You never used to have to worry about the Nebraska Cornhuskers defense. Whereas the offense was sporadic and inconsistent, the defense was the programâ€™s calling card and always came to play. In fact, under the Bo Pelini regime, a sloppy defensive outing in a win (see: Week 3 vs. Washington Huskies) was nearly the equivalent of a loss.
These days, however, a solid effort from the Huskers defensive unit is anything but a given.
To be fair, this isnâ€™t entirely due to a lack of trying and poor strategizing â€“ although both aspects no doubt play role in the matter. Rather, injuries -- many, many of them, for that matter -- have ravaged the unit and, as a result, have seriously altered the production that fans have seen week in and week out.
Finally, it appears as though Nebraska is getting all three of its preseason All-Americans back on the field at the same time. Jared Crick, Lavonte David and Alfonzo Dennard are back to as close to 100 percent as they can be, and it couldnâ€™t come at a better time.
With the biggest game of the year on the horizon and Big Ten supremacy on the line, here are three things that the Huskers must do against the Wisconsin Badgers this weekend.
Stop the pass and the run. For some strange reason, Nebraskaâ€™s defense has proven itself incapable of stopping both the pass and the run for large parts of this 2011 season. It seems like whenever they are able to buckle down one area of the game like they did against Fresno State and Washington, another part is left completely exposed. In both of those outings, the Huskers put particular emphasis on stopping the passing game -- because they were weak in the secondary and needed to compensate -- and, as a result, let the running backs run all over them. Both Robbie Rouse of Fresno State Chris Polk of Washington ultimately made them pay for that error in judgment.
With all hands now officially on deck, Nebraska has no more excuses. It must execute effectively against everything that the Wisconsin offense brings to the table. The Badgers have a very potent offensive attack in which they get 245 rushing and 286 passing yards per game â€“ good for eighth in the country â€“ so focusing on just one aspect simply wonâ€™t cut it. Look for Pelini to heavily emphasize this point throughout the week.
Donâ€™t be intimidated. The Badgers boast a big offensive line. As in, really big. The weights up front are as follows: 320, 330, 315, 315 and 330. Nebraskaâ€™s defensive coordinator Carl Pelini isnâ€™t even trying to play it cute regarding what kind of challenge that size up front can pose.
â€śTheyâ€™re as good an offensive line as weâ€™ve faced sense weâ€™ve been here,â€ť Pelini said. â€śI liken them to Oklahoma or Texas. Weâ€™ve faced guys that size. We just have to play with good technique.â€ť
The only way to counteract size like that is through speed and aggressiveness. Whereas Wisconsin has clearly proven that they can protect Heisman favorite Russell Wilson against the likes of South Dakota, they have yet to face off against a defense like the one that the Huskers bring to the table. With Dennard back, Wilson will hold on to the ball just a little bit longer â€“ which in turn will give Crick and David the opportunity to make necessary plays.
Going against a huge offensive line makes things difficult on certain levels, but opens the game up in others. Nebraskaâ€™s ability to play to their advantages will ultimately be the difference in whether the team comes away with a win or a loss.
Donâ€™t get tired. Part of the reason that the Huskersâ€™ defense has been so inconsistent this year is because theyâ€™ve been caught in a rough spot. For one thing, the defense has been short-handed all season long, particularly in the secondary, which in turn forces everyone else to alter their game. The need to compensate for their secondary deficiencies has forced the Huskers to expend more energy, which in turn tires them out faster.
Then, when you couple that with the fact that Tim Beckâ€™s new and improved speedy offense inadvertently presents more three-and-outs and a shorter field time for the offense, you see why an already worn-down defense may get even more tired as the game progresses.
Unfortunately, football isnâ€™t a game of excuses. The circumstances are what they are, and the Huskers have to adjust accordingly. This is the biggest game of the year and, if ever there was a time for the squad to suck it up and play through the pain, this Saturday is it.