NEBRASKA FOOTBALL: Commentary - Big Bad Blackshirts

By at September 11, 2010 | 6:00 PM | Print

Carl Pelini had a message this week for Nebraska’s defense. The Nebraska defensive coordinator drilled it into the heads of his players after a performance against Western Kentucky that left a few tongues wagging and had head coach Bo Pelini, at least for one night, calling them an embarrassment.

“Do your job with a pissed off attitude,” Carl said.

Seven sacks, six turnovers and two defensive touchdowns later, Nebraska rides a dominant tide to Washington after deconstructing Idaho quarterback Nathan Enderle in the film room and destroying him Saturday afternoon in a 38-17 win over the Vandals.

“They played their tails off,” Bo Pelini said.

The Huskers are aggressive, hot-headed and occasionally careless. They play, on both sides of the ball, with explosive abandon. They look like a confident team. They play like it, too, which, when assertiveness slips into arrogance, leads to the carnival of mistakes and maladies you saw from the NU offense throughout the game.

But Nebraska’s defense can hit. It can hurry. It can hurt. It can crawl its way so far inside a quarterback’s head that it can present a viewing of “Inception.” And it can do it without Ndamukong Suh.

Saturday was proof. Just three hours of intellect and intentional cruelty being inflicted on Enderle and his receivers who got slugged around by Nebraska’s secondary as much as Enderle was swamped by the Huskers’ front four. The pass rush – anchored by a ferocious Jared Crick and Pierre Allen – started the wave. The Husker secondary – Houdini Gomes, Ricky Thenarse, Alfonzo Dennard, P.J. Smith, the dynamic, all-knowing Prince Amukamura – finished it.

"Oh, it was really fun,” safety P.J. Smith said. “A couple of us on the sideline were saying, ‘They [are] throwing out presents, he’s throwing presents to us. It’s gifts, we just got to get it and go. It’s Christmas.’”

It was dazzling to watch. Better than Taylor Martinez’s three-card Monte performance with the zone read – which is pretty damn good, too.

“They were relentless today,” Pelini said.

And Enderle. North Platte kid. Pow! Pow! Thwump. Oof! No! Just 15 completions and five picks. He was wide, high, short, soft and confused. Nebraska’s defensive backs stuck to the Vandals’ receivers and refused to get out of their grills.

“Our pride kicks in a lot when we’re in those coverages,” Gomes said.

This is what happens when Idaho – hats off to its coaching staff – tries to run its offense rather than live in a shell like Western Kentucky did.

Man, did that WKU game piss Carl off. The Hilltoppers picked up their paycheck and generally avoided embarrassment by running massive personnel and plunging into the line on 2nd-and-long. Nebraska had one sack, Bo got after it in the postgame, and Husker fans, who last saw this bunch putting Texas and Arizona in the hurt locker, were scratching their chins a little bit with concern. Probably like they’re doing right now with the offense.

“I’m just sick of hearing about that first week,” Pelini said, getting riled up. “It could be the Steelers out there and they’re not going to have any sacks against Western Kentucky when they’re running the ball on third down.”

The Vandals tried to spread out its offense in the first quarter. As it must, if Enderle’s going to be any good. Idaho’s big, fat line. You heard about their size all week. Carl wasn’t thrilled about that question on Tuesday, either. But it left Enderle exposed. I told you Friday that, if Idaho wanted to win, it had to give Enderle his full arsenal of plays. The Vandals couldn’t just shackle him.

So Pelini dialed up a zone blitz with LaVonte David and Jared Crick crashing from the end. Pow! Sack. Next drive. Pow! Bigger sack. Crick again, with Allen crashing in from the corner like a terror. Next drive. Thwump! Amukamara deflects a ball right to Smith. Nebraska scores in one play, a Roy Helu 58-yard touchdown run. Next drive. Oof! Enderle gets hits as he throws, the trajectory of the ball softening at Gomes steps in front for a Pick Six. Next drive. No! Enderle throws an awful pass that Thenarse plucks and returns for a touchdown.

That’s 31-0 before you finished your lunch. That’s football. That’s all that is.

That’s film work. Nebraska saw in Idaho’s games that Enderle locked in on receivers. Well, some strong-armed guys are like that. See it before you throw it.

But Nebraska’s secondary is too good and smart for that. They broke on the ball all day, and only picked up one (highly questionable) pass interference call with the starters in the game. Amukamara and Dennard locked down the quick slant – Dennard made an amazing pick on one of those slants – and stayed step-for-step on the fly patterns. Nonplussed, Enderle started to look back inside to tight ends and slot receivers. The Vandals ran off Amukamara and Dennard on short routes and tried to replace them with slot receivers running toward the sidelines.

Didn’t work. It took too much time. Time Enderle didn’t have.

“I hope nobody takes this the wrong way, but I don’t see anyone else like that lining up against in our conference,” Idaho Coach Robb Akey said.

That would include Boise State.

Do you see how Nebraska’s spider-like defense works against the pass? Folks, it’s rare to be this daring and reliant on just four pass rushers. Pro teams can’t; the receivers and quarterbacks are almost always too good, the NFL game too friendly to offenses. Only in college could such a mismatch like happen week-in, week-out. It’s really hard to solve. It takes, frankly, the deep ball. Beating Dennard or Amukamara. Good luck.

Short of that, the quarterback takes a beating. Idaho finally pulled Enderle from the game, and his replacement, Brian Reader, promptly got smashed two plays in a row. The Vandals want to be smart after all, and protect their pro prospect.

Speaking of those, here comes UW’s Jake Locker – a thoroughly accomplished athlete that remains a little unpolished for a quarterback. Locker has the arm. The wheels. And the toughness. He’ll have to take hit after hit after hit. He’ll have to throw into tight spaces. He’ll have to get out of trouble with his legs. And, you’d better believe he’ll have to have a running game.

Pelini was asked Saturday, point blank, whether teams will see a secondary so good that it turns away from passing and toward a two-back power game that exploits NU’s relative lack of size in a nickel or dime set.

“They’re not small,” Pelini snapped back.

But still…after giving up some runs right up the middle against so-so teams…

“Good,” Pelini said. “I hope they do. I hope teams try and change what they do to try exploit that. I hope they do.”

You could call that challenge. Or just reality. This is Nebraska’s defense when it’s pissed off.

“We hate quarterbacks,” Crick said.

He was joking, Jake Locker. Sort of.

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