Remember 2008? The way Bo Pelini finished his first season at Nebraska had Cornhusker fans at least as optimistic as Michigan fans must feel about Brady Hoke and the Wolverines right now.
The Huskers won six of their last seven games to finish 9-4 in Pelini’s first year as head coach, capped by a 26-21 win over Clemson in the Gator Bowl. It looked even better coming off a depressing 5-7 season under Bill Callahan in 2007.
Pelini did it with a lack of speed and athleticism on defense, especially the secondary. He gambled – and won – that he could redshirt most of his first recruiting class. Will there be a payoff four years later?
With Joe Ganz at quarterback distributing the ball to receivers Nate Swift, Mike McNeill and Todd Peterson, plus Roy Helu Jr. and Marlon Lucky providing sufficient punch in the running game, the 2008 Huskers had plenty of offense. But the defense suffered, especially early in the season.
Yes, Ndamukong Suh was a junior, and he had a lot of help on the d-line, but the back seven was shaky. The linebacking corps was mediocre at best (Phillip Dillard had his renaissance the following year – in 2009) and the secondary was leaky – Prince Amukamara and Alfonzo Dennard weren’t far enough along to make a difference yet.
Players who possibly could have given Nebraska a boost in 2008 – guys like Baker Steinkuhler, Will Compton, Sean Fisher and P.J. Smith – ended up redshirting. So did Alonzo Whaley and Courtney Osborne, who were selected co-MVPs of the scout team that fall.
It stands as one of Pelini’s best achievements in his first four years at Nebraska, wringing nine wins out of that 2008 team that allowed 28 points per game. That payoff needs to come in a big way this fall on a defense that will be short on star power but long on depth. The leadership should be there, but will anyone be able to make an explosive play?
Turnover margin has been a big problem for the Big Red. The Blackshirts were unable to get two takeaways per game in either 2010 or 2011. All eyes will be on quarterback Taylor Martinez this fall, and if the defense can’t get him a short field once in awhile, the pressure on Martinez and the Nebraska passing game will ratchet up exponentially. Martinez has been working on his throwing mechanics, but has not yet proven he’s a good enough passer to hit targets under duress (more on Martinez in another column).
Giving T-Mart a short field to work with once or twice a game would go a long way toward a Big Ten title. And even a few tackles for loss (NU rated 112th among all major college teams last fall) would be welcome. At the very least, it would help the Huskers get off the field on third down more often than in 2011, when they rated 64th in that category.
Meanwhile, Michigan came in at No. 68 in tackles for loss and No. 36 in third down defense. No wonder it felt like Hoke had Michigan playing more consistently in year one of his tenure than Pelini did Nebraska in year four of his.
Formerly the sports editor at the North Platte Bulletin and a sportswriter/columnist for the North Platte Telegraph, Tad Stryker is a longtime Nebraska sports writer, having covered University of Nebraska and high school sports for more than 25 years. He started writing for this website in 2008. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org