Nebraska defense finally earns its stripes

LINCOLN, Neb. -- In the locker room after a 24-3 win over Michigan State, Nebraska defensive coordinator Carl Pelini told his players that he had a present for them. Then he held up a black shirt.

As fashion goes, it isn't much to look at. Just a plain, mesh black shirt that big men sweat through during practice. But the shirts are a proud tradition for the Cornhuskers' defense, and they're only handed out when the players earn them through performance.

For about as long in a season as anyone can remember, Nebraska had gone shirtless in 2011. The defense looked nothing like the one that has annually been one of the nation's best. On Saturday, the Huskers finally found their form, holding Michigan State to a season-low 187 yards in a dominant effort.

"We turned the corner," defensive end Josh Williams said. "Now we can actually say we're Blackshirts."

And Nebraska can say that it's back in the hunt for a Legends Division title. By ruining Michigan State's magical October run, Big Red moved into a first-place tie in the division, along with the Spartans and Michigan. The Big Ten may not have any national title contenders, but the league should boast a wild November race toward Indianapolis.

The Huskers still have to go to Penn State and Michigan, but now they control their own destiny. If they play defense like they did Saturday, they may just put a chokehold on the division.

"I think they saw today what we're capable of doing when we're right," coach Bo Pelini said.

Michigan State looked lost in its first conference trip to Lincoln, confused by a Huskers defensive scheme that is both simple and complex at the same time. They play both their safeties deep to help in the passing game, leaving it to the linebackers to stop the run and the front four to get pressure. Carl Pelini said he called the same defensive play for almost the entire game.

Why change when it's working so well? Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins couldn't find openings in the zone and continually threw into double coverage. Nebraska made sure to give safety help all day on star receiver B.J. Cunningham, who finished without a catch for the first time since 2008. At the end of the third quarter, Cousins had just 35 passing yards -- or nine fewer than he had on last week's Hail Mary to beat Wisconsin. And while the Cover 2 look should in theory leave a defense open to the running game, the Spartans managed only 101 rushing yards, averaging a paltry 3.4 yards per carry.

Afterward, the only real question was: Where had this defense been all season?

Pelini said he sensed a big day coming because the players were "locked in" all week with their preparation.

"It's easy to defend a team when you know what they're doing before they even know," Nebraska safety Austin Cassidy said. "We knew exactly what was going to happen on every play."

That kind of knowledge had been missing earlier this season, as the Huskers' defense surrendered 38 points to Washington, 48 to Wisconsin and 27 to Ohio State. Carl Pelini blamed some of the bad defense partly on a lack of cohesion in the secondary, which is so key to his scheme. Star cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, who shut down Cunningham on Saturday, missed time with a pulled leg muscle he suffered in training camp and is just now rounding into form. Safety Daimion Stafford, who came over from junior college this summer, needed to grow. He broke up three passes and nearly had a pick-six Saturday.

"Our guys are more knowledgeable now, so they're being faster and more aggressive and not second-guessing themselves," Carl Pelini said.

The improvement began during the bye week following an Oct. 8 victory over Ohio State. That's when the Pelini brothers got back to basics with their defense, re-emphasizing fundamentals and basic concepts.

"Physically and mentally we were able to regroup," Cassidy said. "We were able to step back as a unit, as defensive backs, and focus on ourselves. That helped people get a better grasp on what we're trying to do."

Michigan State looked like it could use some time off. After three straight emotional wins against Ohio State, Michigan and Wisconsin, the Spartans were uncharacteristically sloppy on special teams, hurt themselves defensively with drive-extending penalties and appeared to be worn down in the fourth quarter.

They refused to use the October grind as an excuse for the loss, however. In reality, a 3-1 record through that stretch is probably as good as the team could have hoped for coming into this season. Michigan State has a much easier schedule in the final month than either Nebraska or Michigan and can get to Indy by winning out if the Huskers drop a game.

"We had a great month," Cousins said. "It didn't end the way we wanted it to, but it's more important how we respond than what we did in October. People remember how you finish, and that's why November is so important."

No one will want to play the Huskers in November if their defense can keep up this resurgence. Michigan State came into Saturday's game with the heavily-hyped defense, one that ranked second nationally in yards allowed per game. But now that the Blackshirts are back, there might be a new big, bad bully in the Big Ten.

"We're pretty damn proud of our defense around here," Carl Pelini said. "Everybody you listened to this week said [Michigan State is] a better defense. I challenged our guys and said, 'Let's go out and show them we are a better defense.' Who knows who's better or not, but today our defense was better."