LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska defensive coordinator John Papuchis refuses to let the offense take all the blame for the Cornhuskers having one of the worst turnover margins in the nation the last two years.
"We've got to hold up our end of the bargain," he said. "In some of the games where we may have had some turnovers, we didn't have very many takeaways, either. There's a lot to be said for a defense equaling things out."
Papuchis is emphasizing takeaways in the meeting room. He tracks how many his charges get on the practice field and how many times they miss opportunities to knock a ball loose or intercept a pass. The next day, he uses film to go over the good and bad.
The Huskers were tied for 119th out of 125 Bowl Subdivision teams in turnover margin (minus-0.85 per game), giving up the ball 11 more times than they took it away. Their combined minus-23 the past two years is last in the Big Ten and seventh worst nationally.
Given a statistic like that, their two-year record of 19-8 is quite remarkable. But it doesn't stop Papuchis and his players from lamenting what might have happened if they had taken the ball away more.
Of course, the offense had its own problems. Only Maryland lost more fumbles than Nebraska's 16 in 2013.
The Huskers totaled 18 turnovers and two takeaways during a six-game stretch in which they went 3-3. In a 41-28 loss to Michigan State, Nebraska coughed up the ball five times on its side of the 50, twice inside the 10, and the Spartans converted the turnovers into 24 points.
"We could talk about how we were put in some positions that were unfavorable," linebacker Michael Rose said. "But we had opportunities to make a lot of turnovers and help our offense out. Our main job is to get the ball back to them. We have a hot, potent offense. We want to make sure they have as many possessions as they can."
While ball-hawking is a priority for any defense, the numbers show the Huskers were lax, lineman Vincent Valentine said.
"We really didn't get away from it, but it really wasn't at the front of our list," he said. "Throughout this camp, we've hit on it enough that we know this is one of the main points we have to focus on throughout the season."
The emphasis goes beyond the standard ball-stripping drills in practice. It's about developing an attitude.
To make that happen, Papuchis is stressing the fundamentals. That means when a pass-rushers is approaching the quarterback from the blind side, he should look to jar the ball loose while going for the sack. Or when a ball is in the air, the defender should try for an interception instead of simply knocking down the ball.
Papuchis doesn't want his players to gamble, though.
"Our rule is and always will be, the first guy in is tackling, the second guy is looking to strip," he said. "We're never going to compromise that, because then you're giving up plays you shouldn't give up."