Commentary: The New Fad - New and Improved?

By at January 4, 2010 | 1:42 AM | Print

Air Raid. Spread. No huddle. Zone read. Fly sweep. Wildcat.

After years of offensive fads in the Big 12, get ready for a defensive one: The Match Read Zone. The name that’s been given to Bo Pelini’s spread-killing defense. A system that’s not easy to get down but – much like a match-up zone defense in basketball – can be hard to crack.

You can be plenty sure league defensive coordinators have been paying attention to Pelini since he arrived in the Big 12. You can also be sure they took notes as Bo dismantled Texas and Colt McCoy with it.

Why does it work? Because it’s zone, masquerading as man, taking away the simplest throws for a quarterback. Because it’s aggressive against bubble and tunnel screens. Because Nebraska has the back seven personnel – and the four-man pass rush – to pull it off.

It’s a perfect storm of sorts that met the two perfectly vulnerable – though normally productive – spread offenses – Texas and Arizona – at the end of the season.

Bo’s the new fad of the Big 12. With two of the offensive gurus – Mike Leach and Mark Mangino – floating away on rafts made of their own egos, the problem to solve for 2010 won’t be how to stop their passing games. But how to crack Bo Vinci Code.

Two-tight end formations – which forces Nebraska to replace corners with linebackers – might be part of the solution. Straight power football might be another. With a full season of tape to view, offensive coordinators will begin to chip away at the few weaknesses the Blackshirts possessed in 2010. Washington, armed with a good quarterback (Jake Locker) and even better playcaller (head coach Steve Sarikisian) will pit its West Coast principles vs. Match Read excellence.

Much like he declared the Huskers back for good after the Holiday Bowl, Pelini has set the bar for his defense, at, oh, only “five times better” than it was this year. Statistically, trust us, it’s basically impossible. So we can presume Pelini is talking experience, expertise and playmaking ability.

Nebraska looks to have the nation’s best secondary in 2010. Credit Pelini and position coach Marvin Sanders for just about all of it, as Prince Amukamara and Eric Hagg were merely raw prospects in spring 2008, and Alfonzo Dennard, Dejon Gomes and P.J. Smith – all projected starters – weren’t yet on campus. Is it on par with the 2003 unit, Pelini’s first college secondary, that featured three future NFL starters in Fabian Washington, Josh Bullocks and Daniel Bullocks, and led the nation in interceptions? Potentially.

The front four loses Ndamukong Suh. He will be sorely missed – and don’t let pundits or even the Brothers Pelini attempt to sweep his departure under the rug. Suh was arguably most valuable on screens, draws, shovel passes and backside running plays. A stat nobody kept track of: How many first downs Suh – and Suh alone – saved by peeling back to make downfield tackles. And you can’t teach his instincts for pass defense and finding the ball. What’s left is pretty good. But Suh made that unit dynamic and versatile.

The warning flags appear to be at linebacker. It was telling that, in the last half of the season, Gomes and Hagg were serving as de facto linebackers on key downs, as opposed to Will Compton and Sean Fisher. Spread passing teams carry light cargo, and allow Nebraska to get away it. But almost half of NU’s opponents in 2010 can and will go heavy. And if Pelini found it necessary to pick up JUCO linebacker LaVonte David, it speaks, potentially, to the health and inexperience of some of the guys behind Compton and Fisher. Eric Martin is a exciting playmaker as a sophomore, but he won’t see the field until he knows the defense.

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