LINCOLN — A year ago, Nebraska freshman linebacker Josh Banderas sat in front of his TV like most Husker fans, thinking the same things fans were as he watched NU's defense grope fruitlessly at UCLA's array of offensive talent.
“Crap — what are we doing?” Banderas recalled saying
Nebraska was in the midst of giving up 36 points and 653 yards. And missing tackles. Lots and lots and lots of them. Almost 300 yards worth, NU coach Bo Pelini said in his Monday press conference, if you count up all of the yards the Bruins gained after shedding initial contact.
In the bowels of the Rose Bowl afterward, the faces of Blackshirts were as red as their road pants. They were gassed from chasing UCLA all over the field — and embarrassed for not making more plays when they had the chance.
“They caught us off-guard,” defensive end Jason Ankrah said Monday.
UCLA, which scored 58 points and gained 647 yards in its season-opening romp over Nevada, won't have the element of surprise in 2013. But that doesn't necessarily mean the Huskers will have more success taking down quarterback Brett Hundley, running back Jordan James and wide receivers Devin Fuller and Shaq Evans unless they're on top of their tackling game, coaches and players said.
That's because the Bruins' spread offense — like Wyoming and Southern Mississippi before them, and to some extent NU's own attack — will try to isolate defenders in space, make them whiff and create big plays because of it.
“You miss one tackle out there in this day and age, and it can cost you,” Pelini said.
“Saturday will be a chance to make open-field tackles” junior safety Corey Cooper said. “That's going to be a key part to winning the game.”
Husker players and coaches think they'll hold up better this time. Three reasons emerge:
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Ľ Better technique: Nebraska worked at length this training camp on tackling, and defenders were popping the sled after practice Monday. Banderas said there's nothing fancy about NU's tips — “bring your hips, wrap up” — but the coaches drill it consistently. Redshirt freshman linebacker Michael Rose — who's battling with Banderas for the starting middle linebacker job — said spatial awareness is part of having good technique.
“Make sure you use your leverage,” Rose said. “If you got the sideline, use the sideline. If you got people coming, know where they're coming from. Make the sure tackle. Don't try to make the big play. Make the tackle that's going to get you to the next down. That's what it's all about: Sometimes when you're in the open field, it's just getting to the next down.”
Ľ More team speed: Nebraska coaches remain bullish on the overall athleticism of their young unit. Pelini liked how the Huskers attacked and gang-tackled against Southern Mississippi.
“That's where some of our team speed is helping us on the defensive side of the ball,” Pelini said. “Guys are coming out of the stack and getting to the football.”
Said defensive backs coach Terry Joseph: “We can hang with a spread team more because we can run at every level.”
Ľ Fresher athletes: Because Pelini chose to redshirt players like Rose, defensive tackle Vincent Valentine and defensive end Greg McMullen — and he didn't yet have Banderas and true freshman speedster Nate Gerry — Nebraska ran out of guys to play quality snaps at UCLA. Though NU's lack of depth bit it more during Big Ten play than it did against the Bruins, the Huskers were clearly exhausted when UCLA ran its 94th play to end the game.
“You look at that and say, 'OK. I screwed it up.' I'm not scared to say that,” Pelini said of NU's average depth. “Looking back, I wish I would've done it differently. You have to plan for those things and make adjustments as you go forward. That's what we are doing.”
Pelini called NU's large rotation of players, however young they are, the “ideal situation.” Ankrah agreed.
“When you're tired, the legs get heavy and your technique starts to break down a little bit,” Ankrah said. “When you have all those guys who can play — a lot of fresh legs, a lot of guys who have rest who can go in and do the exact same thing — it helps out a lot.”
Nebraska tackled better against Southern Mississippi, Pelini said, adding a few attempts were “sloppy” on the perimeter when defenders went “too low” on Golden Eagle receivers. The coach applauded NU's overall hustle to the ball. One guy didn't have to make certain plays because he had more help. That same effort will be needed, Cooper said, to slow the Bruins.
“Defense is a lot easier and a lot more fun when everyone's flying to the rock,” Cooper said.
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• Video: See Nebraska's Monday press conference: