Coming into this season, Nebraska Cornhuskers defensive coordinator Carl Pelini argued that this may be one of the best defenses the program has had since his arrival. Given what a vital role defense has always played over the course of the Huskers’ illustrious history in the Big 12, most had no trouble accepting that opinion and as gospel and proceeding accordingly.
All of the preseason previews and predictions essentially stated that since the top-tier quality of the defense was a given, the onus would be on the offense to not fall behind. That despite the massive losses -- to the 2011 NFL Draft -- that the program experienced in the secondary, the defense was still good enough to do some damage because the Big Ten was more run-oriented.
Coming into Week 8 of the 2011 season, the Huskers’ defense ranks 57th in total defense, 92nd in sacks, 68th in interceptions, 66th in opponent’s yards per game, 99th in opponent’s time of possession, 90th in opponent’s rush yards per game and 95th in opponent’s passing yard percentage in the country.
On top of everything, preseason All-American Jared Crick is now officially out for the year and, according to the coaching staff, will be replaced by a healthy dosage of Chase Rome, Terrence Moore and Thad Randle. None of them were preseason All-Americans.
Needless to say, this is not the same group that finished 7th in total defense back in 2009 and 11th last season. Chances are, it won’t miraculously turn into the defense of yesteryear either.
It’s time to reevaluate initial expectations and adjust them accordingly.
Nebraska’s next game will be against the woefully inferior Minnesota Gophers. That’s a perfect jump-off spot for the second half of the year because, much like they did against the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Mocs, the Huskers will be able to build a little bit of momentum as they head into the home stretch. With some confidence under their belt, the defensive players can then proceed cautiously through the rest of the year which, unfortunately, does include games against offensively capable teams like the Michigan State Spartans and Michigan Wolverines.
A lot of Nebraska’s success will be dependent on the continued excellent play of Lavonte David -- who currently leads the team in tackles -- and wide receiver turned potentially excellent cornerback, Stanley Jean-Baptiste. Because of what a major weakness the secondary has become over the last two months, Jean-Baptsite, amazingly enough, could be the most important piece on the entire Huskers defense at this point.
Currently, opposing teams -- i.e. the Wisconsin Badgers and Ohio State Buckeyes -- have simply avoided throwing in the general direction of preseason All-American Alfonzo Dennard. As a result of him being the only viable threat to offer any legitimate pass protection for the Huskers, offenses have resorted to snapping the ball, surveying the field, spotting where Ciante Evans or anyone without “Dennard” on the back of their jersey is, and exploiting them accordingly.
Jean-Baptiste can change all that. As soon as he entered that game against the Buckeyes, he became an immediate pest to the Buckeyes aerial attack. Then, in the fourth quarter, he made one of the two biggest defensive plays of the outing by coming up with a key interception that essentially put a cherry atop the largest comeback victory in school history.
If he can sustain that type of aggressive, quality play – the Nebraska secondary might just be in for a little bit of a revival.
But even if it isn’t, don’t fret. This is a season where there should be zero expectations on the defense to do, well, anything. Think of the expectations that everyone had for quarterback Taylor Martinez back in 2010, and apply them to the other side of the bal nowl.
Any success that the Huskers defense manages to have from here on out should be viewed as a bonus – nothing more.
As scary as this may sound, Nebraska will live and die by the new and improved offense in 2011.
Buckle up, it’s going to be an interesting ride.