Arkansas State vs. Nebraska, 9.15.12 (copy)

Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini wants his defense to earn the Blackshirts, and so far that hasn't happened for this year's squad.

Nebraska couldn't have played much better defensively in its eighth game last season.

Michigan State's offense generally was helpless. The Spartans, in a 24-3 loss Oct. 29, mustered only 187 yards of total offense, a paltry 3.3 per play.

During the ensuing week, Nebraska coach Bo Pelini handed out Blackshirts — the coveted black practice jerseys worn by first-string defenders. A reward for excellence. A shot of motivation. Didn't work. The defense was on its heels much of the next game, a 28-25 home loss to Northwestern.

Perhaps Pelini doesn't want to make the same mistake again.

Nebraska has played inconsistently on defense through seven games this season. However, the Husker defense played well last week in a 29-28 triumph at Northwestern. Still, seven games into the season, and no Blackshirts.

"I think, as a defense, we do not feel like we've earned the title of Blackshirts yet," senior linebacker Alonzo Whaley said. "Give it to Northwestern, that's a good team. But we'll figure out if we're a great defense this week."

Michigan comes to Lincoln on Saturday led by one of the nation's most dynamic players in senior quarterback Denard Robinson. He accumulated 263 total yards in a 45-17 triumph against Nebraska last season.

If the Huskers can hold down Robinson and the 20th-ranked Wolverines, they perhaps will have earned the black jerseys, a tradition at NU that dates back to 1964.

That's precisely what Pelini wants: For his defense to earn those esteemed jerseys.

As Nebraska's defensive coordinator in 2003, and as the school's head coach since 2008, Pelini put his stamp on the Blackshirt tradition, altering it to fit the culture of his program.

He doesn't award Blackshirts before the season begins, as his predecessors did. Awarding the black jerseys before the season opener in some ways would run contrary to Pelini's emphasis on daily competition for playing time and the unyielding push for improvement.

He doesn't want his defenders to feel they've "arrived" in August before even playing a game. At least that's my read on the situation.

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He makes it clear he wants competition both in preseason camp and during the season.

Plus, by waiting to award the jerseys, he can use the tradition as an in-season motivational tool.

Granted, Nebraska's defense rattled Northwestern, holding the Wildcats to 301 yards.

Quarterback/receiver Kain Colter was stymied. But that was one game. Maybe Pelini is seeking consistency.

Whaley understands if that's the case.

"We have a challenge this week," he said. "Let's take care of our business this week, and not pat ourselves on the back for last week. Let's keep it going.

"I think, as a unit, we'll take on the responsibility of the Blackshirts. As of right now, it's not a worry. It's more like, let's earn these Blackshirts rather than getting them after one good game."

Thumbs up, down

Thumbs up to Shawn Watson. The former Nebraska offensive coordinator now has the same role at Louisville, which takes a 7-0 record (2-0 Big East) into Friday night's showdown on ESPN2 against rival Cincinnati (5-1, 1-0). Last time I saw Wats was around the time he left Nebraska. He was at a Lincoln movie theater, the bill of his cap pulled way down, evidently trying to keep a low profile. Pull up that cap, coach, you're riding high again.

Thumbs down to Iowa's offense. Greg Davis was regarded as a top-shelf offensive coordinator at Texas when he had Vince Young and Colt McCoy. After they were gone, Davis' star began to fall. In his first season at Iowa, Davis' star continues to plummet, as the Hawkeyes rank 105th nationally in yards per game (324.4). As for Davis' quarterback, James Vandenberg ... well, he's definitely no Young or McCoy.

Numbers crunch

41. It says here Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson is the best player in the Big Ten, period. Offense, defense or special teams. One reason why: He has broken off runs of 20-plus yards 41 times in his career.

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


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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