Monday night, I caught a little bit of KOZN (1620 AM in Omaha) Radio's "Husker Radio Hour with Joel Makovicka and Matt Hoskinson and the subject was defense. We all know defense was the Achilles heel for Nebraska in 2012. A school record amount of yards against UCLA. Ohio State rang up 63 on the Blackshirts. Wisconsin hit 70.
It was downright Cosgrovian at times in 2012. Bo Pelini's reputation as a defensive guru took a beating. Some people even doubt Pelini can turn it around, especially with only five returning Blackshirt starters.
The discussion on Monday was not so much on the ten games that Nebraska won, but rather the games that Nebraska lost. And it wasn't so much that Nebraska lost, but how Nebraska lost. To hear two former Huskers discuss it, it would be one thing to lose games where it's a hard fought battle that either team could have won, if the breaks fell the right way. Maybe a game like the Capitol One Bowl against Georgia, where Nebraska led in the third quarter.
It's another thing to get boat-raced. Especially by a team like Wisconsin. On national television, no less, on Championship Saturday. That was embarrassing. Period.
That was bad. Horrifically bad. So bad that we can't have that happen again.
But with seven new starters, including three new linebackers who've hardly played, isn't it possible that it could happen again?
This isn't a discussion about how Nebraska will be better (or worse) on defense in 2013. That's another discussion for another day. Instead, what would would give fans a better sense that things are, in fact, getting better on defense?
Keep in mind that Ohio State and Wisconsin fall off the schedule this season. Southern Miss likely will be better this season. UCLA, with Brett Hundley having a full year's experience as a starting quarterback, should be better as well. Michigan likely will have better quarterback play with Devin Gardner than what we saw in Lincoln last year. Michigan State's quarterback situation certainly couldn't be worse.
What would qualify as better defense for 2013? Considering the inexperience of many of the players who will be expected to play key roles, I dare say that mistakes will be made. We've been told that the young players are more athletic, though perhaps undersized. That could lead to a bad loss or two.
Is it simply not allowing 70 points again? Not allowing 60? Is it margin of defeat, where Nebraska can't allow themselves to lose a game by 20 or more points? Is it yardage, and not allowing opponents to march up and down the field? Is it forcing turnovers, like we saw a Pelini defense accomplish ten years ago in 2003?
Or is it more nuanced? Do we accept some poorer performances earlier in the season if freshmen are playing significant roles? Are we looking for simpler things? Good fundamentals in tackling. Maintaining some level of containment up front? Getting some occasional pressure on the quarterback without a blitz?
After last season, expecting a national championship caliber defense in 2013 is going to be quite a reach. But Pelini has turned around defenses before. He took one of the worst defenses in the country in 2007 and created one of the best by 2009. Unfortunately, the defense significantly regressed in 2011 and 2012, and he's not cleaning up somebody else's mess, like it was in 2003 and 2008.
This is his mess. So what would qualify as "better" for the Nebraska defense in 2013?