In a way, it was probably cathartic for Nebraska Cornhuskers head coach Bo Pelini. After having to coddle, praise and make excuses for the delicate offense and its uneven play over the last couple of weeks, showing tough love to the defensive unit had to have felt good.
And make no mistake about it, the defensive unit is his. Whereas Taylor Martinez and the offense first answered to Shawn Watson and now take their marching orders from Tim Beck, from the very first day he arrived at Nebraska, Pelini claimed, coached and taught the defensive players what it meant to be winners.
A lesson, mind you, they obviously forgot this past Saturday when the Fresno State Bulldogs came to Memorial Stadium.
Now, right off the bat, it’s important to accurately portray just how hapless Nebraska’s defense was in the last outing. For one thing, they didn’t sack Fresno quarterback -- who simply stood behind four new offensive linemen -- Derek Carr once. Not once. By the end of the day, he had thrown for 254 yards, seemingly delivering passes at will, all the while being rushed only four times for the entire outing.
Two, because of how easily Carr and his protection up front eluded the pass rush, the running game was completely opened up for Robbie Rouse and the Fresno State ground attack. All in all, Rouse rushed the ball 16 times for 169 yards. By day’s end, the Bulldogs accumulated 190 yards on the ground alone.
The most egregious thing about the defense’s effort on Saturday, however, was the battles it lost. Somehow, a Pelini-led group let the opposing squad win the time of possession battle, the snaps battle, and the offensive yardage battle.
Needless to say, the Huskers’ head coach was less than pleased with his group when reviewing the weekend’s events at a press conference on Monday.
"I think every now and then you've got to get smacked in the face and get a wake-up call, because, when people are telling you how good you are, you need a reality check," Pelini said Monday at his weekly news conference. "In this world, you get humbled in a hurry, and we got humbled last week."
A reality check sounds about right, and it also sounds like what you would expect out of Pelini after all of these years. What didn’t sound like Pelini, though, was all of the excuses his defensive coordinator offered up regarding why Nebraska was caught so off guard by their opponents. When pressed on those excuses on Monday, Pelini wasted no time in brushing them aside.
"I don't buy into that. We did not execute," he said. "We didn't play well, and anything else is an excuse, plain and simple. It had a lot to do with us, and that will get fixed, because we know how to fix that.We didn't play near to the standard of what we've established around here," he said.
"Our defense, it's a team defense. You've got to fit it right," Pelini said. "You have to have guys in the right spots and execute and do the right things. We didn't do that in coverage, we didn't do it in the run game.”
Taking ownership of his club’s defensive woes is a classic Pelini move, and a key first step in fixing the problem.
The truth is, Nebraska’s defense has undergone some serious transformations over the past couple years. Key losses in the secondary (because of both injuries and the NFL Draft), structural alterations based on players getting hurt, and preparation for playing a new, grittier conference have all no doubt made this a hectic summer for the unit. Plus, the burden of always having to be the team’s saviors regardless of the offense’s uneven play no doubt wears on a group, even one as mentally tough as the defense.
Still, there are no excuses for failure in Pelini regime and, with this latest press conference the head coach made the players aware of that.
Even the team’s defensive coordinator, Carl Pelini, made it a point to take ownership of Saturday’s showing.
"I'm embarrassed, and I hope they are, too. I'm embarrassed by my performance, and our players should be embarrassed about theirs."
The truth is, of course, it’s unrealistic to expect Nebraska’s defense to be stellar all of the time. Growing pains that come as an indirect result of a speedier offense (gives the defense less time to rest), holes in the secondary and a surprising plan of attack by the opposing offense can knock any group off their game – with the Huskers’ defense being no exception. Nevertheless, the reason that the defense has been as successful as it has been over the last few years is because the players adopted the attitude of their hardnosed head coach – and Pelini, of course, wouldn’t have it any other way.
Look for Jared Crick and Co. to take the sentiments expressed this week very personally, and don’t be surprised if a hungry defense absolutely destroys Washington’s offense on Saturday.