Over the last two seasons, the images of Nebraska's defense getting scorched in big, nationally televised games has been seared into Husker fans retinas. And by the end of the B1G Championship Game, it was seared into the retinas of anybody who follows college football. Heck, it even became a meme.
I've had my theory on the problem last year. Nebraska simply didn't have the horses in the front seven last season. Recruiting failures in Bo Pelini's early classes had led to a talent deficit up front. Pelini recognized the problems early on, and replaced his recruiting coordinator after the 2010 season. The problem with recruiting is that there is a long latency on fixing problems in college football. There are no free agents; there are no trades. So you hit the recruiting trail hard, and try to rebuild.
Last season, Pelini had a few elements of the solution, but gambled that he could redshirt them in 2012. Almost worked too, until Baker Steinkuhler went down in the Iowa game. So this year, we had a full group of true freshmen and redshirt freshman on the line. They had some issues against Wyoming. Looked pretty good against UCLA - in the first half...until Brett Hundley somehow evaded a sack just before halftime. The youngsters lost their focus, got tentative...and got absolutely roasted in the third quarter. Looked incredibly shaky early against South Dakota State. But that is youth and inexperience for you.
Things looked a little better against bottom feeders Purdue and Illinois, but then more inexperienced mistakes doomed the Huskers against the surging Minnesota Gophers. (Who are proving to be a not-so-bad team themselves now.) And the first quarter against Northwestern as well. But then something happened.
Pelini and John Papuchis leveled with their youngsters, cleared the air, and reset the defense. And ever since, we've seen defense that's worthy of the terms Blackshirts. From that point forward, Northwestern punted on 11 of their final 13 possessions. Another drive ended with an interception. The 13th drive? Yeah, the Blackshirts gave up a field goal...but the Wildcats only gained three yards after taking over with a first and goal.
Today, the Blackshirts set the tone on the opening possession and except for the opening drive of the second half, never let up. No matter how broken the Michigan offense may be, holding ANY opponent to -21 yards rushing is impressive. What's more impressive is that this wasn't a 1-AA or Sun Belt opponent...but the team that was the preseason favorite to win the Big Ten's west division. Randy Gregory will be claiming Big Ten defensive player of week honors this week, and the rest of the defensive line played well. It was a high risk/high reward approach as Nebraska put the pressure on early and often. Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner was beat to a pulp last week by Michigan State, and the Huskers ripped those scabs off and reopened those wounds.
Let's compare those two games for Michigan. Against Michigan State, Michigan rushed for -48 yards and passed for 216. Total offense: 168 yards of offense. Against Nebraska, Michigan rushed for -21 yards and passed for 196. Total offense: 175 yards of offense. Granted, Michigan State softened up Michigan for the Huskers, but the fact that Nebraska went on the road and performed like the Spartans on defense is a major accomplishment...especially after all the previous defensive breakdowns of the last few seasons.
And that defensive performance was sorely needed now that the offense has been decimated by injuries. Kenny Bell and Jake Long were back on the field, but then Jeremiah Sirles left with a knee injury. So that's three offensive linemen (one all-American) and an all-conference quarterback who's not on the field. In that light, Nebraska's offensive issues are a little more understandable.
Ameer Abdullah's performance today might also be named Big Ten offensive player of the week after rushing for 105 tough yards against a pretty solid Michigan rush defense. Of course, the biggest was that five yard option reception for the game winning touchdown, because the pitch went forward. Tommy Armstrong came of age on that final drive as he completed those clutch passes. How about that 26 yard throw to Kenny Bell on fourth and two? I'd have been seriously tempted to call on Mauro Bondi to kick the long field goal, but that's why I'm a blogger, not a coach.
Last week's hero nearly became this week's goat, as Jordan Westerkamp's muffed punt nearly cost Nebraska the game. I say nearly, because (1) the Huskers won the game and (2) it's a team game. Westerkamp is going to make plenty of plays in the future for Nebraska; today's muff might just be the last time he doesn't make the catch, considering his reputation of having some of the best hands on the team.
And he's a freshman. Just like Tommy Armstrong, who was cool and collected driving Nebraska to the winning score. He didn't turn the ball over today. Just like Avery Moss and Greg McMullen, who had great games at defensive end. And just like Alonzo Moore, who had the critical block to spring Abdullah into the end zone.
The boo-birds are justifiably unhappy with Nebraska's two losses this season...but when you consider the whole situation, there's a lot of things to be excited about in Lincoln, both short-term and long-term. Short-term, Nebraska still is in the drivers seat to get back to Indianapolis. Beat Michigan State next Saturday, and every goal is still in front of this team.
And long-term, there are a lot of young players starting to emerge on both sides of the ball in Lincoln. Just something to remember when the critics start complaining the program is stuck in neutral. Injuries have forced 2013 into a transition year, and this transition is going better than fans had a right to expect.