To the casual observer, a horrible offensive strategy and bad execution were to blame for the Nebraska Cornhuskers' 48-17 blowout loss to the Wisconsin Badgers on Saturday night. After all, when quarterback Taylor Martinez throws three interceptions in three quarters of play, and offensive coordinator Tim Beck fails to utilize a top-10 rushing attack against a rushing defense that didn’t even rank in the top 20 – who else can you blame?
Well, if you’re Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini, you blame the defense.
"It's more defensively than offensively," Pelini said after the game, when pressed about his team’s struggles.
There were signs of this Nebraska defense not being the same Nebraska defense we had seen in years past when they floundered against the likes of Fresno State, Washington and, to a lesser degree, Wyoming earlier in the season. Against Fresno State and Washington the Husker defense allowed Robbie Rouse and Chris Polk run all over the field untouched to the tune of 100+ yards apiece. Then, versus a hapless Wyoming pass game, it even allowed Brett Smith to throw for two touchdowns – which, in retrospect, automatically should have been a red flag.
The biggest holes in the Huskers’ defense are without doubt in the secondary. Nobody expected that Ciante Evans would magically turn into Prince Amukamara this summer, but the way he got outhustled by Badgers wide receiver Jared Abbrederis on the third play of the game was a microcosm of everything wrong with Nebraska secondary in 2011. They’re slower, they have less patience and they simply do not have a nose for the ball.
It’s not like the Wisconsin gameplan was hard to figure out. The Badgers would constantly throw towards whoever wasn’t being guarded by Alfonzo Dennard. And yet, despite the fact that everyone knew that it would happen, Nebraska just idly stood by and let it happen.
Wisconsin Badgers quarterback Russell Wilson made the Huskers pay for all their errors in judgment. He delivered his passes to Nick Toon and the rest of the gang with surgical precision and, whenever he felt like a throw was in doubt, he simply avoided making it. He finished the day with zero interceptions.
From Martinez’s third interception of the game on forward, Nebraska’s defense looked broken. They let Wisconsin running back Montee Ball run all over them to the tune of four touchdowns and 130 total yards. And this was at the point of the game when Wisconsin wasn’t even trying particularly hard to score – they just wanted to take time off of the clock.
Keep in mind, through five games, Nebraska ranks 73rd in scoring defense nationally and 17th in total touchdowns. On top of that, they’re giving up an average of about 224 yards through the air and 377 total yards per game. Hardly a recipe for success.
So, how valid is Pelini’s point that the defense deserves more of the blame for that horrific showing versus Wisconsin than the offense? Eh.
The truth is, Nebraska’s defense has been flailing all year long and they’ve gotten the appropriate amount of criticism for that. The offense, however, was widely regarded as vastly improved from years past and the Martinez-Beck duo was commended on finally developing a plan that works. After getting exposed against Wisconsin, it’s only natural that they shoulder the blame which they hadn’t otherwise been receiving.
Still, you have to give Pelini credit. He doesn’t try to pass the buck when the team loses, and it’s that type of attitude that keeps him a good standing out in Lincoln. Offensive and defense players come and go, but a coach who can handle the good with the bad is a rarity.
It’ll be interest to see what kind of mentality Pelini instills in his team heading into Saturday’s game against the Ohio State Buckeyes.