The Nebraska defense under Bo Pelini has become the program's bugaboo. A defensive specialist, Pelini, in his first two seasons at Nebraska, instituted a high-standard of defense – or you could say re-instituted the traditional high-standard of Nebraska defense. In those first two years, the Cornhusker defense was ranked 10th and 9th. The last two, 36th and 22nd. Still respectable, but it was an indication of a decline. Last season Nebraska's rushing defense was 95th in the country. In its last two games of the 2012 season, the defense gave up an average of 614 yards, including 539 yards rushing to Wisconsin. In the off-season, the Cornhusker mantra was that Pelini was going to spend more time with the Nebraska defense in practice. It was thought second-year coordinator John Papuchis, along with a number of defensive coaches, were new last season and they'd be acclimated this season.
It's kind of a good-news/bad-news scenario when 8 starters are gone from that 2012 defense.
But so far in 2013, it seems like it's more of a bad news scenario. In fact, you could assert that the defense, ranked 90th in the country overall, continues to be the issue for Nebraska in its first two games, especially going against what were thought to be two fairly pedestrian offenses in Wyoming and Southern Mississippi.
And what was expected to be the team's defensive strength, pass defense, has looked like its weakness. It's currently 103rd in the country in passing yards allowed per game (303).
The big question defensively coming into the season was the front seven, since it had just one returning starter among the defensive line and linebackers, and, as we stated, the rushing defense from 2012 was atrocious. So far, after two games, it hasn't been as bad as expected, but it could also be that Wyoming, which did the most damage against the Cornhuskers, did so through the air (383 yards passing). Wyoming is a passing offense and it still ran for 219 yards.
Senior David Ankrah (6-4, 265), who is a solid defensive end, is the one lone returning starter in the front seven from 2012, and he's surrounded by a very young defensive line. Last season against UCLA, the consensus was that UCLA wore down a thin Nebraska defensive line, and Pelini admitted a mistake in redshirting some young DLs last season. The theory now is that they'll be prepared this season with many bodies, albeit young bodies. After Ankrah, there is senior defensive tackle Thad Randle (6-1, 290), who has been mostly a journeyman in his Nebraska career. The rest of the Nebraska defensive line two-deep is made up entirely of sophomores, redshirt freshmen or true freshmen. It appears that sophomore defensive end Randy Gregory (6-6, 250), a JC transfer, might be the guy to watch. You have to concede it was against Southern Miss, but Gregory had a good game coming off the edge.
|Linebacker Josh Banderas.|
The linebacking unit has all new starters from a year ago, and the unit is, obviously, inexperienced and, like the DL, very young. There is only one upperclassmen in the two deep, and that's a junior, and two starters are true freshmen. It has to be especially difficult when your MIKE, essentially the quarterback of the defense, is a true freshman, and that's Josh Banderas (6-2, 225). Banderas got decent reviews in his performance against Southern Miss, but he has to be "swimming" a bit in terms of reads and calls, not to mention actually playing. Freshman Nathan Gerry (6-2, 210) is listed as the strongside linebacker, but is kind of a mini-linebacker type used quite a bit in the Cornhusker nickel and dime looks, which they utilized quite a bit in their first two games. Gerry's strong suit is his speed, being the former South Dakota high school 200- and 100-meter champion. Against UCLA's spread, these two will probably get the bulk of the reps at linebacker, and then redshirt freshman Michael Rose (5-11, 230) will get the most time spelling Banderas, and junior Zaire Anderson (5-11, 220) will see action in relief of Gerry. Sophomore David Santos (6-0, 225) started the opener against Wyoming at middle linebacker and had 12 tackles, but he was relegated to third string for Southern Miss because he missed a number of calls. The unit looked like it was getting its feet wet against Wyoming and Southern Miss, and now it will be full-on swimming against UCLA.
The Nebraska secondary was thought to be its strongest defensive unit coming into the season, with two returning starters, from a unit that allowed just 168 yards passing per game in 2012. So far in 2013, it hasn't lived up to that standard, allowing 605 total yards in two games, ranking it 103rd in the nation. Yes, it was against two spread teams in Wyoming and Southern Miss, but it was against Wyoming and Southern Miss.
Two returning starters, senior Ciante Evans (5-11, 185) and junior Corey Cooper (6-1, 210), have struggled some. Evans, primarily Nebraska's nickel back, was easily one of Nebraska's best defenders last season, and he's been trying to step up to be a leader of the defense. Cooper, who is mostly a safety but plays some corner and nickel, too, had a spotty year in 2012 and looks a bit overwhelmed so far in 2013. At the other corner has been junior Josh Mitchell (5-11, 160), who shares time with a guy getting some pub, converted wide receiver, senior Stanley Jean-Baptiste (6-3, 220). Jean-Baptiste looks huge out there, like a tight end playing cornerback, and he's had a couple of nice interceptions in the first two games. He, however, doesn't necessarily look lightning quick, so match-ups against UCLA's quicker receivers will be interesting. At the other safety spot is junior Harvey Jackson (6-2, 210), so when Nebraska utilizes Jackson, Jean-Baptiste and Cooper, they practically look bigger than their linebacking unit. But, there does seem to be a lack of quickness when Nebraska goes big in the back.
UCLA's offense is in great shape heading into Nebraska. There were two big questions heading into the season: 1) How would UCLA replace departed running back Johnathan Franklin? And 2) Who would step up to be the one new starting OL, and would that guy be a liability? Even though the first game was against a poor Nevada defense, both of those questions were answered in UCLA's first game. Against Nevada, UCLA ran for a total of 354 yards, with starting tailback Jordon James getting 156 on his own. True freshman Alex Redmond plugged into the starting offensive line at right guard, and had a very impressive showing – in fact, having the best performance among the UCLA OL.
UCLA, of course, is as good as its quarterback, Brett Hundley, is on any given Saturday. He was good against Nevada two weeks ago, even though he didn't try to do too much. Overall, watching him through fall practice, he's improved over last season, better physically, quicker and definitely faster, has a stronger arm and is far better in his decision-making. That's really bad news for Nebraska's defense, who allowed Hundley to throw for 305 yards on 21-of-33 passing and four touchdowns, while adding 53 rushing yards – in just his second college start. It naturally stands to reason that Hundley, being so much more experienced and just plain better, potentially could top his performance against Nebraska from a year ago.
James looked very good in his debut as the starter against Nevada, but UCLA's running game was also bolstered by redshirt freshman Paul Perkins, sophomore Steven Manfro and senior Malcolm Jones, who combined for another 101 yards from the tailback spot.
Hundley threw a completion to an amazing 12 receivers against Nevada. On top of the list is go-to wideout Shaquelle Evans, but slot guy Devin Fuller showed flashes of the explosiveness he's had in spring and fall practice.
Redmond was perhaps the best surprise of the Nevada game. If you consider him to be a good addition, it makes UCLA's offensive line start to look like a strength of the team, plugging him in along with four returning starters, one of whom is Xavier Su'a-Filo, perhaps one of the handful best offensive linemen in the country. The interior OL against Nevada, with Su'a-Filo, Redmond and center Jake Brendel, was particularly devastating in run blocking.
Here's a pretty easy measuring stick: Last year, UCLA, against Nebraska, scored 36 points, gained 653 total yards, and rushed for 344 yards. It's not a stretch to assert that UCLA's offense has improved and Nebraska's defense is worse. At best, it's about the same.
Nebraska might have some elements on its side. The game, of course, is at home, at a loud Memorial Stadium, which has to affect visiting offenses. The Cornhuskers didn't really know too much of what to expect from UCLA's offense a year ago, and now they've played a game against it and have a season-worth of film. Nebraska has faced two spread offenses in the last two weeks, so UCLA's offense shouldn't be a shock. Pelini and the Nebraska defensive coaches have made it an emphasis to shuttle through fresh players on the defense, almost as a direct answer to the UCLA game last season when the Nebraska defense was clearly worn down. In its first two games, Nebraska's defense has gone deep into its bench.
There are, too, some indicators that, perhaps, it could be worse this season for Nebraska's defense in facing UCLA's offense. Nebraska's D is by far younger and more inexperienced. It's starting two true freshmen linebackers. It allowed Wyoming, a pass-oriented spread offense, to run for 219 yards, and the Cowboys did a great deal of it by running right through the heart of Nebraska's D. You'd have to naturally think UCLA would be better at doing this than Wyoming. Hundley is better. Nebraska had a difficult time with the Wyoming quarterback Brett Smith, who is a Hundley-esque QB, and he not only passed for 383 yards but ran for 92. UCLA's offensive players are far more experienced in OC Noel Mazzone's scheme and it looked like Mazzone went pretty vanilla against Nevada to not give away too much to Nebraska.
Nebraska, in its first two games, has just one sack. It couldn't get consistent pressure against Wyoming or Southern Miss. In the Wyoming game, it gave Smith a great deal of time to cut open the Nebraska secondary. If Hundley, who was barely touched in the Nevada game, has a good amount of time he's going to husk the Cornhuskers' pass defense, and also make a big difference with his feet.
It would have to go against most logical indicators to predict that Nebraska's defense was going to win this match-up.