LINCOLN — One day after getting physically overpowered for four quarters in a disappointing loss at Minnesota, the Huskers were back home practicing in pads because their coach wanted to prove a point.
Forget the bruises, the aches, the fatigue and the frustration. No matter the circumstance, players better be bringing a tough and tenacious mentality to the field for every snap.
That was the intended message from Nebraska coach Bo Pelini, who said he wanted to “catch their attention” Sunday after noticing that his defenders didn't play with an edge in the 34-23 loss to the Gophers.
“There were a lot of times we were physical (Saturday), but you have to be physical all the time,” Pelini said. “You can't pick and choose.”
Pelini took the responsibility for that troubling critique of his defense Monday, though the majority of his comments in a 45-minute press conference quite adamantly indicated that not just one afternoon practice in pads — perhaps not even a month's worth — could reverse an already habitual flaw.
It appears that too many Husker defenders are trying to be playmakers without a complete understanding of their responsibilities.
So much of the emphasis has centered on being in the right spot that not enough players know what to do when they get there, or even why they're supposed to be there in the first place.
Said redshirt freshman linebacker Michael Rose: “I think the main thing is, we're trying to memorize defenses against certain things instead of just reacting.”
That might explain the apparent hesitancy across the board from Nebraska's defense Saturday, even though much of Minnesota's success came on plays that the Huskers had worked on during the two weeks prior.
Sure, there were the unexpected jet sweeps — Pelini said he thought the players eventually adjusted well to those plays. And the Gophers often used pre-snap shifts and motions to confuse NU — though Rose said they'd prepared for the same formations that Minnesota ended up in at the snap anyway.
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Yet the Huskers played too “robotic” while trying to take on blockers or drag down ball carriers, Rose said. And the Gophers took advantage, smacking around NU's front seven on their way to 271 rushing yards, the most they've had in a Big Ten conference game since 2005.
But it's not the system that's limiting, Rose said.
“You can still be in the framework of the scheme of this defense and still go make plays,” said Rose, who then named recent Husker stars like Ndamukong Suh and Lavonte David.
Rose may get his chance to prove that Saturday. Pelini announced Monday that Rose is moving to middle linebacker, where he and freshman Josh Banderas are expected to get more playing time against Northwestern this week. David Santos is moving back to the weakside spot, where he emerged last season.
No matter what position you play, though, the goal should be to build your knowledge base, Rose said. Study the playbook. Watch film. Learn from your mistakes.
“The thing about the scheme is, you can't be halfway right,” Rose said. “You've got to know everything. Knowing the defense helps you with confidence.”
Which leads to toughness, Pelini said.
For example, Pelini said, the reason why Nebraska players so often appeared to be “catching” blocks instead of “delivering a blow” against Minnesota related specifically to their eye placement. They'd be looking in the backfield as they filled their assigned running lane, instead of preparing to engage a blocker.
“It makes you look hesitant because you know a puller's coming around or you know a fullback or a lineman is coming to block you. But if you're not looking at them, you're going to look not physical,” Pelini said. “It'd be like getting in a fistfight and not looking at the guy you're fighting.”
Pelini's point: The Huskers' ability to match or exceed the physicality of their opponents isn't based solely on their own willpower or internal drive.
“The mental side of things brings the physical side of things,” he said.
Still, though, the desire to play hard can't be circumstantial.
That's why the Huskers practiced in pads (instead of helmets only) on Sunday, which is normally reserved for making corrections and stretching the sore muscles. The coaches want to make sure the intensity doesn't dip again.
“We were surprised, but after we had our meetings with coaches we understood why we were in (pads),” sophomore Randy Gregory said. “It's something we need. I'm not completely for it, but if it helps on Saturday, I think we should do it every Sunday. It's something the coaches really stressed — physicality. We didn't show it in the game.”
He didn't view it as a punishment. More like a way to convey the issue's importance.
“I think they felt the need to put us in pads so we could show where we messed up at and work our corrections,” Gregory said. “Just get our mindset back to being physical.”
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Video: NU coach Bo Pelini at the Monday press conference:
Video: NU's Tommy Armstrong at the Monday press conference:
Video: NU's Quincy Enunwa at the Monday press conference:
Video: NU's Jeremiah Sirles at the Monday press conference: