LINCOLN — They dined on August optimism. They gave the unit a captain and each position its own assistant captain. They handed out Blackshirts before the first game. They soothed doubters after the first game was a near-disaster. They used the words “we're close” as a reminder of progress. They celebrated two good performances to start the Big Ten season. Perhaps they relied on a track record established by their head coach: Everywhere Bo Pelini had ever preached his word on stopping college football offenses, his guys had improved as the season wore on.
After all that, Nebraska's defense — the recipient of internal grace and patience for eight weeks despite some unsightly moments — took a 430-yard, 34-23 beating from Minnesota. It joined previous 2013 beatings delivered by Wyoming and UCLA.
And thus the coaches and players from that defense, admitting their vulnerability while seemingly fed up with it, spent a week simmering in the first and last refuge of a football player: anger.
“There's not a lot of time to waste licking your wound and feeling sorry for yourselves,” defensive coordinator John Papuchis said.
“We don't like the feeling of being talked about as if this defense is terrible,” linebacker Michael Rose said.
Whether this hard line is fruitful or futile — as it was when Bill Callahan tried it in 2007, in the wake of a 49-31 loss to USC — will be determined by how the Husker defense plays in a final five-game stretch, which starts at Memorial Stadium at 2:30 p.m. Saturday against Northwestern.
With an offense riddled by injuries again returning to reserve quarterbacks Tommy Armstrong and Ron Kellogg, Nebraska's defensive players have a sense that some responsibility remains on them, as poorly as they've shouldered it thus far as the nation's 77th-rated total defense and 76th-rated rushing defense.
So Pelini yanked the six Blackshirts worn in practice — seven of the Huskers' eight top tacklers didn't have them anyway — and scheduled a physical, padded practice for Sunday, just 24 hours after the loss.
“I wanted to get their attention,” Pelini said Monday.
“I don't wear a Blackshirt,” Papuchis said, “but if I wore a Blackshirt, I'd take mine off, too.”
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Pelini continued ordering up hitting for the rest of the week. He moved linebackers to new positions the way a foreman makes changes on a production line. Rose and Josh Banderas are in at middle linebacker. Strongside linebacker Jared Afalava isn't part of the plans at all. David Santos, the previous starter in the middle, has been moved in part because he wasn't vocal enough. Rose, one of the few defensive players to speak to reporters this week, will handle that role better, Papuchis said.
In the midst of the changes, seniors spoke up. Fifth-year defensive end Jason Ankrah told younger players, many of whom dot the starting front seven, that their practice habits had to improve. No moping allowed.
“You don't take a loss to put your head down and say 'Aw, the season's over, luckily next year will happen,' ” Ankrah said. “You better pick your (expletive) up and wake up, fix what you gotta fix and come ready to practice every day.
“And a lot of them were shocked that we were telling them that like, 'What are you talking about?' That's what a young guy does. Hopefully, the message has got across.”
It has to quickly, for the Wildcats, losers of four straight games, are desperate to keep bowl eligibility hopes alive. They won at Nebraska in 2011 and have a mobile-if-banged-up quarterback in Kain Colter who can cause NU some of the same frustrations Minnesota did. Though Northwestern uses a spread passing offense to complement its zone-read run game — the Wildcats are 51st nationally in rushing yards per game with 181.9 — Papuchis said he spent the week “keenly aware” that Northwestern could attempt to exploit the same weaknesses Minnesota did.
Pelini viewed the weaknesses exposed by Minnesota through his usual prism of mental toughness — that Nebraska's defenders didn't always know what they were doing against the Gophers' shifts and motions and thus were like boxers who didn't see a punch coming.
Papuchis had his own perspective. NU lined up OK, he said. But defenders caught blocks instead of delivering blows. The Huskers were caught, he said, “trying to be so perfect in fitting our gaps.” Rose agreed. Nebraska is playing “too robotic” because players are “trying to memorize defenses against certain things instead of just reacting.”
“We can draw it up,” Rose said, “but even if you're in the right fits, you gotta get off blocks and go make tackles.”
Said Papuchis: “Be aggressive and violent off the ball. That's the way you're going to stop a two-back running game.”
Ankrah said Nebraska's workouts were precisely that this week. Tough, fast, elementally driven. A return to fundamental roots. Pelini said Thursday he liked the Huskers' plan and their attention to detail during the week. But he knows, equally, the measurement now is making the plays, consistently, physically, emphatically.
“I want them to communicate, with guys playing fast, hard, decisive and doing their jobs,” Pelini said. “That's what I'm looking for. That's what equates to success. Nothing less will be acceptable.”
The other day Rose rattled off the names of former Husker players who fit Pelini's definition of successful. Ndamukong Suh. Lavonte David. Eric Hagg. Alfonzo Dennard. The names that helped create the standard, the expectation, that this defense hasn't yet matched.
“All those guys who are in the NFL right now, you can't tell me they didn't make plays in this scheme,” Rose said. “It's not like it's never been done and we're breaking through on some revolutionary thing. We just gotta go out there and make plays.
“It's just football. That's all it is.”
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Video: NU coach Bo Pelini after practice, Oct. 31:
Video: The Big Red Today Show, Oct. 29: