I happened across a VHS copy of the opening game of the 2003 season, which was also Bo Pelini’s debut as defensive coordinator at Nebraska. This game was interesting in a lot of ways and for a lot of reasons.
First is the cast of characters. Prior to the game there was a major pilgrimage of former players back for the opener. Leading the way in a parade of former players were Tom Osborne and Steve Pederson. Don't expect to see that pair leading a parade together any time soon. Coaching the Cowboys was current LSU head coach Les Miles and his offensive coordinator was current OSU coach Mike “I’m a Man, I’m Forty” Gundy.
The Huskers won the game by a 17-7 margin, with 7 points coming directly from the defense on a Barrett Ruud fumble return and the other Husker touchdown was set up by a fumble forced by the Blackshirts.
What was especially remarkable about Pelini’s defense was how well he timed his alignments to what the offense would do. Running back Tatum Bell was the main offensive threat for the Cowboys and so Pelini would frequently put eight men in the box to stop the run. The Cowboys ran play action passes a number of times and yet not once did Pelini guess wrong with his front. That is, every time there was an eight man front (and I counted about a dozen of them throughout the game) the Cowboys ran. Not once had Pelini stacked against the run and been surprised by a pass. Likewise, his blitzes were never mistimed against draw plays. Pelini seemed to know when the Cowboys were going to pass, even when the down and distance didn’t scream pass.
We also saw Pelini adjust in the game. It was clear early on that Pat Ricketts couldn’t handle Rashaun Woods, so Pelini stopped leaving Ricketts matched up with Woods (or at least he wasn’t matched up alone).
Pelini only blitzed about a half dozen times (and he showed blitz a few times and backed off). Two of the five Cowboy turnovers came on blitzes. But the Huskers did a good job of getting pressure with their front four. That’s worth pointing out for those expecting Pelini to be a miracle worker. It still comes down to your defensive line. If your defense can’t get pressure without blitzing, you’re going to give up some big pass plays. While the Huskers have some good options for this season, how well they reload on the defensive line will dictate how good they are in 2009 and beyond.