LINCOLN — As John Papuchis assessed the mindset of the Nebraska defense Wednesday, he described a unit finding middle ground at midseason.
Still humble, and well aware that it's the same defense that gave up 1,855 yards and went through some staggering lapses in four September games.
Yet now a little confident, coming off two Big Ten wins that have reduced some of the big numbers on its tab.
“We certainly feel a lot better about ourselves,” said Papuchis, the Huskers' second-year defensive coordinator. “I think we played well against Illinois and well against Purdue. We still have a lot of room for improvement, and I think our guys understand that.
“We don't have a group that's complacent. We don't have a group that feels like they've arrived. I think we have a group that feels like they have something to prove, and a group that's excited about the direction that they're heading.”
That is, for sure, a big difference from Nebraska's position during its last bye week.
The Huskers had just allowed South Dakota State tailback Zach Zenner to rush for 202 yards in three quarters and the Jackrabbits to put up 465 total yards and score 17 first-quarter points.
They also had some true freshmen and redshirt freshmen beating themselves up over what had happened against SDSU and in long games against Wyoming and UCLA.
“I don't think anyone felt good about where we were at coming out of the South Dakota State game,” Papuchis said. “But I think everyone also realized that we had the whole Big Ten in front of us. It was our job to keep our guys focused, but to their credit they stayed the course and they keep working.”
Nebraska reached the midway point of its second bye week Wednesday, and defensive end Jason Ankrah said he can see the Blackshirts' confidence growing.
“I mean, everybody's not fully playing to where they want to play at right now,” he said, “but we're getting better, and we see that along the way.”
It started with Nebraska shutting down the passing game of Illinois and quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, who came into the Oct. 5 contest ranking No. 10 nationally in passer efficiency. A week later, the Huskers shut out Purdue for 59-plus minutes and allowed just 161 total yards until surrendering a late touchdown pass.
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Nebraska still ranks only No. 8 in the Big Ten in total defense (allowing 407.2 yards per game). The Huskers are No. 8 in rushing defense (157.5) and No. 5 in scoring defense (22.3 points a game).
But after allowing four nonconference opponents to complete 63 percent of their passes, they held Illinois and Purdue to a combined 30 of 67 (44.8 percent) with eight sacks and two interceptions. They have climbed to second in the Big Ten with 14 turnovers gained.
Ankrah said the message from the seniors to the underclassmen previously was to hang in there and not give up. Now it's to build off the good but not let up.
“When you're young, you're just like, 'Yeah, I don't want to hear that,' ” Ankrah said. “But now that I'm telling them, I've got to help them understand that you've really got to tune in and keep going, keep grinding.”
After taking Saturday off, Nebraska travels to Minnesota on Oct. 26, then embarks on the five-game stretch in November that will determine if the defense is repaired or just temporarily got taped back together against two lower-level Big Ten opponents.
“We know we can't just live on playing good the past two weeks,” Ankrah said. “We've got to play good the rest of the season. And ultimately great.”
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Video: Coach Bo Pelini speaks after Wednesday's practice
Video: Defensive coordinator John Papuchis speaks after Wednesday's practice
Video: The Big Ten Preview Show, Oct. 16