There is a reason that first year Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini had not handed out blackshirts to his first team defense.
For years, the Nebraska defense was known as "The Blackshirts" for the coveted black practice jerseys worn by the first team unit. That name carried with it a tradition of hard-nosed, often dominating play.
During the program's glory days under Tom Osborne, the Blackshirts were a proud, fierce unit that took every opponent's foray across the line of scrimmage as a personal insult.
By the final season of the Bill Callahan era, the Blackshirts were simply a name and nothing more. In 2007, the Nebraska defense was tagged for an average of 38 points per game and 455 yards per contest. Six times they allowed the opposition to score 40 points or more, and for the season they forced just 11 turnovers.
That was all going to change with the arrival of former Nebraska and LSU defensive coordinator Bo Pelini prior to the 2008 season. While no one, not even the most passionate of the always passionate Husker fan base, expected even a Big 12 title in Pelini's first year as head coach, almost everyone expected improvement.
To some extent there has been improvement. Through six games, the Huskers have allowed 384 yards per game and only 28 points per contest. Only one of their first six opponents has topped the 40-point mark.
Improvement, yes, but not something that is worthy of wearing a Blackshirt.
A few months on the job is nowhere near enough time for Pelini to erase four years of shoddy fundamentals, light-hitting practices, and as it turns out, a rather huge talent deficit. In the end, that final part of the equation is the overriding problem with the Nebraska defense. The numbers prove that out.
After allowing 300-plus yards to Western Michigan, San Jose State, and New Mexico State, the Huskers then gave up 377 total yards to a Virginia Tech team that could only manage 293 the next week against Western Kentucky.
It only got worse as Nebraska went up against the second and third-most productive offensive units in the nation in games five and six.
The Missouri Tigers hung 52 points on Nebraska in Lincoln, scoring on eight of 10 possessions on their way to 462 total yards. When you consider that one of the two non-scoring possessions Missouri had was a 12-play, eight-plus minute fourth quarter drive that ended on downs, it was a bleak performance.
Blown assignments and shoddy fundamentals aside, the talent factor was glaringly evident in that game. Missouri went 63 yards in less than one minute to open the game. Later on, they would go 80 yards in just over three minutes, 52 yards in two-and-a-half minutes, and 72 more in just over one minute.
Yes, Missouri plays fast, but that consistent pattern of scoring quickly and easily points to a huge talent gap.
How bad has it gotten for the Blackshirts? Last week, they allowed 31 points and 421 yards in regulation to Texas Tech, and the general consensus was that the defense played "okay."
Tech scored on five of nine possessions, with two of them being ended by first and second halves. They went 80 yards in just over three minutes, 70 yards in 1:19, 77 more in 3:13, and another 80 yards in just three minutes and 45 seconds.
Perhaps the talent disparity is no more evident than in the fact that in their three games against quality opponents, Nebraska has forced a grand total of ZERO turnovers as the opposing quarterbacks have combined to go 47 for 63 through the air.
All of the above is not to say that Pelini and his staff's efforts have not had any effect. By all accounts, the Huskers are playing harder, and their tackling, while not great, has improved.
The defense had a critical stop late in the Tech game, despite playing without their top two linebackers, that allowed the offense to come back and tie the game as the Huskers almost upset the number seven-ranked Red Raiders.
However, as Pelini well knows, "almost" does not get you much credit in Lincoln, Nebraska. The first time head coach has his work cut out for him as he attempts to build the program back into a national contender.
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