Nebraska's close call with Wyoming on Saturday night cost it four spots in the Associated Press Top 25, where it fell from No. 18 to No. 22.
The slip was a little less drastic in the USA Today coaches poll, with NU falling from No. 18 to No. 19.
The Huskers squeezed by Wyoming 37-34 at home in a game they led 37-21 but that finished with the Cowboys having the football in their possession one last time before the clock ran out.
Among those going past NU in the AP Top 25 was UCLA, its Sept. 14 opponent. The Bruins climbed from No. 21 to No. 18 after beating Nevada 58-20.
Also leapfrogging the Huskers were Northwestern (No. 22 to No. 19, won 44-30 at Cal), Washington (No. 34 to No. 20, beat Boise State 38-6) and Wisconsin (No. 23 to No. 21, beat Massachusetts 45-0).
Among AP voters, Nebraska's highest rank was 16th, and both voters hailed from Alabama. Seventeen voters left NU off their ballots entirely. The World-Herald's Sam McKewon dropped the Huskers from 13th to 24th.
Nebraska took the furthest tumble of any team remaining in the Top 25 that didn't lose in the first week. Next closest was Florida, which dropped from No. 10 to No. 12 after beating Toledo 24-6.
UCLA also skipped past Nebraska in the USA Today coaches poll. The Bruins went from No. 21 to No. 18.
Nebraska defensive coordinator John Papuchis was the man of the moment after the Huskers' Tuesday practice. He spent nearly a half-hour talking to various groups of reporters, not leaving until the last players on the practice field — I-backs Imani Cross and Ameer Abdullah — walked by after catching dozens of passes from each other.
The place to start: explosive plays. Eleven of Wyoming's plays went for 327 yards.
“Which is mind-boggling,” Papuchis said. “But 63 plays went for 275. I can live with that. So the question to our guys as we went into this week was: 'What are we going to do this week to take those 11 explosive plays down to five, and then down to three, and then down to two, and eventually down to zero?' We need to take the consistency we played with over 63 plays and do it over the course of a whole ballgame.”
Papuchis said he also wanted to “eliminate dumb penalties.” The Husker defense had several that extended Cowboy drives.
Communication among defenders, Papuchis said, was “good and bad.” Adjustments took longer than any game Papuchis said he's coached as a defensive coordinator. The staff had to make multiple explanations.
“I only saw two offensive plays the whole game,” Papuchis said. “Usually, you make your corrections and kind of see what's going with the game. I didn't see any of our game. Because it was constantly going over and going over and going over. Our guys got it eventually.”
Count Papuchis as a believer that NU's defense can fix these problems — although he acknowledged the desire of the Husker fan base to want to see it corrected sooner.
“I know that there's an impatience that surrounds what we're doing — and the expectation is that we're going to be a finished product every Saturday when we take the field — but what I want out of this defense is that they stay focused on the main thing — to continue to improve and work as hard as they can every week,” Papuchis said.
Trying to learn about QB
Nebraska has had to take some different routes to learn what it needs to know about Southern Mississippi quarterback Allan Bridgford and the Eagles' offense going into Saturday night.
Papuchis said the staff has studied some of Bridgford's film at California since he has only played one game at Southern Miss. Bridgford played two seasons as a backup with the Bears before graduating this summer and transferring.
Bridgford passed for 377 yards in his Southern Miss debut and will give the Huskers another challenge after facing Wyoming quarterback Brett Smith.
“They're both big, strong-armed guys that can make tight-window throws,” Papuchis said. “There are some similarities in terms of their game.”
Preparing for the Eagles' offense has included looking back some at what first-year head coach Todd Monken did the previous two seasons as offensive coordinator at Oklahoma State. Papuchis said the Eagles appear to have “a general feel” similar to what Monken did at OSU, but with some subtle differences.
“Those guys are who they are, obviously,” NU assistant coach Rick Kaczenski said. “It's still the same core of beliefs. They're going to run the football and throw the football down the field. And what you see with them is they're going to stick with it.”
Looking for more from Mike
Sophomore Mike linebacker David Santos, thrust into the role as the defense's main communicator for the first time in his career, said opening night “wasn't perfect” for him or the defense overall. Coaches, he said, were upset with the unit's performance, though they're confident it could be fixed. Santos, a sophomore, echoed those thoughts when assessing his own play.
“I left a lot on the field,” Santos said. “I could have done better. ... I had a few missed assignments. I wasn't close to being as good as I know I can be. It's a work in progress. We're going to keep getting better.”
Papuchis said Santos held up “OK.”
“For his first opportunity at Mike, I thought he did some good things and certainly he did some things we need to clean up,” Papuchis said. “He's the field general, he's the leader. Without having a Will Compton and Lavonte David and owning that Mike spot, we need him to step up and own that Mike spot.”
The plan against Wyoming, Papuchis said, was to put freshman Mike Josh Banderas in the game earlier than NU eventually did. But Banderas played for much of the fourth quarter.
Papuchis reiterated Will linebacker Zaire Anderson, who did not play defense against Wyoming, hasn't been lost on the sideline. There's a plan for Anderson in NU's defense when the personnel calls for it. A junior, Anderson is a compact run defender — potentially the Huskers' best, if training camp reports are accurate — but not necessarily a fit in the dime defense when cornerback Mo Seisay and linebacker Nate Gerry are more natural pass defenders.
Southern Mississippi runs a passing spread offense like Wyoming, but Papuchis hinted at an expanded role for Anderson.
“I'd like to see Zaire have a bigger role this week,” Papuchis said. “Some of that's going to be dictated, though, by what kind of personnel groupings we're seeing from Southern Miss. You have to have some guys out there that can cover wideouts. Zaire can in certain situations, so his role I'd like to see a little bit increased.”
Better fall for Valentine
Redshirt freshman defensive lineman Vincent Valentine absolutely heard Bo Pelini's words about him at Big Ten media days. And he heard about them first from his dad, Vincent Valentine Sr. Hello, motivation.
“My dad called me and told me,” Valentine said. “I looked at it as motivation as I can get better. The coaches thought I had great potential, and so it was time to work and have a great fall camp.”
Last week, Papuchis said Valentine needed to get in better shape after spring camp. In Chicago in late June, Pelini said Valentine had to “understand the type of mentality, the type of work ethic, and be able to fight through when you're tired.”
Valentine said he lost 10 pounds over the summer. More importantly, he said, he reshaped his body and got more stamina.
“I didn't have as great of a spring as I wanted to, so having a better fall camp was a good thing for me,” Valentine said.
Coverage needs to be special
Nebraska's kickoff coverage unit performed well in the opener, but the Huskers expect to be tested against Southern Miss on Saturday.
Wyoming's average field position on seven kickoffs was the 22.4 yard-line. Kicker Mauro Bondi recorded four touchbacks.
“That group did a good job,” special teams coordinator Ross Els said. “I think we have the right guys on there. But it's only one game. And (the) Southern Miss kickoff return is really good again.”
Tracy Lampley's not on the team anymore — he was the one who returned a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown against Nebraska last year. That prompted the Huskers to replace about half of the players on their kickoff coverage team, Els said.
Southern Miss senior Justin Sims, who ranked 59th nationally with an average of 22.6 yards per attempt last year, is expected to be back deep Saturday. Junior Emmanuel Johnson returned three for 91 yards last week.
Els thinks his guys will be ready.
“Game experience is huge,” he said.
Change in punt game
Nebraska has moved away from the traditional shoulder-to-shoulder formation up front in punting situations. At least for the time being.
Against Wyoming, the Huskers spread out their blockers along the line of scrimmage. They also placed three linemen about five yards in front of the punter, serving as a shield.
Why the change?
In the past, Nebraska's two gunners didn't have much help as they sprinted downfield to make a play. Everyone else had been stepping backward to block — and then releasing.
Now there's more versatility. Said Els: “We're a little bit more aggressive with the blocks, spreading (the players) out, so hopefully we don't see as much rush, as much hold-up, and we can get in space where we're tougher to block.”
Els said he'd keep evaluating it going forward.
The Huskers allowed 11.8 yards per punt return last year, which ranked 109th nationally. Their net punting average of 35.6 yards was 86th-best.
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