LINCOLN — Picture an aircraft carrier steaming toward a conflict. It's outfitted with all the planes, gear, officers, crew, pilots and escort ships needed for the job.
But as the ship cuts through the water, the admiral learns his battle group has a new mission, a hotspot oceans away. A 180-degree turn, followed by an entirely different battle plan.
That's a bit of what Nebraska coach Bo Pelini faced on June 11, 2010, as Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany announced NU's acceptance into a new league.
Pelini didn't say much that day. He'd spent three years tailoring the Huskers toward winning one league — the Big 12 — and certainly couldn't stop tinkering with one year left in it. And he couldn't bemoan the work he and his staff would have to put in turning toward the Big Ten because that would have been sour grapes.
You know the last two years by heart. Three points short in the Big 12 title game. And a bumpy ride in the Big Ten. Aircraft carriers don't turn easily.
Move to June 12, 2012. Pelini and his assistants assembled at NU's annual Football 202 event and spoke confidently of a team that faltered down the stretch last year and lost its three best defensive playmakers — Jared Crick, Lavonte David and Alfonzo Dennard.
“I don't have all the answers,” Pelini said. “But together, we're a pretty damn good team.”
He was talking about his coaching staff. But he essentially said the same about his players.
And to show that he meant it, he broke down film from the Blackshirts' best performance in their first Big Ten season: a 24-3 win over Michigan State. And offensive coordinator Tim Beck showed film of Nebraska's 34-27 comeback over Ohio State.
Part of Football 202 is salesmanship — wealthy, passionate boosters attend, and it behooves a staff to have them on board — and part of it is philosophy. So breaking down those two films had some purpose.
What Pelini and Beck see in those games, in effect, is what they hope — and expect — to roll over into 2012.
Bo sees a defense that can scout opponents better, adjust on the fly, absorb some of the trickier parts of the Pelini playbook. Beck sees an offense that already had the playmakers and now has the experience to fix the mental/execution errors that made NU inconsistent.
Whether they're right — whether Nebraska wins the Big Ten title — is up for debate until late November. But a closer look at Football 202 reveals, in broad terms, how the Huskers' aircraft carrier has turned and the course it plots.
Learn from mistakes
|Click the image above to see the latest NU recruits, including player cards with bio information, photos and more.|
For the NU offense breakdown, Beck grabs a pointer and starts the Ohio State film. Assistants Ron Brown, Barney Cotton, Rich Fisher and John Garrison pipe up over a free-flowing hour of commentary.
The first half of the OSU game wasn't pretty, and that's part of Beck's point.
He found a basic weakness on the flanks of the Buckeyes' strong line and tried to attack it repeatedly. The Huskers' backs had more speed than Ohio State's linebackers and safeties could consistently handle, especially when NU sped up its no-huddle system.
But NU's blocking execution of first-half plays — linemen, tight ends and wide receivers — kept that weakness from being exposed. While center Mike Caputo consistently made the right blocks — “we wouldn't have traded him for anyone,” Cotton said — others made youthful mistakes.
Incorrect helmet placement. False steps. Poor leverage. Failing to pick up backside traffic flowing to the play. Not glaring stuff. But costly enough.
“You see that hole?” Beck asked fans. “The holes were there.”
Yes, they were. A jet sweep by Ameer Abdullah could have been a touchdown. The failed fourth-down run by Rex Burkhead out of the Wildcat was a little too convoluted, but it should have gained five yards instead of losing a few. These are the plays Beck expects to be there a lot in 2012 if the offense — and quarterback Taylor Martinez — has grown like he thinks it has.
Against Ohio State, Beck stuck to his guns and went right back to attacking the weakness, only this time he spread out the Buckeyes with more wide receivers. Bingo.
Beck spent much of the fourth quarter calling the same plays out of different formations. Martinez's passes were built off the same cluster of ideas.
OSU — weary of the Huskers' cut-blocking linemen — slowed in its pursuit of NU runners. A few Buckeye linebackers stopped entirely, pausing to watch Burkhead's leap into the end zone for the final touchdown.
The lesson: When Nebraska actually learned from its mistakes, it had the athletes to frustrate the nation's No. 19 defense. Yes, David's strip of Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller flipped the switch on NU's comeback. But the offense, given time, finished it.
Coordinators on field
|BIG RED TODAY ON FACEBOOK|
|Click the image above to join the conversation on the Big Red Today Facebook page.|
Pelini, meanwhile, sat quietly through most of the defensive session while assistants took their turns. When he began reviewing the Michigan State film, he spoke little about the first plays on the screen. But he warmed up and eventually gave a window into how his staff operates.
He believes in ever-evolving, custom-made plans each week. A lot of scouting, tendency reports and down-specific goals. His assistants break down the position keys in their own ways. Ross Els prefers lots of diagrams, for example. Terry Joseph will give his players quizzes.
All of the mental work falls under the physical “effort” umbrella — Husker coaches use many exclamation points to emphasize it on goal sheets. The mental work is considerable for Pelini's two-gap-run, match-zone-pass scheme. When players fully grasp the plan and quickly adjust in-game — as they did in 2009 and 2010 — it looks like Nebraska has set up camp on the opposing sideline.
“Let's give the offensive coordinator and quarterback a lot to think about with our multiplicity,” Pelini said. “But let's not screw our players up.”
Pelini's conceded before — and he did again Tuesday — that he leaned toward the blander side of his playbook last year. But it's hard to consistently make exotic plans for first-time opponents. In 2008, the Blackshirts gave up 366 yards per game to Virginia Tech and their eight Big 12 opponents. In 2009, those same nine opponents gained just 281 yards per game vs. NU.
The defense seemed so synchronized in its 24-3 rout of Michigan State because the Spartans' sequence of plays revealed a pattern. Pelini found it, built off of it and had his defense dialed in to it.
A “dude in Section 13” could have called some of the signals, defensive coordinator John Papuchis said. But the call wasn't as important as NU's defenders “knowing where their help is,” Pelini said, and being accordingly aggressive. Corners broke hard on short passes. Safety Daimion Stafford consistently had strong over-the-top coverage on deep passes. The defensive line consistently turned running plays back toward David and Will Compton.
How do the Huskers account for losing marquee talent like David? Els said it might take two or three players to do it at Will linebacker. But experience — that glut of 22-year-old fifth-year seniors and 21-year-old fourth-year juniors — filled Nebraska's player panel earlier in the day. Els said the staff wants seasoned NU defenders to be coordinators on the field by the time they leave.
Is that back-of-the-hand knowledge, honed in player-led cram sessions this spring, the key to Big Ten success? Will an extra year of scouting reports put Pelini and Co. ahead of league offensive coordinators? And does Martinez's second year in the same offense reap the same dividends?
The carrier's turned. The veteran crew's aboard. Now it's about winning the conflict.
Contact the writer: