Ready or not: Husker defense must get grip on spread

2012-10-19T23:40:00Z 2012-10-27T02:42:13Z Ready or not: Husker defense must get grip on spreadBy BRIAN CHRISTOPHERSON / Lincoln Journal Star JournalStar.com

There was a ladder on the field.

Invisible to most, but Cameron Meredith saw it as he watched replays of the horror film.

Ohio State offensive linemen were climbing it. Too easily.

“I think we didn’t get our hands on the tackles as much as we needed to. We were letting the tackles climb,” the Husker senior defensive end said. “We just didn’t do a good enough job of keeping that line on the first level.”

Defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski saw that ladder, too.

“If we don’t hit the tackle on the counter, then he’s up on the MIKE  (linebacker),” the coach said. “If they get the MIKE, now the next guy’s coming from a long ways away.”

And if the next guy's coming from a long ways trying to make an open-field tackle on a quarterback such as Braxton Miller or Kain Colter or Denard Robinson?

Well, crap. That’s not going to be any fun to watch in the film room either.

It's the challenge that comes from defending a mobile quarterback, and more specifically the zone-read, that sleight-of-hand play that has become a headache to not just Nebraska, but so many defenses in the college game.

It’s a challenge the Husker defense must figure out how to overcome these next two weeks — Colter on Saturday, Robinson next week — if Nebraska wants to forge into November with championship aspirations.

A lot to ask of a defense that gave up 63 points and 8 yards a play its last time out? Certainly.

But Husker coaches and players say lessons were learned as they licked their wounds the past two weeks.

“Tough lessons,” as Kaczenski put it.

“I think our guys got a better feel now after the Ohio State game of what their job is, and how important their job is individually in the scheme and how it affects the 10 other guys.”

And if you don’t do your job?

Consequences.

“You can’t just run upfield every snap,” Kaczenski said. “I think the big part is knowing what the guy next to you's responsibility is and what’s happening behind you. They've got to be tuned into the coverage and they've got to be tuned into the calls and not just their assignment. And understand the consequences of their job if they don’t do it — what can happen, where the breakdowns lead.”

But finding the answer to defending mobile quarterbacks and the zone-read is no easy fix at any time, and especially in such a short period of time.

Even the guys at the next level have problems with it.

Ask the Minnesota Vikings about the zone-read. Robert Griffin III ran it with plenty of success last Sunday for Washington, taking his share of real estate whenever the play was dialed up.

There's a reason the Nebraska offense likes to run the zone-read.

“(The defense) needs that backside end to be a part of that run fit, and then, all of a sudden, the quarterback … he’s pulling the ball and running outside,” said Husker running backs coach Ron Brown. “It’s a difficult deal.”

Not all that different than the old wishbone option in the way it stresses a defense.

“It’s just like what people used to do back in the old days,” Brown said. “Just a different way of doing it.”

And offenses are getting more creative with it every day.

“Now you have teams that can read different people. You can read the linebacker … can read the nose (tackle), you can read somebody in the secondary,” Brown said.

It wasn’t just the zone-read that did in Nebraska against Ohio State, though that was the play that produced a 72-yard run by Miller, the play Bo Pelini said was the one where “we lost our mojo a little bit.”

That poor performance just added to the noise around these parts about Nebraska’s recent inability to stop mobile quarterbacks.

Teams with not-so-fleet-of-foot quarterbacks still remain on the Husker schedule — Michigan State’s Andrew Maxwell, Penn State’s Matt McGloin and Iowa’s James Vandenberg.

On the surface, those QBs look like much better matchups for a Husker defense that performed well against Wisconsin’s pro-style offense, holding the Badgers to just 56 rushing yards.

But Nebraska has to deal with the mobile guys first if it wants to be in the conference hunt when those later games arrive.

What does Pelini make of NU's struggles against mobile quarterbacks and spread offenses?

"When you screw up in a pro-style offense and you miss your execution, it's a lot easier for someone to make up for it,” he said. “When that happens in a quarterback offense where you're spread out, those mistakes become magnified big time. That's probably the best way to explain it."

Colter, Northwestern's versatile quarterback/receiver, may not have all the moves that Miller does. But he caused the Huskers headaches a year ago in Lincoln, helping the Wildcats pull off a 28-25 upset.

A gifted player. An elusive player. The kind of player this Husker defense needs to show it can stop if Nebraska wants to win the Legends Division, win the Big Ten, get to the Rose Bowl.

Despite the 63-38 loss to Ohio State, the Huskers still control their own destiny in the league race as they head into the second half of the season.

“You stay the course and don't panic and continue on with what you believe is going to carry you through,” Pelini said.

He described his team as quiet but angry in the days after the loss to the Buckeyes. That’s what he wanted.

With an extra week to prepare, coaches pitted the top offensive and defensive units against each other for some more physical practices.

Linebackers coach Ross Els liked the players' attitude. He said he saw a team eager to get the bad taste out of its mouth.

And maybe a defense eager to show it can hold its own against a spread offense?

“No question. No question,” Els said. “But you know, I think it’s just because they’re the next team. We just want to play a game. I don’t care if it’s Wisconsin trying to pound it at us or Northwestern trying to spread us out. We need to play a game. Period. It doesn’t matter what they run. We need to play a game.”

Reach Brian Christopherson at bchristopherson@journalstar.com or 402-473-7439. You can follow him on Twitter @HuskerExtraBC.

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