By Randy York
Seconds after last Saturday night’s 38-17 Nebraska win at Northwestern, a friend stood up in his seat at Wildcat Stadium and gave a five-word synopsis: “A tale of two halves,” he said. “It’s a lot more fun when we dominate the second half. Remember UCLA? That was a tough lesson to learn last year. Tonight we did the shutdown…big difference.” Yes, it is, especially when the Huskers hold Northwestern to 28 total yards and only three yards rushing in the second half after giving up 17 points and 262 yards in the first half. What’s going on here? The answer, in a nutshell, is the Huskers’ third-down shutdown defense, the trigger for my weekly installment of The N-Sider’s Five Favorite Bo Pelini Quotes. Here they are:
5) On what Nebraska’s doing on its third-down defense: “We get a lot of people who play us different on third down, so you have to make adjustments during the game because teams get a little bit wary of our pressure packages,” Pelini said. Northwestern converted one of eight second-half third downs, including a situational third-and-1 and third-and-2. “Early in the game, we were right on some people and just didn’t make the play,” Pelini said. “We settled in and had good third-down defense as the game went on.” The Huskers rank sixth nationally in third-down conversion percentage defense. They finished sixth in the same category last year. “We spend a lot of time on protections and how we can exploit what teams are doing,” Bo said. “We try to be creative and give a lot of different looks, not only pressure-wise, but coverage-wise.”
4) On what Nate Gerry has contributed to Nebraska’s dramatic improvement: “Nate had a great spring, a really good fall camp and gets more comfortable every day. He understands the run fits and gaps…has great ball skills,” Pelini said of the Sioux Falls, S.D., native who shared Nebraska’s Defensive Player of the Game honor with junior defensive end Kevin Williams. Pelini said Gerry’s 2013 experience at linebacker helped him prosper. “He’s very, very natural back there at the safety position,” Bo said. “That’s obvious. His eyes are used to playing from a deeper level, and he’s more comfortable playing there. He makes great plays on the football and has really good instincts at the position.”
3) On the evolution of sophomore quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr., pictured above outside of Nebraska’s locker room: “He’s learning something every day,” Pelini said. “Sometimes, people don’t realize how much is on a kid’s plate. He’s still learning. He works very hard at it. He studies the game hard. Every week is a little different. He’s seeing different structures and coverages every week.” Pelini said Husker Offensive Coordinator Tim Beck is conscious of the week-to-week preparation and tries to find what Pelini calls “a happy medium between being able to attack and game-plan for somebody to do something specific that can exploit what people are doing.” The key is staying within Armstrong’s comfort zone. Quarterbacks diagnose the zone read and are the catalyst for the running game. “All of those things can add up a lot,” Pelini said.
2) On the late Brook Berringer and the legacy he left at Nebraska, which has been captured in a one-hour documentary on the Big Ten Network: “That’s a little bit before my time, but obviously I was fully aware,” Pelini said of Berringer, who helped lead Nebraska to a national championship in 1994 before dying in a plane crash in 1994. “I’ve had a chance to meet his family and obviously he was a pretty special guy…somebody who stands for the things he did will always have an impact on any program forever…the people who knew him and the people he touched.”
1) On the state of Nebraska football recruiting, which is always important now and well into the future: “I like where we are in recruiting. I think that (Director of Athletics) Shawn (Eichorst) and the administration have done a heckuva job giving us all the tools and sitting down and trying to figure out everything we need,” Pelini said. “I like what we have in place. I think we have some good momentum. I like where it stands right now and hopefully we can finish this class off.” Pelini has accelerated the pace in watching and evaluating prospects. “I feel like we’re a lot further ahead,” he said while pointing out that the Huskers will not have a huge 2015 signing class “because of the number of seniors we have.” Pelini said a bigger football staff has helped “get kids on campus” so they can become familiar with Lincoln. “The earlier that happens the better chance you have of saying this is our pool of guys we’re going to spend our time on. You can’t recruit everybody. You can narrow it down. There are a lot of good players and you need to see who fits you, who you like and who can help you win a championship.”
Those are the benchmarks, the criteria and the challenges to build the future.
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