LINCOLN — Nebraska's defense gave up 602 total yards to Wyoming. Two weeks later, Nebraska's defense yielded UCLA touchdowns on five consecutive drives.
And according to Bo Pelini, THIS was the worst defensive performance of the season. Hide the children. Grab a seat. Buckle up. The following 1,200 words won't make you feel better about the 2013 Blackshirts.
As NU wraps up nonconference play and heads into its first bye week, we can say two things with certainty: The defense stinks. And coaches are sick of it. Nobody more than Pelini, who used most of Saturday's postgame presser to rip his defense. Here's a sampling:
“Let me tell you, to start that football game, we had missed assignment after missed assignment. I know we're young and, trust me, there were some young guys who made those mistakes. But that can't be our excuse.”
“The amount of times that we shoot ourselves in the foot is ridiculous.”
“When you just blow your gap or flat-out bust or don't align with the right guy, the amount of times that happened in the game was mind-boggling to me.”
Heard enough? You should've heard his assistants:
“It just seemed like there was a breakdown every play,” defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski said. “I can't think of a series where we came off to the sideline and just felt good about where we were at. ... We were off-kilter the entire game, from the first series on.”
“Every week with this crew right now, it feels like it's a new adventure,” said defensive coordinator John Papuchis. “Whether it's from quarter to quarter, or half to half, or game to game. There are times that we show signs of being pretty good. And then there are times that it's hard to watch.”
If you were willing to listen, Pelini and Co. could've gone on all night like this. There's no sugarcoating September at North Stadium. Bo sounded like a man who wanted to bury those black shirts beneath a cow pie in the Sand Hills.
It might be a stretch to say the Huskers aren't ready for Big Ten play — the soft schedule this year might just be NU's saving grace. But it's also no stretch to say that if NU played Oregon tomorrow, Scott Frost might run up 70.
South Dakota State managed only 20, but it looked worse from the sideline. Papuchis offered an example of one of the many busts.
On the second SDSU snap of the game, Papuchis said a linebacker (a quick look at the tape showed it was Nate Gerry) had man-to-man responsibility on the tight end. He didn't cover him. Cam Jones caught the ball for 16 yards.
“There's no contingency for that as a coach,” Papuchis said. “You have the tight end man-to-man. If he goes into the stands, you have him man-to-man. Go cover him. ...
“You go into the game saying, OK, this could hurt us, this can be a weakness, this can be an issue. That (kind of bust) shouldn't be the thing we're talking about.
“Ultimately, it's our responsibility. ... I've never been one to stand here and point the finger at anybody. But we gotta stand up. That's all of us. That's coaching. That's players.”
Critics will say Papuchis is indeed “pointing the finger.” But I'd rather have a coaching staff actually present details, rather than citing “execution.” Usually that's Pelini's explanation. But even he felt like venting Saturday afternoon, not about specific plays but about the passive attitude on defense.
“I just told our guys, 'Let's face it, guys. There has to be a mentality. You have to have a certain kind of mentality when you take the field.' I just feel like sometimes, we're sitting back, taking it. There has to be a sense of urgency.”
Coaches knew the Huskers were young on defense. But adjusting on the fly continues to be a problem. If players don't see something in practice, Papuchis said, they don't handle it well.
“I thought there would be some two steps forward, one step back,” he said. “But it's been a little bit more of two steps forward, two steps back. I don't know how much traction we're really making.”
Priority one entering October is fundamentals. Tackling, getting off blocks, etc. Priority two is more interesting.
“You can't keep doing things that guys can't do,” Papuchis said. “Experimenting time is over. ...
“We gotta figure out what the identity of this defense is gonna be. We may have to play a little bit different than we played in the past. We may have to be a more pressure team or a more gapped-out team.”
Nebraska asks its defensive linemen to play two gaps, enabling it to keep two safeties back. But after that awful first quarter Saturday, the Huskers adjusted, giving each defensive lineman and linebacker a gap and bringing a safety up in support.
The upside: It takes pressure off the front seven in the run game. The downside: It limits coverage options.
Pelini likes to match patterns in the secondary. That option is out the window when you're bringing one of the safeties into the box. You basically have to play man-to-man on the outside. NU, as a result, sees more picks, more crossing routes, potentially more big plays in the passing game.
A week ago, the Huskers gapped out against UCLA in order to fill the run gaps. They eventually got exposed in the secondary.
“It simplifies the scheme,” Papuchis said. “But the question you've got to ask yourself is are you good enough to play that way? Down after down. Can you just play single-high, gap out and pressure? You have to be pretty talented to be able to live that way every play.”
Kaczenski doesn't want to play a gap defense — “Guys have to get off blocks and make plays.” But the Blackshirts may have no choice. South Dakota State tailbacks rushed 31 times for 272 yards Saturday, 8.8 yards per carry. Without safety help, that isn't likely to get better against Northwestern and Michigan.
On the other hand, it's not as simple as math. Here's Bo again: “We had eight men in the box at one point to start a drive. Eight men in the box, gapped-out defense, and they ran the ball I think plus 13 or 14 and plus eight. There is zero, zero excuse for that.”
There's zero sugarcoating the first third of the season. Against one BCS team, two mid-majors and an FCS foe, the Huskers gave up 27 points and 464 yards per game. Coaches hit the right notes Saturday afternoon. But there was one quote — from Pelini — that sounded ominous.
“I work in the business of getting it fixed,” he said. “And I take it as a challenge right now, to get this thing fixed.
“We'll find the right combination and we'll find a way. I've always been able to do that. ... I'll get this fixed. Trust me there.”
If this were 2010, it'd be hard to argue with Pelini. But this is 2013, following two defensive seasons in which the Blackshirts never fixed their problems. When Bo says he's “always” found a way, he's forgetting 2011 and '12, when NU allowed a scary 46 points per loss.
It's bye week at Memorial Stadium. Pelini has no time to waste.
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• Video: Nebraska coach Bo Pelini talks after the game:
• Video: Nebraska QB Tommy Armstrong talks after the game:
• Video: Nebraska QB Ron Kellogg talks after the game:
• Video: Postgame analysis with Sam McKewon:
• Video: Jack Hoffman and others get their own tunnel walk: