LINCOLN — Andy Warhol’s full of it. The pop artist once said he was afraid the longer he looked at something, the less it meant. That idea wouldn’t fly in Nebraska’s football program.
Especially for the secondary, where NU’s match-read zone pass defense — sounds like a Wall Street formula, huh? — remains perfectly perplexing to most opposing quarterbacks.
At a three-second glance — which is all the time a QB usually has — it looks like a bunch of blanketed wide receivers. It looks like a zone defense suddenly switching into man defense. It looks like an angry, physical organism comprised of a 47.5 percent completion rate and 5.4 yards per attempt.
To Nebraska defensive backs, it looks like coach Bo Pelini said it would. It looks like, after a season of busted coverages, it’s finally making more sense. After hours and hours and hours of looking, looking, looking at film. Before practice. After practice. At home on the Hudl video program. The longer they look, the more it means.
None of it’s mandatory. Just advisable if you want to be a groove in Bo’s vice grip.
How many hours? Try 15 to 20. Per week. Watching opposing receivers for how they run their routes, show their tells and create their formations.
“It really adds up Monday-Saturday, how much film we watch,” senior dime backer Justin Blatchford said. “It takes a lot to know what the other team’s going to do and what the coaches are asking of us. You’ve really got to push yourself.”
Stanley Jean-Baptiste said it took him “about a year” to grasp the off-the field commitment level and how to marry it to on-the-field athleticism. Then he admits with a grin that, shoot, he’s still learning.
This is why 19-year-old freshman corners — however athletic they are — can’t just skip onto the field. This is probably why most college teams don’t even try to duplicate it.
“Not that I know of who does it to the magnitude we do,” secondary coach Terry Joseph said. “That makes it hard for teams to prepare for. We take pride in it.”
Said Pelini: “Some people probably look at us and say, ‘They’re crazy.’ That’s their philosophy. And we have ours.”
It’s flustered a McCoy, a Gabbert, a Cousins and a Locker. You know the rookie who might replace Michael Vick as the Philadelphia Eagles’ starter? Nick Foles? Nebraska foiled him in the 2009 Holiday Bowl. Foles completed six passes that night. For 28 yards.
In 2009, the Huskers held opposing quarterbacks to a 47.8 percent completion rate. In 2010, that rate was 48.7 percent. Even in 2011 — when NU’s pass defense was hardly memorable — opposing quarterbacks completed only 53.2 percent.
How? No easy throws, Joseph said. Never let the quarterback find a rhythm. Instead: Make him think. Wait. Search. Worry. Corners can’t cover forever. But they can usually cover long enough to win the down.
The style means playing aggressive on slants, outs, comebacks and hook routes. When a receiver runs over the middle, Huskers hand off coverage to make sure he’s never getting settled into a gap of the defense. The twin keys, Joseph said, are film study and chemistry.
“How’s my receiver aligned? How many threats do I have to my sides?” Joseph said. “Guys have to get used to playing with each other. And when they do, you can see them pass stuff off and really play fast.”
You saw that in 2010, when Prince Amukamara, Eric Hagg, DeJon Gomes and Alfonzo Dennard — all solid contributors for NFL teams — played off each other with speed and strength. The teams that best attacked NU’s pass defense that year — Oklahoma State and Oklahoma — had NFL-caliber quarterbacks and, more importantly, terrific downfield threats.
This year, you watched Northwestern try a bunch of one-on-one go routes on Jean-Baptiste. The Wildcats hit just one. The risk of hitting those plays is too great to keep gambling on their iffy success. So another strategy is to draw pass interference penalties. It’s like a point guard driving into the teeth of a physical defense; he expects some payment for his trouble. But he doesn’t always get it.
Pelini can argue too vehemently for my taste when his players are flagged, but there is a method to it: Aggressive corners are the linchpins of his pass defense. He doesn’t want officials taking away the advantage.
“I have a lot of confidence in what we do and how we do it defensively,” Pelini said. “It’s been proven over a number of years.”
He can point to the success of Amukamara, Dennard, Gomes and Hagg. Each has played a role on their NFL defenses this year. Dennard’s the best story, missing time because of a hamstring injury and nabbing two interceptions in his past two games. But Prince had a crunch-time play Sunday that Pelini saw.
Amukamara had to defend a go route to the end zone. New York clung to a 29-24 lead. Dallas receiver Kevin Ogletree got an outside release and started pushing on Amukamara’s midsection. Prince pushed — just a little — in return. He kept his stride and thrust his hand out at the last second as Cowboy quarterback Tony Romo’s pass was inches too long.
“I thought he played that really well,” Pelini said. Then a referee threw a flag. The initial call: pass interference on Amukamara. You can bet Bo had some private thoughts about it. But the officials huddled — which they don’t do enough in college — and waived off the flag.
“He almost got called for a bad interference call at the end,” Pelini said. “(The refs) picked it up — and they should have picked it up.”
Bo, always battling for the cause.
The method has the Huskers No. 1 in the country in opponent completion percentage, eighth in yards per attempt and ninth in pass efficiency rating.
“We are?” Jean-Baptiste said when told of those numbers. He broke into a big grin. “That makes me feel good. That shows you it works.”
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