LINCOLN — They ran off the field with wide eyes, their tales a little taller than the game film would later tell.
Nebraska defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski had never played so many redshirts and freshmen in a game. Five of those, plus two sophomores with virtually no experience. And as the Husker defense struggled in its season opener to stave off Wyoming, the night became an adventure in communication as he asked for updates from his players.
“Just to be able to tell us and talk our lingo (was hard),” Kaczenski said. “Not 'hey, this guy did this.' Well, who's 'this guy?' Not every guy can be double teamed. Sometimes you get these young guys and all kinds of crazy stuff happened out there. Every guy got double teamed? No.”
Kaczenski shared the story with a survivor's smile. These are long, self-searching hours for NU's defensive staff as it tries to simultaneously fix and emotionally build up the unit before Saturday's 5 p.m. game against Southern Mississippi.
More than 90,000 fans at Memorial Stadium and a Big Ten Network audience await improvement against a Golden Eagles offense that scored 15 points in a loss to Texas State. With reporters swarming them this week, defensive coaches said they await it, too. They peered pragmatically — and, at times, confidently — at the road ahead after Nebraska gave up 602 yards and 35 first downs against Wyoming.
No panic. But not exactly patience, either.
“Their understanding grows by the day, by the practice, by the period, by the rep,” coach Bo Pelini said. “That's what it has to be.”
Defensive coordinator John Papuchis said “there's no reason” the defense shouldn't “be much, much better and much more comfortable” this week.
“That's the expectation,” he said. “Everyone who cares about our program is going to have a much better feel of what these guys are after this week than after week one.”
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That's because, Papuchis said, Nebraska coaches have a better feel for their personnel after putting a game on tape. If that idea borders on the obvious, it was also overlooked, to some extent, before Wyoming, so strong was the optimism.
NU spent much of Saturday night breaking in new communicators like David Santos, Josh Banderas and Corey Cooper. The relay of information from Pelini (who makes the call) to Papuchis (who signals it in) to the middle linebacker, to the safeties, and finally to the rest of the defense was a process that had to play itself out in front of a loud home crowd, which makes it harder to talk against a no-huddle offense.
“The game's loud, emotions are high, sometimes composure gets a little lost,” Santos said. “It's not so much of a panic as people trying to get on the same page.”
And that's before NU saw Cowboy schemes that required adjustments. That motioning back Wyoming used to baffle Nebraska's secondary? Papuchis saw it, he created a fix and then spent a lot of time explaining it to defenders. It was time he wouldn't have had to spend in 2012 with three senior linebackers and two senior safeties.
“I spent more time making adjustments probably than I have at any point in my career,” Papuchis said. “I told Tim Beck: I only saw two offensive plays the whole game. Usually, you make your corrections and kind of see what's going on with the game. I didn't see any of our game. Because (I) was constantly going over and going over and going over. Our guys got it eventually.”
But then they hit a lull late in the fourth quarter, giving up two quick touchdowns in the game's final six minutes.
That's another lesson that NU would prefer to absorb without another period of instruction.
“After the game, we said: 'Hey, we told ya. There's nothing easy. There's never been an easy game one,'” Kaczenski said. “Winning's tough. Especially these days.”
Pelini still didn't back down from preaching competition in practice. All of the same linemen who played last week may play again. Pelini hinted that linebackers Michael Rose and Zaire Anderson will get more of a shot to play against Southern Miss — whose quarterback, Cal transfer Allan Bridgford, threw for 377 yards in the opener — than they did vs. Wyoming.
He also did not reduce the defense's mental workload. It was a typical kitchen-sink Monday for the unit, as Pelini “threw a lot at them” to simulate USM coach Todd Monken's spread-pass attack. He pared down the plan as the week went on and watched NU get through an apparently sluggish midweek practice before finishing strong Thursday.
“What I saw was the sharpest day today,” Pelini said that day. “I saw the game plan come together.”
These comments are a lot like ones Pelini has made before great defensive performances — and before other games where the Blackshirts busted like a go-for-broke gambler at a blackjack table. Defense, in this age of college football, is an organism trying to adapt and respond in the seconds it has available before a drive or before a snap.
The numbers from week one won't usher Pelini softly into dreams. But there is week two. And hope found in another chance for his defense to grow.
“You keep making progress, keep working with them, and I'm seeing the light start to come on,” Pelini said. “And that's fun to watch.”