OMAHA — Bring on the questions. John Papuchis told the crowd at the Big Red Breakfast on Friday to fire away with whatever they were wondering after Nebraska's 36-30 loss to UCLA.
“Believe me,” the first-year Husker defensive coordinator said before opening the floor. “It doesn’t hurt my feelings in any way. I understand the role that I’m in and the commitment and the type of pride that everyone in this room has in this program.”
The crowd took the coach up on his offer.
From questions about coaches' philosophy regarding their defensive line to whether the defense is too complicated to one fan wondering if Nebraska had lessened its goals as a program.
“The interesting thing is, everything that we laid out in terms of our goals and objectives as a football team is still out there to go get,” Papuchis said. “As painful and as devastating as one defeat was a week ago, that doesn’t mean that the season’s a loss, the campaign’s a loss, and everything we work for is still obtainable.”
A fan later suggested that with a loss, a national championship was off the table, implying the football program’s goals had declined if coaches and players were still saying their goals remained intact.
It was the one time during the 45-minute talk that Papuchis took issue, fiery in his response, saying that any perception that Nebraska has lowered its standards is false.
"I disagree with you. I disagree that the national championship still isn't out there, for one," he said, voice rising. "I was on a team (LSU in 2007) that lost two football games and won a national championship. So the fact that we only lost one doesn't mean it's not there. … The team that won the national championship a year ago lost one football game. So I don't want anyone presuming to me what our goals are."
A little back-and-forth continued on the subject. Some applause during Papuchis' answers. The show went on.
Despite the defeat last week, Papuchis said he was pleased with how motivated players seemed to right the wrongs.
"I was proud of the way our guys responded this week … with a renewed vigor of, 'Let's find a way to get it done,'" he said.
“I received text messages on Sunday morning within eight or nine hours after the game, ‘Coach, what could I have done better?' That’s the attitude that’s going to propel us where we want to go. That’s the spirit that’s going to get us where we need to be.”
Papuchis said he didn't expect to see any repeats of the UCLA game, where the Bruins racked up 653 yards of offense, the second most yards ever given up by a Husker defense.
"As much as it hurts the greatest fan when we don't play well … I promise it eats at my gut more," Papuchis said. "I promise you you're going to see a better team going forward, because we're going to will it to happen. I promise."
More from Papuchis:
* While both David Santos and Zaire Anderson are expected to play Saturday, Papuchis said the junior college transfer Anderson will get the start at WILL linebacker.
* There was bad tackling and bad execution to go around last Saturday.
But the defensive coordinator said the blame for last week's performance, first and foremost, falls on him.
"Ultimately it goes on my shoulders," he said. "Either I, or we, asked them to do something they weren't capable of doing, which is my fault. Or we asked guys to do something that wasn't a good idea in the first place — that schematically just wasn't a good idea. Again, my fault. So I don't ever put it on the players."
* Is the defense too complicated?
No, Papuchis said.
“Do we got to make sure that we give our athletes the best opportunity to get on the field? Certainly. But there’s also that middle ground you have to try to find that you’re doing enough defensively to be effective. But you also want to get your best players on the field.”
As for any freshmen who might struggle to pick up the system, Papuchis said, “There isn’t very many offensive or defensive systems that I’ve been around that it’s easy for a freshman to run on either side of the ball. That’s why, for the most part, freshmen don’t play.”
And an ugly performance definitely did not shake Papuchis' belief in Nebraska's defensive tenets.
“We believe in what we do,” Papuchis said. “Obviously, we don’t believe in what we did the other night (and) what we put on the field. But that doesn’t mean the system, the philosophy and the defensive objective is to be thrown away. That was a bad performance. And it’s one that we never want to see repeated again. But this is a defense we’ve believed in for a long time and we continue to believe in.”
* There was a question wondering why Nebraska's pass rush wasn't making a dent.
Papuchis said one of Nebraska’s key defensive philosophies is to eliminate explosive plays in the passing game.
That “puts a lot of stress” on the front four to maintain their rush lanes, he said, and not allow the quarterback to scramble for big gains since the back seven is usually in coverage.
“So we limit their ability to turn it loose at times and just go wildly and recklessly some times because of the way we match routes on the back end,” he said. “I assume some people think that’s good. Some people don’t.
"It’s a philosophy that we believe in. I know there are times that our front four get criticized for not getting greater pass rush. But there are six gaps with four rushers and those guys got to do the best job they can to keep that guy in the pocket because no one else is looking at him.”
* What's the advantage of lining up the defensive line so far off the ball?
"First of all, when we play the two-gap … you do have to be off the ball to play that. You can't play that the same as a single gap," said Papuchis, who cited Oregon as another team that plays off the ball sometimes.
However, Papuchis said "we don't want to give up so much ground that we become soft at the point of attack."
The coach said Nebraska's D-line needs to be more aggressive, and that you will see the defensive line "crowding the ball a little more at times" going forward.
* Papuchis said the game, and even the stats that come with it, has changed a lot from the one he grew up with due to the uptempo offenses.
UCLA ran 94 plays, a play total which is not not all that uncommon these days but once would have been shocking to see.
"I don't know that the metrics you use to measure yards is the same," he said. "When a team's running 100 snaps a game, it's different than it was 15 years ago when the average game was 60 or 70 snaps. If you gave up 6 yards a play 10 years ago, that usually equated to about 360 yards. Now you give up 6 yards and someone is running 100 plays, that's 600 yards. That's a fairly significant difference. … But the bottom line is when you've got a chance to get off the field, you have to get off the field."
* There was a light moment when Papuchis was asked if anyone on the defense played well.
"At any point during the game?" the coach said.
In seriousness, Papuchis cited Ciante Evans as one player in particular who did well at what was asked of him.
"But it's hard to say one guy played well and one didn't. We all kind of shared our burden of blame on that."