Planning for success: Nebraska

LINCOLN, Neb. -- The first two questions posed to Nebraska cornerback Ciante Evans during his turn this week at the Huskers’ news conference focused on the Michigan State defense.

Evans shrugged them off. He is concerned, you see, only with the Spartans’ offense.

But it’s an unavoidable topic as No. 16 Michigan State prepares to visit Lincoln on Saturday -- the nation’s No. 1-ranked defense is coming to Memorial Stadium. Listening to the buzz around this Legends Division showdown, you’d wonder if MSU fields an offensive unit.

Alas, it does. And while so much of the hype involves Pat Narduzzi’s swarming group, Evans and the Nebraska defense have hatched plans of their own. The Blackshirts, much improved over the past two weeks, figure if they play to their capabilities, Nebraska can match the vaunted Spartan D.

The Huskers have come of age as a defensive unit over the past two weeks against Northwestern and Michigan, allowing 251 yards per game. In its first seven games, opponents gouged Nebraska for 410 per game.

“The biggest thing is, we’re playing as 11 guys,” defensive coordinator John Papuchis said, “and we’re playing well together. We haven’t made very many mistakes. We’re communicating better. And when we’re all on the same page, we’re pretty good.

“I said it a long time ago, when we were struggling a little bit on defense, it wasn’t wholesale. It was usually one guy. That guy was different from play to play. But if we could ever find a way to clean that up, we’d be pretty good.”

At each level of its defense, improvement is evident. Defensive ends Randy Gregory and Avery Moss have developed into playmakers for Nebraska. Linebackers Michael Rose and Zaire Anderson are growing up fast.

In the secondary, Evans and fellow corner Stanley Jean-Baptiste remain consistent. Safety Corey Cooper has taken a step forward, especially in defending the run.

”The level of execution is increasing but really not to the level that I’m comfortable with yet,” Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. “Our guys are getting better. They are playing harder, and they are gaining confidence.

“I think you can see, with the type of athletes that we have, that if we can play fast, we can be pretty good.”

More than the stats, Papuchis pointed to late-game situations against Northwestern and Michigan in which the Nebraska defense faced short fields after turnovers.

Both times, with the score tied, the Huskers forced field goals. Both times, the Nebraska offense came back to score winning touchdowns.

On Saturday, Papuchis said, the Huskers need to do more.

“We’re going to need some takeaways in this game,” he said.

Do it, and maybe then, they’ll start talking about the Nebraska defense.