LINCOLN — Four games into Nebraska's season, back when opposing offenses were popping off plays of 10-plus yards every four snaps, the NU defensive coordinator pinpointed what he thought was holding the Huskers back.
“We need a field general,” John Papuchis said 11 days after an FCS running back (South Dakota State's Zach Zenner) had racked up 202 rushing yards on NU, the third most by an opponent in Memorial Stadium history. “Until we get that, we're not going to be the defense we want to be.”
A month went by before redshirt freshman Michael Rose emerged at middle linebacker. And even now, five starts later, there's still plenty for Rose to improve on.
But his play was a rare bright spot in a 38-17 loss to Iowa on Senior Day. He finished with 16 tackles, four for losses. And he played nearly every snap in the final four games, recording more tackles (41) than any other Husker in November. He embraced the quarterback-type role, too, confidently communicating the play calls, the presnap adjustments and last-second alignment strategies.
The guy who didn't even play in Nebraska's season opener, switched positions in October and got benched midway through the Northwestern game settled in when the Huskers needed him.
“Michael's done a nice job,” Papuchis said after the regular-season finale on Nov. 29. “We all kind of felt that he'd be that leader guy that we could count on in the middle of the defense.”
Rose seemed at his best against Iowa and its run-first approach.
Nebraska countered the Hawkeyes' pro-style formations — lots of looks with multiple tight ends and running backs — by often assigning each defender to a specific running lane. A “gapped-out” strategy, as coaches put it.
That made it easier for Rose to spot openings within Iowa's offensive line, dart upfield and disrupt the Hawkeyes' ground game. He tackled running back Mark Weisman nine times, and three of those stops were behind the line of scrimmage. Rose said he identified maybe four or five different running plays all game, masked slightly by varying formations.
Rose said it wasn't all him, though.
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“The D-tackles played excellent,” he said. “I don't remember a time a guard got up on me or a center climbed up on me. ... I feel like they played a great game. (They) put us in a position as linebackers to make plays in the backfield.”
Things weren't in sync for the defense early in the season. The Huskers were giving up 6.6 yards per play after four games.
Said Rose: “We were looked at as like, 'What are we going to do with this group of guys?'”
But the unit's potential was evident in the second half of the season. The players setting Rose up against Iowa — like defensive tackles Aaron Curry and Vincent Valentine, and defensive ends Randy Gregory and Avery Moss — are all underclassmen. Rose is joined by several other budding prospects at linebacker, including Josh Banderas, Nathan Gerry and David Santos. Redshirt freshman LeRoy Alexander earned a spot in the rotation at safety halfway through the season, too.
Nebraska's defense didn't get much help from the offense or special teams against Iowa, allowing the Hawkeyes to match their best scoring output of Big Ten season (38 points). But NU did manage to hold Iowa to 3.52 yards per carry, the third-best performance against the Hawkeyes this season.
“We've got a young group of guys for the most part on defense,” Rose said after the Iowa game. “This is going to be another game for us to help develop and grow for the future.”
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