Mark Banker came dangerously close to his own "Melvin Gordon moment."
The big difference, of course, was Nebraska won Saturday's football game 36-28 despite nearly blowing a 22-point second-half lead against a so-so Southern Miss outfit.
Oh, and there was another significant difference from Nebraska's fiasco last November at Wisconsin, where Gordon sprinted for 408 yards. Unlike Gordon, Southern Miss quarterback Nick Mullens won't be an NFL first-round draft pick. He might not get selected at all, even if NFL executives take a gander at his 447-yard, two-touchdown passing performance before 89,899 fans at Memorial Stadium.
"We know what the problem is — we need to play better pass coverage," the Husker defensive coordinator said in a bit of an understatement.
Mullens threw for 314 yards in the second half, including 245 in the final quarter. I would say it seemed surreal as yards piled up, except that hardly anything surprises me anymore when it comes to the college game in general and defense in particular.
Nebraska (2-2) entered the day 126th nationally in pass defense, having allowed an average of 357.0 yards. Could it get worse before it gets better? If you're a Husker fan, perhaps you want to think about more pleasant aspects of life — you know, like cleaning gutters or something.
"How do you solve it?" said Banker, repeating a reporter's question. "Continue to work at it. We're not going to change the players. We just have to come up with a better plan for them. There are things technically with both the back end (secondary) and the underneath coverage that we need to get better at."
I'm not ready to label this a code-red situation just yet, in part because Nebraska is in the mediocre Big Ten West Division. The Huskers' upcoming schedule isn't exactly loaded with sharp-shooting quarterbacks, although Illinois' Wes Lunt is capable of heating up next Saturday.
You can't help but wonder if Nebraska defenders' confidence is shaky. It looks shaky. You also wonder about their confidence in the system. How could you not wonder? Banker thinks the players remain confident, but what else would he say right now?
Nebraska's defense did look poised in the first half. But it fell apart. Some folks continue to blame Bo Pelini for these performances. They will tell you talent is lacking and bad habits are hard to break. But it's a flawed and cowardly stance. Yeah, blame the guys who are gone. If you blame Pelini for NU's issues, then don't you have to blame Mike Riley for Oregon State's lopsided losses to Stanford and Michigan? What's the point?
I know this: Nebraska fans' teeth-gnashing began before they exited the stadium. This is a proud fan base. It knows good football. It knows not to read too much into NU's glitzy rushing numbers against Southern Miss — 39 carries for 242 yards (6.2 per carry). Going 3-for-8 on touchdowns when reaching the red zone is one sign all is not well in the run game.
But defense is the main issue for Nebraska. The Blackshirts too often were getting beat over the top and on wheel routes in the flat. They tackled poorly. They still have trouble getting pressure on the quarterback unless they blitz. They're not creating many turnovers (six for the season).
To be fair, injuries are taking a toll. Banker said it was a rough week of practice. Veterans Michael Rose-Ivey and Josh Banderas are sidelined with groin injuries. They were expected to lead the linebacker crew. Tackle Vincent Valentine (ankle) and end Jack Gangwish (elbow) are on the mend. Safeties Nate Gerry and Aaron Williams missed ample practice time this week with the flu.
"We didn't have any continuity," Banker said. "But don't blame what transpired on that because we played pretty good football in the first half, and it was pretty ugly in the second half."
If defenders were becoming frustrated, well, Banker has no patience for that.
"I'd tell them to get their head out of their ass and let's go, we have a ballgame," he said. "There's no time to be down now."
No, there was no time to lick wounds in the second half, not with Mullens on a roll. He might as well have been Brett Favre in his prime. And let's be clear about something: The Golden Eagles (2-2) have weapons on offense, and Mullens has strong command of the system. Banker said he actually was shocked how well Nebraska slowed USM in the first half.
That was a bright spot. Freedom Akinmoladum (two sacks) was another one. Banker made no guarantees that Gangwish would reclaim his starting role.
Banker doesn't make excuses, and doesn't mince words. That's admirable. Asked if Nebraska's defense was anywhere close to where he wants it for conference play, he said, "Absolutely not. We have a long ways to go. If we're going to compete in this conference, and compete the way we want, we have to win more downs than the other team by far."
On this day, Nebraska was happy to eke out a win and avert disaster.