Steven M. Sipple: NU defense makes strides, with assist from scheduling gods

2013-10-12T20:45:00Z 2013-10-22T21:49:24Z Steven M. Sipple: NU defense makes strides, with assist from scheduling godsBy STEVEN M. SIPPLE / Lincoln Journal Star

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- It was so quiet and peaceful Saturday at Ross-Ade Stadium, it often felt like a spring scrimmage.

It was so quiet, the outcome so predictable, you could contemplate Nebraska's place in the college football world.

Or at least in the Big Ten Conference.

I dare say things are looking up for the Huskers.

Especially on defense.

"I think it's skyrocketing," Nebraska defensive end Avery Moss said of the unit's confidence. "We have DBs getting picks, linemen getting sacks, linebackers making plays on the ball. Every area is making plays, and it gives everybody confidence."

Nebraska steamrolled Purdue 44-7 before an announced crowd of 47,203, nearly half of which was dressed in red. The Huskers, despite a relatively uneven offensive performance, improved to 5-1 overall and 2-0 in the conference.

Yeah, things are looking up. That said, you have to factor in the level of competition.

Purdue is lousy.

The Boilermakers are odd. They looked formidable only four weeks ago in pushing Notre Dame to the limit.

They now look lamentable.

"I felt like with that team, if you attacked them first, they weren't going to retaliate," Moss said. "Our thing was to dominate from start to finish, and I think we did a good job of that."

Nebraska led 14-0 after the first quarter and 21-0 at halftime. Purdue avoided a shutout when wideout DeAngelo Yancey beat a backup cornerback deep and sprinted to the end zone with 39 seconds left in the game.

That's right, Nebraska was 39 seconds from its first shutout since the 2009 Holiday Bowl, after which Nebraska coach Bo Pelini made the memorable "We're back and here to stay" proclamation.

He made no such bold statements on this day.

However, "I think we're headed in a good direction," Pelini said.

No disputing that. But give an assist to the scheduling gods. What luck. Remember the 38 unanswered points UCLA hung on Nebraska? Remember NU stumbling all over itself defensively during the first few series against South Dakota State?

Those seem like distant memories. Nebraska benefited greatly from a bye week after the South Dakota State game. The young Husker defense regrouped. Everyone took a deep breath. The coaches pushed the right buttons and -- voilá! -- a good-not-great Illinois offense managed only 372 yards and 19 points last week in Lincoln.

Nebraska held Purdue to 11 first downs and 216 total yards -- season lows for the Husker defense.

Nebraska had five sacks -- its fourth straight game with at least three -- and held Purdue to 3-for-14 on third-down conversions.

The Huskers now get another bye week followed by a game at Minnesota, which entered the weekend ranked 106th nationally in total offense.

Purdue was 117th in total offense.

It's difficult to imagine a much better schedule to help Nebraska's young defenders get their bearings.

You just saw them take another step forward. Sophomore defensive end Randy Gregory recorded two sacks (one for a safety) to lead a front four that played well for the second straight game, Pelini said.

Nebraska's success with its four-man rush has been critical. Credit the interior defensive tackles for maintaining their gaps Saturday, allowing the rush ends more freedom. The Huskers mixed in blitzes effectively.

"It felt like we were able to get in the backfield at will," said Moss, a redshirt freshman, who had three tackles.

Because Purdue lacks a strong rushing attack, Nebraska's front four could pin back its ears, so to speak, which made life difficult for true freshman quarterback Danny Etling in his first collegiate start.

A 6-foot-2, 218-pound native of Terre Haute, Ind., Etling was just 14-for-35 passing for 184 yards and a touchdown, with one interception (by redshirt freshman safety LeRoy Alexander).

Etling is fairly mobile, but doesn't seem to like to run with the ball.

"I think that quarterback could move if he wanted to," Moss said. "But with the pressure, I think he was too scared to (do) what he normally practiced doing. I think he's a good quarterback. He's going to get a lot better. This was a learning experience for him."

Moss talked tough. His teammates spoke of rising confidence. Even the most skeptical among us has to acknowledge the Husker defense's resilience of late.

On Saturday, NU defenders didn't flinch after cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste was ejected for allegedly "targeting" too high with the crown of his helmet on a vicious (and arguably clean) second-quarter tackle.

The rule is flawed to an astonishing degree. To a sad degree. Jean-Baptiste appeared to make a classic "football play." And was ejected.

Nebraska has no shortage of capable cornerbacks, so the Huskers kept their heads down and never gave the Boilermakers a sniff of victory.

"Our fans are excited, I think, to see our progress," said NU defensive coordinator John Papuchis. "As a program, we're watching young men grow up in front of us. A lot of times, you don't get to see freshmen and sophomores grow up in front of the world, and that's what they're doing."

Or so it appears.

Much tougher tests await.

Reach Steven M. Sipple at 402-473-7440 or

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