on bodies,” NU linebacker Will Compton said. “We're aggressive with guys and we're expected to make plays every time the ball's in the air. It's an honor to be a part of that right now.”
Nebraska has taken over the national lead in pass defense by allowing 152.2 yards per game. It also ranks behind only Florida in pass efficiency defense, and no team other than NU is holding opponents under 50 percent completions.
It has been a feather in the cap for first-year assistant Terry Joseph, who took over the secondary last winter after previously working with NU head coach Bo Pelini and defensive coordinator John Papuchis at Louisiana State.
“We were already on the same page because we worked together before,” said Joseph, who made stops at Louisiana Tech and Tennessee after leaving LSU. “But obviously we wanted to be aggressive and we wanted to kind of dictate the pace, especially for me, in the passing game. So that means we'll kind of be in your face a lot of the time.”
Joseph said there has to be a belief in your personnel to get up on receivers at the line because it can leave you prone to big plays. Evans said cornerbacks in the Husker system like Andrew Green, Josh Mitchell and Stanley Jean-Baptiste also learned from some of the best in Prince Amukamara and Alfonzo Dennard.
“We just all go out there and work on press (coverage),” Evans said. “Anybody can play off. But you really want to get up there, be patient at the line, play with your feet and then play with your hands.”
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It has netted Nebraska its share of pass interference penalties, but Evans said the Huskers won't back down. That's not how they have been taught.
“Terry Joseph does a tremendous job coaching them,” Papuchis said. “Then those guys do a great job during the week of learning the route combinations that we're going to see and the tendencies by formation, and they're playing their tails off.
“It's a combination of all that stuff, plus the pressure package that we're able to bring at times and the four-man rush that Eric (Martin) and some of the other guys provide.”
Nebraska's defensive stats no doubt are padded by several Big Ten opponents lacking some passing prowess. But the Huskers have particularly pounced on that weakness the last five games, allowing those opponents to complete 39.9 percent while intercepting eight passes and giving up two touchdowns.
“The last few weeks, especially, you've seen a group effort as far as everybody kind of understanding, moving a little faster, playing with more confidence and communicating,” Joseph said. “Because so much of it happens before the ball's snapped.”
Despite the aggressive style, Nebraska has allowed just five completions of 30 yards or more during its six-game winning streak (UCLA and Ohio State combined for eight of 24-plus yards in the Huskers' two losses). That win streak started not long after the Huskers beat Wisconsin 30-27 in a game where the Badgers had pass plays of 54, 30, 29 and 26 yards.
Wisconsin was the last team to complete better than 50 percent of its passes against the Huskers (15 of 28 for 239 yards), but has since lost Joel Stave for the season and will start Curt Phillips against NU in the Big Ten championship game.
“I think it's important to stay ahead of the chains against Nebraska,” Bielema said. “You don't want to get in third-and-longs.”
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