Quantcast
brand (7K)     

Sub Menu contents
 

 

C O M M E N T A R Y
T A D    S T R Y K E R
November 10, 2009

 
In early December 2007, Tom Osborne made what he has called one of the most difficult decisions of his life, and the results are making themselves evident this season.

Having just fired Bill Callahan, do you hire Bo Pelini or Turner Gill? Do you go with the tough-minded defensive specialist who helped LSU win a national title, and who spent a year as a much-beloved NU defensive coordinator? Or do you choose possibly the most talented all-around quarterback in Nebraska football history, with more than a decade as a respected NU assistant coach and two years of head coaching experience in the Mid-America Conference?

With the Huskers coming off the catastrophic defensive meltdown now referred to as the 2007 Nebraska football season, Osborne opted for defense, then called his good friend Gill and gave him the bad news. And Pelini has performed as advertised. He’s tough, hard-nosed and surly, but he’s focused and not satisfied with mediocrity.

As far as defense is concerned, he’s ahead of schedule. Few national observers expected the beaten and psychologically-scarred Kevin Cosgrove-era Blackshirts to recover this quickly.

When he arrived at Nebraska in 2004, Callahan talked about “flipping the culture” in the conservative-minded Cornhusker State as he installed a pass-happy West Coast offense that eventually became statistical marvel, although it broke down at the most inopportune times. By the end of Callahan’s four years at the wheel, Nebraska was becoming a parody of a video game football team — all offense, no defense. In his final three Big 12 games, the Huskers scored 54 points per contest and gave up 57.

Osborne, the offensive genius behind the balanced attacks that led to a pair of national championships in 1970 and 1971, and better known for developing one of the finest power option offenses in the history of college football, saw defense as a higher priority.

So now, in just his second year, Pelini is flipping the culture again. Nebraska’s football economy is going through a period of deflation. This year, NU has scored an average of 15 points in five conference games and allowed 13 per contest.

It started with the development of the defensive line and last year’s emergence of Ndamukong Suh and Ty Steinkuhler under the guidance of defensive coordinator Carl Pelini. It quickly became the strength of this team. The development of Jared Crick and Baker Steinkuhler this season, plus Barry Turner, Pierre Allen and Cameron Meredith at end give the Huskers a solid foundation for the future. Having a d-line that puts consistent pressure on the quarterback with a four-man rush makes the occasional Pelini blitz packages that much more disruptive.

This season’s defensive backs — most notably cornerbacks Prince Amukamara (junior) and Alfonzo Dennard (sophomore) — have made the same quantum leap that the d-line did last season. Junior Dejon Gomes is a regular in the dime package and junior Anthony West and sophomore Anthony Blue are solid backups at cornerback. Even with Rickey Thenarse out for the season, the safeties are reliable with Larry Asante, Matt O’Hanlon and P.J. Smith. Eric Hagg is only a junior at nickel back, and sophomore Lance Thorell provides quality depth. Look for Courtney Osborne or Austin Cassidy to step forward to provide even more depth next fall.

 
This season’s defensive backs — most notably cornerbacks Prince Amukamara (junior) and Alfonzo Dennard (sophomore) — have made the same quantum leap that the d-line did last season. Junior Dejon Gomes is a regular in the dime package and junior Anthony West and sophomore Anthony Blue are solid backups at cornerback. Even with Rickey Thenarse out for the season, the safeties are reliable with Larry Asante, Matt O’Hanlon and P.J. Smith. Eric Hagg is only a junior at nickel back, and sophomore Lance Thorell provides quality depth. Look for Courtney Osborne or Austin Cassidy to step forward to provide even more depth next fall.

Linebacker is the youngest position on the defense, and while freshmen Sean Fisher and Will Compton have not been extremely visible, they rank ninth and 10th on the team in tackles this season. Mathew May (sophomore) and Eric Martin (freshman) should figure into the mix after Phillip Dillard departs.

Pelini has built this young and deep defense in an astonishingly short amount of time. Many Big 12 opponents who were looking forward to running over the Huskers for another year or two are profoundly disappointed.

There is, however, an offensive leadership vacuum after the departure of Joe Ganz, Nate Swift and Todd Peterson. There’s an unsettled situation at quarterback and an offensive line that is not fundamentally sound.

Some see a darker flip side. Under Pelini, will Nebraska become all defense, no offense?

I don’t think so. I look for a trend back toward a power running game, using a lot of I-formation sets and some spread elements. That would be consistent with the hard-nosed culture Pelini is creating. It is certainly not a sure thing; the main uncertainty hanging over Nebraska football through the start of the 2010 season will be the development of the offensive line, and how Shawn Watson and Barney Cotton will figure into that process.

Although many questions remain, I think Nebraska’s football stock will rise. The climb may be erratic for awhile, but the upturn has started, and I think it will be a persistent one because defense is more dependable than offense, and great defenses tend to beat great offenses.

Defense is stable. Nebraska is building depth and experience on defense. As a result, the Huskers are trending toward stability, except for a troubling tendency to pile up penalty yardage (70 per game), which seems to be the main problem that Pelini needs to fix. (However, even that is mitigated by the fact that eight Big 12 teams are among the worst 25 percent of major-college football ratings when it comes to penalty yardage. This conference’s officials are pickier than many other leagues’ this season.)

Because of a decision made by Osborne, Bo Pelini is bringing some old-style Southeast Conference toughness into a Big 12 Conference that has gone soft in recent years. Pelini, who has seen the best football that the SEC has to offer, may be trending toward a Nick Saban model. Look at Alabama’s recent development, and you may be previewing the future of Nebraska football.

Nobody is saying that the Huskers are BCS material yet. The big question is how long the ascension will take and how high it will go.

 

Formerly the sports editor at the North Platte Bulletin and a sportswriter/columnist for the North Platte Telegraph, Tad Stryker is a longtime Nebraska sports writer, having covered University of Nebraska and high school sports for more than 25 years. He started writing for this website in 2008. You can e-mail him at tad.stryker@gmail.com. | Archive

 
PLEASE VISIT OUR SPONSORS
 
Underline
links?
Yes No
 

Copyright 1995-2014 by HuskerMax™
width holder width holder width holder