Nebraska’s defense looking for redemption against Georgia

ORLANDO, Fla. — The black eye Wisconsin left on Nebraska’s ‘Blackshirts’ defense after its 70-31 knockout in the Big Ten championship game still remains fresh as the Cornhuskers get ready to take on Georgia in the Capital One Bowl.

Nati Hamik/AP
Wisconsin’s Montee Ball, bottom, is buried under Nebraska’s Will Compton, top, Alonzo Whaley (45) and Josh Mitchell (5) in the Cornhuskers’ comeback win on Sept. 29. However, Nebraska got buried by the Badgers in the Big Ten championship game 70-31.

“You can never explain a game like that,” defensive tackle Chase Rome said. “It’s something you don’t want to happen, but unfortunately it did. … Everyone feels we have something to prove, which honestly sometimes can be a good thing. We’ve got a little bit of a chip on our shoulder. I like to see us pissed off and with a little bit of an edge and working harder than we normally work.”

The Cornhuskers will carry that edge into Tuesday’s game. Whether that will produce a bounce-back showing from a defense that ranked 95th in the nation against the run remains to be seen.

“It took a few days for everybody involved to get past it on any level,” defensive coordinator John Papuchis said. “It was very disappointing. I’d use the word embarrassing in the way especially we played on defense. Everybody on our team and on our staff is competitors. To go out there and be that close to achieving your goal, which we had set out last January to win the Big Ten and go on a six-game winning streak, to get there and play so poorly in the championship game was obviously disappointing.”

Defensive end Jason Ankrah said the Cornhuskers have put the whopping 539 rushing yards that Wisconsin piled up behind them, but still remember the night in Indianapolis as a lesson of what can happen.

“It was all fundamentals and basics that kind of just fell out of our control,” Ankrah said. “That’s the main thing we’ve been working on for the past couple of weeks.”

Papuchis has reminded his players of the good things they did this season to get to the championship game and even the positives in that 39-point blowout.

“I don’t want them to lose sight of the other 10 games that they won and played well, especially on the defensive side” he said. “In our 10 wins, we played extremely well. In our three losses, we played as bad as we could play. Somehow we’ve got to make sure our guys understand that there is some positive to be taken from a 10-win season. There were a lot of positive things that happened in the back half of the year on the defensive side of the ball. Not to lose sight of that because we played poorly in the last game.”

“That game doesn’t define who we are as a defense and as a football team,” linebacker Will Compton said. “We’ve done a great job these past few weeks really in preparing and getting the energy back.”

A month between games can do wonders.

“You go back and look at the last game that we played, for whatever reason we did look a little leg weary,” Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. “It looked like the second half of the season took a little bit of toll on us.”

Pelini and Papuchis came to Nebraska from LSU, where Pelini was defensive coordinator under Les Miles from 2005-07 and Papuchis was a graduate assistant. Pelini promoted his defensive line coach to coordinator after Bo’s brother Carl left to become head coach at Florida Atlantic.

Pelini remains “very hands on” with the defense, said the 34-year old Papuchis.

“What got him to being a head coach was he was such a good defensive mind,” Papuchis said. “Why would you give that up when you become a head coach? …The day to day operation I run–most of what takes place Sunday through Friday, but he’s extremely involved in the game plan and game day. Truthfully, I wouldn’t want it any other way.”

Like Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, Papuchis is a graduate of Virginia Tech, but the Gaithersburg, Md., native didn’t play football there. He transferred to the school from Catholic University in Washington.

He coaches a unit with a ‘Blackshirts’ tradition that dates back to 1964 when coach Bob Devaney sent out an assistant coach to fetch jerseys for his first string defense to wear. He brought back a sleeveless pullover that went on top of practice jerseys.

“We don’t start off the year wearing them,” Compton said. “We have to earn them throughout the course of the year. When the coaches think we’re ready then they hand them out to a select few guys.”

Nebraska has ranked in the top 10 in total defense 22 times since then, including in 2009 when the Cornhuskers led the nation in scoring defense in Pelini’s second season.

Nebraska has already come back from a lopsided defeat already this season.

It won those six straight games after getting drubbed at Ohio State 63-38 on Oct. 6.

That same night Georgia lost to South Carolina 35-7.

“We got beat down pretty good after that one,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said.

Richt reminded his team that it to was on the wrong end of a lopsided score and told them that Nebraska players would hear about their title game showing “the whole time” in the lead up to this game, but also told them that the Cornhuskers beat Wisconsin earlier in the season.

Nebraska and its defense get another chance against Georgia.

“Hopefully if you’re a competitor, it should be motivation for you,” Pelini said.

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