B1G 40: Can Pelini put 'blackshirts' back on Huskers defense?

B1G 40: Can Pelini put 'blackshirts' back on Huskers defense?
July 14, 2014, 2:00 pm
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Vinnie Duber

As the dog days of summer arrive, the longing for football becomes all the more intense. Well, we here at CSNChicago.com are here to provide you with a summertime football fix. Over 40 days, CSN's Vinnie Duber will have 40 posts pondering the biggest questions heading into the 2014 Big Ten football season — the B1G 40 questions. Be sure to check out the entire B1G 40 series at csnchicago.com/big-ten.

Can Bo Pelini put the “blackshirts” back on the Husker defense?

Nebraska wore black alternate jerseys in last season’s home game against UCLA. The “blackshirts” have long been revered as a symbol of defensive prowess in Lincoln. But that day against the Bruins, the Husker defense did not measure up to the symbol. Pelini’s bunch was torched in an absolute meltdown that saw Nebraska blow a 21-3 lead and lose, 41-21.

That game proved the unfortunate key game of the Huskers’ season, one that was fraught with turmoil surrounding the job status of Pelini, who was the constant target of fans and observers who lamented the fact that Nebraska is no longer one of college football’s national powers. Pelini didn’t return the Huskers to national prominence, but he did his best to silence the doubters, turning in the sixth nine-win season since he arrived in Lincoln and winning the Gator Bowl over the SEC’s Georgia Bulldogs, one of just a couple Big Ten teams to claim bowl victories last season. His impassioned midseason “fire me” postgame speech helped, as did a vote of confidence from the Nebraska administration.

[B1G 40: How will Wolverines' young backfield fare?]

But while Pelini personally weathered that storm, his defense continued to play much like it did in that September game against UCLA. There were the 465 total yards allowed to South Dakota State, the 34 points allowed in a loss to Minnesota, the 24 points allowed to Northwestern in a game that would’ve been a loss if not for that Hail Mary, the 41-point pounding delivered by Michigan State and the 38 points allowed to Iowa (no offensive juggernaut) in the regular-season-finale loss.

Nebraska ranked sixth in the conference in points allowed (24.8 per game) and seventh in rush defense (156.2 yards per game). The numbers aren’t terrible, but this is a program that sees itself competing for championships. And those numbers do not a championship-caliber defense make.

The Huskers hope to improve upon that significantly in 2014, and they have a couple big-time playmakers that might help them do just that. It starts on the defensive line with defensive end Randy Gregory. No one in the Big Ten had more sacks than Gregory and his 10.5, and his 17 tackles for loss ranked second in the conference. He also forced a fumble and took an interception back for a touchdown. His pass-rushing ability should couple nicely with the great safety play of Corey Cooper, a Proviso East product. He was the Huskers’ leading tackler with 91, and he also had five tackles for loss, two sacks, a forced fumble and an interception. Cooper will have to come up big to keep the Huskers’ pass defense going, as he’ll be the openly returning starter.

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Meanwhile, the rush defense figures to improve without too many replacements needing to be made. Nebraska’s five leading tacklers from a season ago all return, including all three starting linebackers.

Unfortunately for those itching for Nebraska to get back to the top of the rankings, the overall outlook doesn’t look much different from last season. The Huskers will have tough road contests in Big Ten play, traveling to play Michigan State, Northwestern, Wisconsin and Iowa.

But, the couple big names on the defensive side of the ball plus some additional experience up front out to help the defense be better in 2014. Will it be blackshirt worthy? That remains to be seen.