Published Sunday, September 22, 2013 at 12:01 am / Updated at 1:54 pm
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McKewon: Blitzing may be Blackshirts' best bet to hold up down stretch

LINCOLN — “When something's not working, stubbornness is probably the last thing you want to have.”

Those words — a kind of manna from head-nodding heaven if you're a Husker fan — are courtesy of Nebraska defensive coordinator John Papuchis in the wake of a performance that had his boss, Bo Pelini, on a withering streak of criticism after NU's 59-20 win over South Dakota State.

Pelini didn't like watching SDSU back Zach Zenner — an FCS All-American, but still — darting off tackle with eight Huskers in the box or jolting through the middle of the line like a jackknife.

“We've seen faster than him,” Pelini said.

Perhaps that's what Pelini was saying to Papuchis at the end of the game. BTN cameras captured Papuchis nodding, a little glumly, at Pelini's comments. Unlike Callahan-era defensive coordinator Kevin Cosgrove, Papuchis doesn't dodge the postgame questions by trying to trot to an elevator, or descending into tears, or awkwardly staging himself behind a couch, as Cosgrove once did, making it nearly impossible to hear the man. Papuchis receives the swooping hawks. It's Pelini's defense, but Papuchis gets far more of the peppering.

Now, he and Pelini have to rebuild the Blackshirts to resemble a flock of hawks. Since Papuchis may recruit some this week — NU's 2014 class is perilously thin on defensive commits right now — it may fall more on Pelini to fix than the lead protégé of his graduate school of coaching. And Pelini may ponder a defensive solution that's desperate, but doable.

Nebraska could blitz the heck out of the Big Ten.

Pelini prefers a middle ground that better protects his pass defense. He prefers a four-man pass rush that gets home. He prefers a defense with safeties stationed to prevent big plays. He prefers that 2009 defense, a suffocating organism.

The middle ground's not working. The four-man pass rush isn't often getting home. And though NU plays two safeties, only one — junior Corey Cooper — is playing at a minimum level of satisfaction for Pelini.

“Coop is playing pretty well,” Pelini said. “We have to get better at the other safety position. They're playing too tentative. To play that position, you have to be aggressive.”

Pelini then offered, unsolicited, Charles Jackson as a possible solution. The sophomore from Spring, Texas, has hardly played through four games. And he's switching from cornerback to safety. He still has plenty to learn, Pelini said.

But “he shows me he's a playmaker,” the coach added. “And I know he'll tackle well.”

So long as Jackson's getting a look, Pelini should ratchet up the risk factor of his defense. Tap his playmakers. Gap out the run defense. Bring the storm, the smoke, the heat, the house, whatever. It's the classic sports writer's reductive bar-stool reasoning — “Hey, blitz 'em, buddy!” — but here, with a unit this young, it fits.

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In Dirk Chatelain's Sunday column, Papuchis said it's a risk. Of course it is. When you put those blitzes on tape, opponents see them and prepare. And when the blitzes fail, the tiniest mistake on the back end — see Georgia's final touchdown in the Capital One Bowl — can make for a big mess.

But this is not a Nebraska defense managing the standard plan with any ease. And the Big Ten — this poor, bedraggled league of teams — does not abound with offensive superstars like Georgia did. Ohio State and Wisconsin — the two best offenses out of the Leaders Division — aren't on the schedule unless Nebraska reaches the Big Ten championship. Worry about that then, since NU didn't stop either one when it really counted last season.

Which Big Ten quarterback on NU's schedule dazzles? Which of them will burn the Huskers repeatedly with decision-making and throwing prowess? Northwestern's Kain Colter? Great athlete — part-time quarterback. Devin Gardner? Ask Akron and Connecticut. Michigan State plays about 37 quarterbacks per quarter. Penn State has a budding stud in Christian Hackenberg — who's still a true freshman. That's the four best teams NU plays. Iowa's in there, but you know Iowa. Four-yard slant on third-and-6.

The Huskers' front seven sometimes looks confused in the chaos, but if you point that chaos toward the quarterback — like NU did in sacking SDSU's Austin Sumner five times — maybe the quarterback blinks. In fact, I suspect most of the Big Ten quarterbacks would.

Pelini has all the blitzes and pressures in the book. He used his share in 2008, when Big 12 offenses were so splendid that risk was often the only thing that brought reward. Remember guys flying in the air toward the general area code of Kansas State's Josh Freeman?

Missouri, you'll recall, burned Nebraska. Oklahoma did, too. By 2009, Pelini had figured out both of those offenses, sucking the meat off their bones with a match-zone scheme that involved far less risk. In 2010, NU again dominated Mizzou, and though it lost to OU in the Big 12 title game, it wasn't a shameful defensive performance.

The Big Ten has been different. Big Ten teams are, if nothing else, patient. They plod away, angling for a physical advantage. They demand Nebraska's safeties play in the run game. They put Pelini's two-gap, linebacker-friendly scheme on trial and often find it guilty of poor execution.

Now nonconference foes have caught on. Regardless of personnel — whether Wisconsin used two tight ends or UCLA didn't use any — offenses dared NU's linebackers and safeties to make play after play. You, fan, hate to hear it, but when Pelini talks “execution,” he's right. The system is set up for linebackers and safeties to execute.

When they don't, the system needs a reboot. It needs a blitz boot. It may be a button Pelini doesn't want to push. It may misfire. Or it may, if only for October, be the infusion of confidence these kids need. On with the Rewind.

I see you

» Quarterback Ron Kellogg: Loved his decisiveness in where he threw the ball, and the smoke he put on it when he did. He attacked the empty gaps in the middle of the field, which, in this offense, must be done with regularity and poise.

» Quarterback Tommy Armstrong: Not as explosive a runner as Taylor Martinez, but he can pick up the 4 or 5 yards with greater consistency. Most coaches can't stand getting nicked by a thousand cuts on the zone read, so they'll take chances, and that's when Armstrong will burn defenses more.

» Running back Ameer Abdullah: Quietly has 580 all-purpose yards through four games. The fumbling has to stop, naturally.

» Defensive end Randy Gregory: A big puma of an athlete. His run-stopping technique is a work in progress, but he's been as impactful as advertised.

» Right guard Spencer Long: Anchored a line that played with confidence instead of concern.

» Linebacker David Santos: Nice bounce-back game (six tackles and a sack) after an early-season benching. Good to see Santos kept his head in it. He'll be needed in Big Ten season when the simple wear and tear of a college football season works on true freshman Josh Banderas.

» Safety Corey Cooper: On track for 120 tackles, which, as a collegiate safety, isn't necessarily a good thing.

» Zenner: The South Dakota State running back deserved more than 21 carries, considering he gained 202 yards. But SDSU's prize game — hosting FCS No. 1 North Dakota State next weekend — may have informed Zenner's lightened load. The Jackrabbits didn't want to grind him down.

Three concerns

» Tackling: Nebraska's defensive coaches don't teach the leaping, one-armed bandit stuff that certain Huskers occasionally use as an excuse for technique. But so many of NU's whiffs seem related to judgment — overrunning a hole, taking a shallow angle — and perhaps even fear. Fear of more yards being gained. You can't fault the back seven for not trying. They try. They also flail.

» Ball security: The Huskers are 120th in fumbles (11) and 113th in fumbles lost (five). And they've played one defense worth two grains of salt. Teams know — have known now for years — that you can punch out and strip away balls from NU skill players who, again, seem in a rush to gain more yards.

» Jamal Turner lost in the shuffle: One of NU's most dynamic athletes has 13 touches (11 catches, two punt returns) through four games.

Three stats

» 4.85: Yards per carry by opposing offenses against NU. That ranks 102nd in the nation. It's 5.19 yards per carry in the first halves of games — 101st in the nation. It's 5.97 yards on first down (114th). The Huskers have given up 27 runs of 10 yards or longer (114th), five runs of 30 yards or longer (115th). These numbers generally put NU in the company of Indiana. This is not good company.

» 20: Touchbacks for the Nebraska kickoff team. That's tied for second nationally. NU's touchback rate is ninth in the nation — 68.97 percent (20 of 29) of the Huskers' kickoffs have gone into the end zone. Nebraska's allowing 16.57 yards per return, good for sixth in the nation.

» 46.5-16.7: The average score by which 10 Big Ten teams beat FCS opponents. Nebraska's 59-20 win against SDSU was the third-largest margin of victory in those games behind Ohio State's 76-0 rout of Florida A&M and Wisconsin's 48-0 pounding of Tennessee Tech. The closest game — Purdue's 20-14 win over Indiana State — should tell you more about the Boilers than it does the Sycamores. The Big Ten presumably wants to end these kinds of arrangements. But if Big Ten teams kicks the FCS to the curb, what's in? More MAC teams?

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Facebook feedback

On my World-Herald Facebook page, I'll ask fans to submit comments after each game and post responses here.

Peter Strnad: “Pelini needs to learn how to build a foundation and harness the emotional aspects of playing defense before he asks players to become 'professionals' in the film room. In short, I think Pelini hasn't learned how to build the foundation of effort, passion, intensity and toughness on D because his scheme requires too much time and energy directed toward the rules of the scheme. There is no explaining the complete lack of toughness, utter lack of fundamentals, without admitting the D lacks a foundation. Pelini can't teach defense 201 before he teaches defense 101.”

Dan Warner: “No real takeaway from that one. It was SDSU for crying out loud. Take the bye week seriously and come back strong for the conference game. Then we'll see what they have.”

Glenn Coles: “Unless this defense makes huge improvements over the next two weeks it's going to be a long conference season. Even the type of offense we saw today isn't enough to make up for a defense that doesn't know where they're supposed to be.”

Opponent watch

Pundits surprised at the sudden downturn in output for Michigan's Gardner — who sparkled against Notre Dame but struggled consecutively against Akron (28-24 win) and Connecticut (24-21 win) — shouldn't be. A pro-style offense — like the one preferred by offensive coordinator Al Borges — has enough moving parts that it can easily get bogged down, especially against teams Michigan doesn't play annually. Michigan will run hot and cold — from game to game and sometimes within games — just as it did for years under Lloyd Carr.

In Michigan's 1997 national title season, the offense averaged 26.8 points per game. What a pro-style offense does is help your defense. Especially when stopping the run. There are five Big Ten defenses currently giving up fewer than 300 yards per game. Four of them run pro-style attacks.

Forecast

It's going to get a little hotter in the air. Perhaps a little cooler elsewhere. For a week anyway.

* * *

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:

Contact the writer: Sam McKewon

sam.mckewon@owh.com    |   402-219-3790    |  

Sam McKewon covers Nebraska football for The World-Herald. Got a tip, question or rant? Good. Email him. Follow him on Twitter. Call him.

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