How Do Bo’s Teams Respond to Bad Defensive Outings?
With an effective Arkansas State offense coming to Lincoln this week, there's some concern about how well the Huskers will perform defensively against the Red Wolves. What does history tell us about how the Huskers will respond?
The answer depends a great deal on how you define the question. Is a bad outing about points? Is it about yards? If the Huskers win, can it be called a bad defensive outing? Should anything that happened early in his first year back at Nebraska count? You the reader can decide after we go through it.
Nebraska, part one
If you want to go all the way back to 2003, when Pelini was just a coordinator at NU he followed up a loss to Missouri where dual-threat quarterback Brad Smith exploded with a dominant performance in Lincoln over Texas A&M that Nebraska won 48-12. A&M 's quarterback it should be noted was dual-threat Reggie McNeal. Nebraska was pounded by a combination of Vince Young and Cedric Benson in Austin that year only to pitch a shutout the next week of Iowa State who featured something of a dual-threat quarterback in Austin Flynn. Probably the worst defensive outing of the year came in a home loss to Kansas State. Ell Roberson and Darren Sproles did a lot of damage with their legs. The next game saw NU beat Colorado 31-22.
Pelini spent 2004 in Oklahoma, but the only loss was a bad one in the national championship game to USC. There were a couple of 35 point days in consecutive road games at Oklahoma State and at Texas A&M, but both were victories before a near shutout of Nebraska.
At LSU in 2005, the Tigers won an opener 35-31 on the road at Arizona State and then dropped a home game in overtime to Tennessee 30-27. The road game that followed at Mississippi State saw the Bulldogs score just 7 points. LSU gave up 34 points in a loss to Georgia in the SEC championship game, led by dual-threat quarterback D.J. Shockley. LSU followed that up with a near-shutout against Miami and their pro-style offense. I don't think you could say that LSU had a bad defensive performance in 2006. The high mark was just 26 points, in a game LSU won at #5 Arkansas. In the national championship season, LSU lost two triple-overtime games. So the scores were high, but much of the scoring took place in the fifth, sixth, and seventh periods of play. Outside of those games, LSU never yielded more than 24 points.
Nebraska, part two
This brings us to Pelini's return to Nebraska. The Huskers lost to Virginia Tech 35-30, but that included a safety, a touchdown after an interception set the Hokies up at the five yard line and a short field touchdown that required just 33 yards for for V-Tech to score. Tech was held to a reasonable 377 yards. It may not be fair to call that a bad outing. The Missouri game that followed was a disaster. Pelini blamed himself and said he got way too complicated and tried to force way too much on his kids. That was followed by a tough overtime loss at Texas Tech 37-31. Considering that was the best Red Raider team anyone can remember and that Tech used a bold fourth-down gamble to pull it out, that seems forgivable, especially in Year 1 back at Nebraska. The following week was a get-well game at Iowa State led by Austin Arnaud, that the Huskers won 35-7. Despite a dual-threat quarterback, ISU couldn't muster even 220 total yards. Things got way out of hand quickly at Norman that year, when OU seemed to be scoring 60 or more on everybody. Nebraska won every game that followed, but that included yielding 35 points to Kansas the following week, 28 to Kansas State in Manhattan, and 31 to Colorado before an outstanding defensive outing against Clemson in the Gator Bowl.
The 2009 season didn't really bring any bad defensive outings, just a number of bad offensive ones. The only really bad outing of 2010 was a 51-41 victory at #17 Oklahoma State. That was followed by a 31-17 victory over #7 Missouri at home. In 2011, the Huskers gave up 38 points to Washington led by the mobile Keith Price. Most of the Huskies points came after the game was pretty much in hand. NU followed that up by holding Wyoming to 14 points on the road. NU gave up 48 points at Wisconsin, they seemed to be on pace for a similar outing hosting Ohio State before Lavonte David turned the game with a defensive play and the Huskers went on to a 34-27 victory. The 28-25 home loss to Northwestern could be called a bad defensive effort, but turnovers and penalties certainly played a part. The Penn State game that followed saw the Nittany Lions score just 14 points. Michigan lit up NU for 45 points before the Huskers surrendered just one fairly meaningless late touchdown to Iowa in Lincoln. In terms of yards, the defense was fine against South Carolina. The Huskers botched an extra point that led to two points for the Gamecocks and a successful Hail Mary before halftime made this game seem more lopsided that it was. The opener this year obviously featured different personal but was a generally good defensive effort.
The Road Ahead
So what comes next? Whether it's regression to the mean or Bo's history in particular, his teams have tended to do better after bad defensive outings. So that would tell us that Arkansas State will likely score something less than 36 points. Thankfully, there have been times when that's even been true against dual-threat quarterbacks, which the Huskers will face this week. It seems unfair to place too much emphasis on yards when Pelini himself doesn't. His strategy is typically to try to take away big plays, even when that tends to allow opponents to mount drives. It all falls apart in cases where his team fails to stop the big plays. That puts NU in the position of giving up both the big play and sustained drives. That's what happened against the Bruins and could surely happen again this year.
Reviewing his body or work, you also are reminded that he's not bragging when he says he knows what he's doing defensively. Most years, his defenses have had some bad days. Generally speaking, they are few and far between.