Nebraska's ability to stop the run against UCLA may end up determining the outcome of Saturday's game, according to defensive coordinator John Papuchis.
The Huskers must prevent the Bruins from establishing their ground game to have a chance at slowing their offense, which totaled 653 yards in a 36-30 win over NU last year.
“One thing that we study and evaluate when they've been real successful and when they haven't — a lot of it's come down to (whether) they've had success on the ground,” Papuchis told about 300 fans Friday morning at the Ramada Plaza Hotel and Convention Center.
But even though the staff knows much more about its team now, Papuchis admits that Saturday's game against UCLA will reveal the Huskers' true nature and potential.
“(Saturday is) going to be a great test, and a great indicator,” Papuchis said, “because it's a good football team coming in.”
A talented UCLA squad that gets even better when it runs the ball effectively, Papuchis said.
He mentioned a statistic in his chat with the fans Friday. UCLA has averaged 242.6 yards per game on the ground in 10 wins under coach Jim Mora. But in five losses, the Bruins have run for an average of 118.2 yards.
“To me,” Papuchis said, “a lot of the tale's going to be told in our ability to stop the run.”
He did share a couple of other points of emphasis.
He said limiting UCLA's explosive plays will be important. The Bruins ranked ninth nationally last season with 79 plays of 20 yards or more. Much of that starts with dual-threat quarterback Brett Hundley, who can improvise off script and keep plays alive.
“We can't let him out of the pocket,” Papuchis said. “When he drops back to pass and it's not a quarterback run, we have to get after him.”
Bringing the 222-pound Hundley to the turf won't be easy, though. Nebraska struggled to tackle Hundley and the Bruin skill players last year. Coaches said this week that the Huskers surrendered almost 300 yards after contact.
They can't get away with missing that many tackles again, according to Papuchis. The Bruins' system is designed to create one-on-one matchups. It's up to the NU players to be ready.
“One of the things I think UCLA does as well as anybody is they get guys in space on the perimeter quickly,” Papuchis said. “They force your corners, outside (linebackers) and safeties to make tackles.”
Ľ Papuchis was asked if he retained any concepts from last year’s game plan against UCLA. His response: “I’m stubborn, but not stupid.” The crowd laughed. Papuchis then admitted there are aspects of last year’s approach that can carry over. He indicated that better preparation and better coaching could have fixed some of the issues in that loss.
Ľ Sophomore David Santos, who lost his Blackshirt, continues to work hard, according to Papuchis. “He hasn’t hung his head,” Papuchis said. Santos began the year as Nebraska’s starting middle linebacker, but freshman Josh Banderas has taken that over since Week One. Papuchis indicated that coaches may consider a different position for Santos. “It’s our job to make sure we find him a role that he can have great success in,” the coach said. “I don’t know that it is in the (middle linebacker) spot.”
Ľ Redshirt freshman linebacker Jared Afalava (strained neck) is “pretty close” to returning, Papuchis said. … Papuchis said freshman linebacker Marcus Newby will redshirt. He’s working on the scout team. … Freshman Courtney Love is a likely redshirt candidate, too, though that decision hasn’t been finalized yet.