LINCOLN — These two weeks — between a win over South Dakota State and Saturday's 11 a.m. kickoff in the autumn chill against Illinois — marked tedious hours for Nebraska football.
A mashup of meetings and recruiting road trips. Defensive position battles left lingering from camp and prolonged by porous play. Offensive questions coming to a head by an injury to the starting quarterback and understudies rising to the hour. An Illinois offense that averages 40 points per game on the horizon.
Coach Bo Pelini dug deep into the soil of his team during the bye week looking to pull out the weeds of bad habits, poor techniques and mental mistakes that leave NU defenders out of position.
Pelini sat in defensive meetings — the rooms where he's made his bread for 20 years — and worked through multiple player mistakes. He and defensive coordinator John Papuchis corrected them and watched them happen again Sunday at practice, with different players committing errors as elemental as letting their eyes stray from the target. It came back to focusing, Pelini said, on the basic parts of the plan.
The Huskers at 3-1 are looking for the right fit — of players, of playing style — on both units, weary of locker room chatter, ready to prove something, presuming they get past the basics. As of Wednesday, it was not certain. As of Thursday, when Pelini watched his defense communicate in a fashion that pleased him as much as any practice since the start of camp, a way forward seemed clearer.
“With our guys, it's a consistency issue, it's a focus issue, it's a disciplined approach,” Pelini said. “Play the way you need to play. Do your job.”
That three-word mantra — popularized by New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who visited NU for a coaches clinic 18 months ago — reaches a different kind of importance on the eve of conference play.
“All the older guys will tell us: Everything you've done to this point really doesn't matter,” defensive end Avery Moss said. “The Big Ten is what matters. So I guess it's like a new season opener for us.”
The game against the Illini (3-1) brings nearly as many questions as a regular-season opener would:
Ľ How will the quarterback storyline play out? The role will be shared by Tommy Armstrong and Ron Kellogg while Taylor Martinez continues to recover from a turf toe injury. Armstrong and Kellogg played well in a 59-20 win over South Dakota State, but Illinois' defense, though one of the Big Ten's worst statistically, should offer a stiffer challenge than the Jackrabbits.
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“I have confidence in both guys,” Pelini said. “I'm sure you'll see both guys in the game.”
Ľ Has the defense regrouped in two weeks, and who takes the lead role in the regrouping? The Huskers haven't nailed down their top 11 players in nonconference play — struggles at linebacker and safety were the primary culprits — and the large rotation on the defensive line has yielded mixed results. And then there's a baseline consistency Pelini wants that, through four games, the Huskers clearly haven't produced. They're 109th nationally in total defense, 75th in scoring defense and 96th in opponent plays 30 yards or longer.
“We've been hearing all this stuff about our defense,” Moss said. “We're tired of it and ready to prove ourselves. Tired of the pep talks we've been giving each other. We just want to go out there and play and show each other.”
The pep talks are moldy already?
“They get old real fast,” Moss said. “That's why we need to go out there and do it — so we don't need any more pep talks.”
Ľ Who attempts the big field goal if it's needed? At Friday's Big Red Breakfast, special teams coordinator Ross Els said the battle remains close between senior Pat Smith and sophomore Mauro Bondi.
Ľ Can Nebraska walk the tightrope to Big Ten title contention? The margin of error between mediocrity and a surge through the league is small and tenuous.
“You look around in college football, and there's no truly, truly dominating team on both sides of the ball,” offensive coordinator Tim Beck said. “One team may have a great offense, one team might have a great defense, but to put the whole package together — week in and week out, teams can beat anyone.
“We're really close to being in that elite group. It's just believing in it. Our guys gotta believe they can beat anybody at any time and keep working. It'll happen. They've just got to keep working.”
And learning. Pelini has shifted, in three weeks, away from “fun” and onto “focus.” The SDSU win — in which NU's defense appeared defenseless for a quarter — may have pushed him into that mood. He unloaded a veritable football clinic of philosophy on reporters Monday, talking at length about the need for his defense to fit right, lock in and build a wall against opposing offenses.
“If it was really simple, then everybody would be doing it,” Pelini said. “This goes back years and years. That's why you practice. That's why you can't just figure — it's something that happens over time. It takes time, discipline, focus. It takes failure. It takes a lot of different things.”
Nebraska would take a win Saturday.