PASADENA, Calif. — Maybe Rice's defense wasn't so bad after all.

Or maybe Nebraska's defense is. …

Well, let's just say Husker head coach Bo Pelini has some serious issues on the side of the ball that made him famous.

Last week, I heard a few Big Red fans refer to Pelini as the "defensive guru." But they were doing it derisively.

They'll be doing it angrily in the coming week.

"We didn't execute well, we didn't tackle well — we didn't do anything well defensively," Pelini said Saturday night after 16th-ranked Nebraska dropped a 36-30 decision to UCLA at the Rose Bowl.

Pelini said his team played poorly in all three phases — defense, offense and special teams.

He said he was embarrassed by his team's overall performance.

You have to wonder if he is perplexed by the defense's precipitous drop-off since 2010.

Last year's defense turned out to be OK, just OK — nothing close to the top-10 units of 2009 and 2010.

This year's edition would do well to get to OK by the time Big Ten play begins Sept. 29 against Wisconsin.

Look around the Big Ten, though. The league looks more average every week. But it's hard to imagine Nebraska winning the conference with a front seven that lacks snap, crackle or pop.

The Huskers are bereft of a big-time, sure-fire NFL player in the front seven.

Nebraska's defense looked vulnerable in last week’s win against Southern Mississippi, allowing 185 rushing yards.

Sound the alarms after UCLA rolled up 653 yards of total offense.

Even Rice was able to "limit" UCLA to 646 yards in the Bruins’ season opener.

Granted, Nebraska's offense went flat in the second half Saturday, managing only 106 yards.

Thing is, the Huskers’ struggles on defense puts pressure on everybody.

It puts pressure on Taylor Martinez.

On the kicker.

On the head coach.

Especially the head coach.

Pelini’s detractors suddenly have more ammunition. The shrill voices will become deafening in some corners of our little world. Fervent fan bases tend to overreact to poor performances. This was one game. As Pelini pointed out, Nebraska’s goals remain intact, especially as it applies to the Big Ten.

Now, however, Nebraska will have to overcome swirling negativity among the fan base. Yes, that’s a major factor.

It appears the Huskers also will have to overcome a defensive line that too often fails to generate pressure on the quarterback and linebackers who struggle to cover receivers.

And the tackling issue is particularly perplexing.

UCLA’s Johnathan Franklin is a nice running back. But there’s no way he would rush for 217 yards against a formidable defense.

Brett Hundley is a nice young quarterback. But there’s no way he would pass for 305 yards and four touchdowns, with no picks, against a defense that has its act together.

Michigan State likely will pound running back Le’Veon Bell at Nebraska an obscene number of times to keep the ball out of Martinez’s hands.

Michigan might simply snap the ball to fleet quarterback Denard Robinson and tell him to dance and juke for yards against the Huskers’ slow front seven.

Two games into the season, it’s easy to rush to conclusions. That said, mounting evidence suggests Nebraska is going to have to consistently put up big numbers offensively to challenge for the league title it so craves.

Yeah, that’s pressure.

It could be Nebraska’s defense will have to settle for piecing together a few key stops and hoping that’s enough for the Husker offense.

The Huskers came up with a couple of stops late in the fourth quarter. They forced a field-goal try that missed. On UCLA’s next possession, Will Compton and Andrew Green sacked Hundley on third-and-13 to force a punt.

Nebraska’s offense couldn’t answer.

Then, on a third-and-3 at the NU 9-yard line, Hundley gunned a swing pass to Franklin, who burst into the end zone for a 36-27 lead with 2:13 left in the game.

That play looked much too easy.

It would’ve looked stunningly easy if not for UCLA’s efficiency for the majority of the game.

UCLA is a good team. It’s a good offense. But there’s no way it should rack up 653 yards against a program with such a proud tradition.

Yeah, Pelini was right — his team lost for a variety of reasons.

Out of all of them, though, the defense is the most troubling.

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