Steven M. Sipple: Blackshirts carrying their share of load

2012-11-18T23:50:00Z 2013-08-13T23:00:06Z Steven M. Sipple: Blackshirts carrying their share of load JournalStar.com

Things I know and think I know:

Nebraska defensive coordinator John Papuchis evidently is capable of showing great patience.

He grins and bears it when somebody refers to the Oct. 6 loss at Ohio State as ground zero for the improving Husker defense.

He hears it often these days.

"I don't think we were as poor of a defense as that game reflected — we weren't that poor of a team," Papuchis said of the 63-38 defeat. "That game snowballed on us and got a little out of hand. My point is, I don't use that game as a way to judge where we've gone since.

"I just want us to keep getting a little better every week."

A sure sign of improvement: 17th-ranked Nebraska (9-2, 6-1 Big Ten) has risen to No. 19 nationally in total defense. Meanwhile, the Huskers rank No. 20 in total offense.

Only Florida State and Nebraska can boast top-20 units on both sides of the ball.

It's an interesting development for Nebraska, considering the offense was expected to carry the lion's share of the load this season while the defense took its share of lumps. The defense did in fact absorb heavy punches in NU's two losses, allowing 653 yards (6.9 per play) to UCLA and 498 (and a whopping 8.0 per play) to Ohio State. 

Those teams have turned out pretty well, huh?

Same goes for the Husker defense, a unit without eye-popping talent but that has become generally sturdy and resilient.

Nobody's saying Nebraska is ready to put the clamps on Oregon, but the Huskers have come a long way since the debacle in Columbus, Ohio, after which Big Red ranked 49th in total defense.

Nebraska made "tweaks and adjustments" after the Ohio State game, Papuchis said. However, he emphasized that the Huskers didn't make wholesale changes.

"And I don't believe that will ever happen," he said. "This defense works, and we believe in it."

Let's be real: During Nebraska's five-game winning streak since Oct. 6, the Huskers have faced some ordinary offenses. Northwestern ranks 73rd in yards per game, Michigan 67th, Michigan State 94th, Penn State 48th and Minnesota 102nd.

Forget the rankings, though, I trust my eyes. Nebraska clearly is making fewer mistakes and playing with greater confidence.

Ohio State coach Urban Meyer will try to build speedy offenses to win Big Ten titles, meaning Nebraska may have to get quicker on defense to keep up.

For now, Papuchis said, the Blackshirts' biggest challenge is handling whatever tempo an opponent presents. Against Penn State, for example, Nebraska defensive coaches simplified calls in the second half when PSU's offense was in quick mode.

There's a fine line to walk. Nebraska is a well-coached defense capable of using assorted personnel groups. The Huskers can show pressure looks as well as coverage looks. 

"So you don't want the (fast) tempo to force you into being too vanilla," Papuchis said. "But you don't want to try to be too cute to where it leads to big plays.

"Bottom line is, if all we're going to do is line up and play base defense every time somebody goes fast, (the coaches) don't even need to call anything. Just let the players call it. ... If they can call their own defense, then I'm significantly overpaid."

Truth is, the Husker defensive staff, led by head coach Bo Pelini, is earning every penny right now.

* Anyone think Kirk Ferentz is earning every penny of his $3.8 million annual salary?

Sorry, couldn't resist.

The Iowa coach always seems calm and confident, even as his Hawkeyes (4-7, 2-5) have stumbled to the program's first five-game losing streak since 2000, and the first losing regular season since that year.

Iowa is slow up front on defense and average at the wide receiver positions on offense. In other words, Nebraska will have significant matchup advantages Friday as it tries to nail down the Legends Division championship — most likely in front of thousands of its closest red-clad friends.

* Jim Delany evidently ponders population shifts and dollar signs in the form of East Coast TV sets.

This much is certain: The Big Ten commissioner didn't decide on the possible addition of Maryland and Rutgers because of their football prowess.

Rutgers has sold out two of its last 26 home games. If you can name Maryland's head coach, your sports knowledge is above-average.

More germane to the discussion is that the District of Columbia, from April of 2010 to July of 2011, experienced the nation's largest growth rate.

And, hey, I'm told New Jersey is lovely this time of year.

* I'm already catching flak for dropping Kansas State to No. 12 (from No. 2) on my Associated Press Top 25 ballot. You won't find a team ranked ahead of the Wildcats that has suffered a defeat this season nearly as embarrassing as their 52-24 setback at Baylor. The Bears (5-5, 2-5 Big 12) outgained the Wildcats 580-362, including 342-76 on the ground. Yikes.

Reach Steven M. Sipple at 402-473-7440 or ssipple@journalstar.com.

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About the writer

Steven M. Sipple | Lincoln Journal Star

Steven, a lifelong Nebraskan, newspaper enthusiast and UNL grad, joined the Journal Star in 1990 and has covered NU football since 1995.


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