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Nebraska vs. UCLA, 9/8/2012

Nebraska defensive end Eric Martin (46), head coach Bo Pelini, safety Daimion Stafford (3) and quarterback Taylor Martinez (3) didn't get the results they wanted at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., on Saturday, Sept., 8, 2012. Now questions abound about a defense that surrendered 653 yards in a 36-30 loss to UCLA.

You don't rattle Bo Pelini easily.

He's a confident sort, that we know. He remains a confident sort even as his distinguished reputation as a defensive coach is being challenged by former players, by fans, by media.

He was asked this week why Nebraska's defense has dropped off since those halcyon 2009 and 2010 seasons, when the wizard had the horses and seemingly everything he called was golden.

What's going on, I asked him.

"I don't see as marked a drop-off as maybe you do," Pelini said. "There are some games, a couple games, where we had a rough go of it. I feel confident in what we can do defensively."

Pelini was philosophical as he discussed the defense's struggles through two games this season, including last week's 36-30 loss at UCLA. He has endured plenty of rough Saturdays as a defensive coordinator, he said. It's the nature of the job, especially during a period when offenses challenge defenses in an increasing number of ways.

"The day and age of being able to just shut out everybody all the time probably isn't happening, especially when you're playing the type of spread-out teams we're seeing week to week," he said.

This story will evolve, but here's where it stands: Nebraska (1-1) has little to no chance of shutting out Arkansas State (1-1) on Saturday at Memorial Stadium.

You read that right — little to no chance of shutting out Arkansas State.

Not Arkansas. Arkansas State. Of the Sun Belt Conference.

I would be surprised if the Huskers limit the Red Wolves' potent spread offense to fewer than 24 points, given the defense's apparent deficiencies.

Check Nebraska's list of the top dozen tacklers through two games. There might be a handful of defenders — two or three — who have a good chance to someday stick on an NFL roster. Two or three at the most.

Compare that to, oh, 1996, when Nebraska used 17 defenders who went on to play in the NFL.

Compare it to 2008, when Pelini took over at Nebraska. Seven of the top 12 tacklers that season wound up on NFL rosters, including Ndamukong Suh, Eric Hagg and Prince Amukamara.

Yeah, those guys.

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You don't have to be Buddy Ryan to see Nebraska currently lacks "those guys."

You don't have to be Charlie McBride to identify the Huskers' shoddy tackling as an eyesore.

And I don't want to hear about how Nebraska's tackling prowess early in the season might suffer because the Huskers were cautious about tackling too much during preseason camp, mindful of injuries. Other programs face the same issue.

Perhaps personnel changes will help matters.

Nebraska coaches spoke this week of the need to increase overall speed. Speed puts players in position to make fundamentally sound tackles. So, Zaire Anderson, a touted junior college transfer, likely will start at weakside linebacker. In addition, we're seeing a youth movement along the defensive line.

This is a big day for the defense in general, and the line in particular. Will it be a rebound day?

Nebraska's biggest concern might be figuring out how to slow down talented quarterback Ryan Aplin, a third-year starter. Arkansas State's offense is in many ways similar to UCLA's, but the Red Wolves use more designed quarterback runs. In two games, Aplin has rushed 18 times for 110 yards (6.1 per carry).

Limiting Aplin's yards on scrambles will be critical.

"You can't let the quarterback out, the way we play coverage," said Rick Kaczenski, the Husker defensive line coach. "It's a big responsibility for our guys to contain that quarterback. When everybody has their backs turned, and that quarterback leaks out, it's not good. It happened to us too many times last Saturday."

Last Saturday made Nebraska fans edgy about this Saturday. UCLA is a good team, but nobody saw 653 yards coming.

This game is about Nebraska showing it can contend for a Big Ten championship. Suddenly, you wonder.

This game is about Pelini matching wits with one of the game's foremost offensive minds, Gus Malzahn.

This game is about Nebraska's offense showing it can respond to the inherent pressure it could face all season — put up big numbers, or else.

You wonder how tense it might become inside Memorial Stadium.

The Husker defense needs a strong start, lest the old stadium become a toxic environment. The players and coaches hear it, feel it. An outpouring of negative energy is the last thing Pelini's crew needs. The unit seems fragile enough — unlike its fiery and resolute leader.

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

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Husker columnist

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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