Big Ten football: Awful defense left Nebraska with questions

By The Columbus Dispatch  • 
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Some fans are angry with coach Bo Pelini after four ugly losses in 2012.

Investigators still haven’t found the black box in the wreckage of the Nebraska defense, last seen smoldering in ruins at the end of the 2012 season.

The Cornhuskers won 10 games as champions of the Big Ten’s Legends Division, but their defense was so inept during four defeats that it has encased this year’s team in doubt.

Nebraska gave up a combined 214 points and 2,380 yards in losses to Ohio State, UCLA, Wisconsin and Georgia.

The Cornhuskers were awful in giving up 63 points to OSU in Columbus after allowing UCLA to roll up 653 total yards in a 36-30 loss in Los Angeles.

Then came the Big Ten championship game, which should have been rated R for gruesome images. Wisconsin defeated the Cornhuskers 70-31 to earn a spot in the Rose Bowl.

Eight months later, Nebraska fans still are grumbling about the Badgers gaining 640 yards that night in Indianapolis, and how the Cornhuskers were then abused again by Georgia in a 45-31 loss in the Capital One Bowl.

Questions about giving up 115 points and more than 1,200 yards in two postseason games swirled around Nebraska coach Bo Pelini last month at the Big Ten media days.

“We just got exposed in a couple areas where we didn’t make plays,” he said. “That’s my fault. I need to try and figure out a way where they can make those plays.”

Some Nebraska fans, embarrassed by the blowouts and frustrated by the fact that the Cornhuskers haven’t won a conference title since 1999, reportedly are turning up the heat on Pelini, even though he has averaged 9.8 wins in his five seasons.

A soft schedule in the first two months should help Nebraska, which opens on Saturday with Wyoming in the first of eight home games. The Cornhuskers play Big Ten crossover games against Purdue and Illinois this season, instead of OSU and Wisconsin.

Nebraska, ranked 18th, also has high hopes because an offense that averaged 34.8 points and led the Big Ten in total yards last season returns four-year starting quarterback Taylor Martinez, running back Ameer Abdullah, wideout Kenny Bell and All-America guard Spencer Long.

“I wouldn’t trade our offense for anybody’s,” Pelini said.

So it all falls on a defense that is replacing eight starters, including all three linebackers.

“At the end of the day,” Pelini said, “I think we’re going to be more athletic on that side of the ball, which I think is going to help us. With that, you hope that the youth at times, especially early on, will get offset by the athleticism.”

That’s especially true on the defensive line, where junior-college transfer Randy Gregory is expected to make an impact at end.

“To play great defense, you have to have difference-makers up front,” Pelini said. “We’ve had good players, but I don’t know if we’ve had difference-makers.”

Pelini, a former safety at Ohio State, has coached in the NFL and was defensive coordinator of an LSU team that defeated the Buckeyes in the 2007 Bowl Championship Series title game.

“To be a great football team and to play great defense, it’s not about what you do, it’s how you do it,” Pelini said. “When we suffered last year, (execution) is usually where we fell short” — so much so that Pelini was asked if his team would have to win shootouts this season.

“It’s going to be hard to sleep if I start thinking about shootouts,” he said.

tjones@dispatch.com

@Todd_Jones

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