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September 17, 2010
Nebraska defense welcomes high expectations
So it shouldn't have come as much of a surprise when the fiery coach boldly predicted that Nebraska's 2010 defense could fare better than the 2009 version -- even if he probably couldn't find many people outside his state's borders who would have agreed.
Nebraska led the nation in scoring defense and pass efficiency defense last season. But the Huskers had to replace five starters from that defense, including Heisman finalist Ndamukong Suh.
Suh was one of the most decorated defensive players in recent college football history before going to the Detroit Lions with the second overall pick in the most recent NFL draft. He won the Outland Trophy as the nation's top interior lineman and the Lombardi Award as the top lineman or linebacker. Suh also claimed the Bednarik Award and Nagurski Award, each given annually to the nation's best defensive player.
How could they lose that kind of talent and still end up better overall?
"We have high expectations here," Pelini said.
Pelini's big talk put a heavy burden on this season's defense. It could have bothered them; instead, it inspired them.
"It was definitely huge for our confidence," senior tackle Jared Crick said. "I'm glad he said it because going in, we knew he had faith in us."
Now it's time for the Huskers to reward that faith.
After allowing Bobby Rainey to rush for 155 in a season-opening 49-10 victory over Western Kentucky, Nebraska's defense recorded seven sacks and five interceptions last week in a 38-17 triumph over Idaho. But the real test comes Saturday when Nebraska visits Washington. Nebraska defense's attempt to slow Washington quarterback Jake Locker represents one of the most intriguing matchups of the season thus far.
Locker, an almost-certain first-round pick, had established himself as one of the nation's top dual-threat quarterbacks long before Michigan's Denard Robinson, Auburn's Cameron Newton and Nebraska's Taylor Martinez burst onto the scene this scene. Locker threw three touchdown passes to Jermaine Kearse last week in a 41-20 rout of Syracuse.
"The biggest thing is just getting him rattled," Crick said. "That's probably the biggest problem because he has a lot of experience. He knows how to handle adversity well. We'll do our thing and hope we can force indecision on his part.
"We take the same approach every week, that the quarterback we're going against is the best quarterback in the nation that week."
Although Nebraska's defense spent much of the preseason chasing Martinez, the Huskers haven't faced a quarterback quite like Locker in a game situation this season. Then again, Locker hasn't faced a defense quite this good.
"This is as sound a defense as I've seen in 10 years of playing against really good teams," Washington coach Steve Sarkisian said. "They are extremely sound. They play together. They play hard.
"They're all over you in the running game. They're all over you in routes. They do an excellent job of route-reading and seeing which routes are coming and jumping those routes. That's why they create so many turnovers."
Nebraska's ability to force turnovers is apparent. DeJon Gomes and Rickey Thenarse scored on interception returns barely two minutes apart in the second quarter of the Idaho game. Nebraska's seven-sack performance in that game showed the Huskers' pass rush could continue to thrive even without Suh.
But the Huskers still have a hard act to follow.
Nebraska didn't give up an offensive touchdown in six of its 14 games last season. Nebraska allowed opponents to reach the red zone just 25 times last season and gave up only 10.4 points per game, the Huskers' lowest average since 1984.
And this defense could be even better?
"I think that we have potential," Pelini said. "We have more depth. We have more numbers. We have some young guys we think are on the come but still have a long way to go, but I like the potential of the group.
"It's a matter of what we do with that potential. It's not just going to happen. It's got to come from a lot of hard work and putting it on the field every day."
The Huskers' defense clearly has taken on a new attitude under Pelini, a former defensive coordinator at Nebraska, Oklahoma and LSU. He returned to Nebraska after winning a national championship ring three years ago as coordinator at LSU.
He inherited a defense that ranked among the nation's weakest and has turned it into arguably the nation's best. Pelini is a perfectionist who has put together a defense full of players with similar mindsets.
"It's very easy to play for Coach Pelini because he says the right things to get you motivated and ready to go," Crick said. "It's just the culture we bring in every single day through practices and meetings. It's all about perfection. When you strive for perfection, you'll play pretty well."
That's the key to Nebraska's success. Even after recording seven sacks and five interceptions last week, the Huskers weren't satisfied. Crick said they won't be satisfied unless they deliver the perfect game.
"Perfection would not be allowing any yards, let alone points," Crick said. "Obviously, it's football and people are going to gain yards on you. But if you come out with the mindset that you're holding a team to zero yards, it makes you that much more aggressive and that much more driven."
Crick will play the largest role in determining whether Nebraska's defense lives up to Pelini's prediction. He recorded 73 tackles -- 15 for loss -- and 9.5 sacks to earn first-team All-Big 12 honors last season. Crick set a school record with five sacks against Baylor. Suh arguably was the only defensive tackle in the nation to deliver a more productive season.
But Crick obviously benefited from lining up alongside Suh, and throughout the offseason, skeptics wondered whether Crick could make a similar impact without having Suh next to him.
Crick insists he didn't pay much attention to that speculation.
"I could care less what anybody says about me," he said. "I just got out here and do my job and prove myself every single day. If I'm satisfied with what I've put in and the coaches are satisfied and I'm getting better, that's what really matters."
So far, so good. Crick had four tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks to spearhead the Cornhuskers' ferocious pass rush against Idaho.
Of course, Crick is far from a one-man show. Nebraska's defense already has featured plenty of other notable individual performances.
Junior linebacker Lavonte David played on the famous Miami Northwestern 2007 Class 6A state championship team that also included four current Miami starters: quarterback Jacory Harris, guard Brandon Washington, linebacker Sean Spence and defensive tackle Marcus Forston. David has a team-high 20 tackles in his first season since arriving from Fort Scott (Kan.) Community College.
Gomes, a senior safety, forced a fumble in the season opener and had 10 tackles to go along with his interception for a touchdown against Idaho. Gomes teams with senior cornerback and potential first-round pick Prince Amukamara to give Nebraska a particularly dangerous secondary.
"Gomes is a heck of a player," Pelini said. "He's very versatile. He's very smart and he's got tremendous instincts. He's a really important player for us. … He plays at a really high level. He just seems to make big plays for us, but on top of that … he plays very, very consistently. Very seldom is he out of position.
"He does a lot of things well and has come a long way in a short amount of time as a player."
Nebraska's defense also has come a long way in a short time. The Huskers ranked 112th in the nation in total defense and 114th in scoring defense the year before Pelini's arrival. The Huskers now have allowed 20 or fewer points in 10 consecutive games, the longest current streak in the nation.
Will this group really be better than last year's Nebraska defense? Maybe not.
But they could be just as good. We'll start finding out Saturday.
Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.