Published Thursday, November 1, 2012 at 12:01 am / Updated at 1:11 am
Chatelain: Defense's progress offers hope NU will enjoy brighter stretch run

Today is Nov. 2. Husker Groundhog Day.

Nebraska is in control of its Rose Bowl destiny, 3-1 in the Big Ten.

Saturday night, it recorded a dominant home win over its top division challenger. The defense celebrated Halloween in brand-new Blackshirts.

This capped a tumultuous stretch in which Big Red overcame a huge deficit under the Memorial Stadium lights, got embarrassed on the road by the Leaders Division's best team and — after a bye week — won a divisional road game.

Haven't we watched this season before?

John Papuchis had 2011 on his mind when he spoke to his defense Monday afternoon. He warned the players of a year ago this weekend, when Nebraska lost to Northwestern.

“My message obviously was, how do we prevent that from happening?” the defensive coordinator said. “Can we learn from history or are we going to repeat it?”

That's the central question for November — the question that will define Bo Pelini's fifth season. Nobody in the Nebraska camp would dispute it.

Many teams would hide from past failures. Cite personnel changes from 2011. Utter old clichés about how this is a new year.

But Bo has eight seniors starting on defense. Multi-year starters at seven positions on offense. These guys have long memories. They're fully aware of their history.

That's why Papuchis brought up 2011. Why defenders turned down Blackshirts last week — they feared a letdown. Why coaches and players were satisfied by their Michigan win, but noticeably wary of the emotional roller coaster.

The Huskers are staring past failures in the face. Can they prevent a sequel?

There's reason to believe the answer is yes, especially on defense.

Last November, the Blackshirts tangled with a pair of spread offenses (Northwestern and Michigan) that exposed their deficiencies. The slate this month is loaded with pro-style quarterbacks, who traditionally struggle against NU.

More important: Papuchis says the Blackshirts are flat-out better. A year ago, coaches were “sticking our fingers in holes in the dike.”

“Daimion Stafford was just trying to survive. Ciante Evans was just learning how to play nickel. (Will) Compton was in a role where he was kind of a primary guy for the first time.

“We had all the injuries on the D-line. It was survival on the back half of last year, as opposed to right now I feel like we're starting to hit our stride.”

The defense's confidence has changed dramatically the past two weeks. Upon returning from Ohio State, coaches were desperate for answers. They studied everything: how they designed schemes, how they taught technique, what players were on the field. They wiped the whiteboard clean.

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“We're not going to keep saying, 'Well, if this would've happened, we would've done well,'” linebackers coach Ross Els said. “Hey, let's scrap it and start all over.”

Their first priority was making the safeties more aggressive against running quarterbacks.

“The very first statement that was made Sunday in our staff meeting was, we're going to stop the run,” Papuchis said. “If they can throw it over our head and take some shots down the field, good for them.”

Said Els: “We looked down the schedule and said, if we do what we did against Ohio State, they're just going to run the ball all day. We had to get more people down into the box and take some gambles.

“Look at all the deep balls that have been through on us (the past two weeks). How many times did Northwestern challenge Stanley (Jean-Baptiste) on his side and they finally got one. Same thing with Michigan. They kept beating us with the post. We just said, OK, we'll live with that. But we can't let them run the football.”

The Huskers have made other adjustments. Tweaking their defensive fronts. Limiting the number of defensive calls. Involving David Santos at linebacker. Working Sean Fisher into the nickel package so Compton doesn't have to play every snap.

Sometimes players and coaches need time to figure it out, Els said. They're getting it now. You can tell by their communication on the field.

“If you watch us early in the year, we're not saying a word to each other because there's some confusion,” Els said. “You watch us against Michigan, there's three guys — if they're in coverage — talking to each other to make sure they're all on the same page.”

That's the progress report. That's the source of optimism. The trick is making it last. String together a third win, and a fourth, and a fifth... Maturity is consistency.

They have the requisite experience. They also have a few demons. Now is the time to bring an extra safety into the box and stuff 'em at the line of scrimmage.

Contact the writer:


* * *

>> Video: Bo Pelini addresses the media after Thursday's practice:

>> Video: See this week's episode of "The Big Red Today Show":

Contact the writer: Dirk Chatelain    |   402-649-1461    |  

Dirk Chatelain is a staff writer for The Omaha World-Herald and covers Nebraska football and general assignments.



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