If Nebraska has any hopes of stunning Texas Saturday night in the Big 12 championship game, the Cornhuskers’ defense will be the major key.
The Cornhuskers have developed into one of the nation’s stingiest defenses after allowing only one opponent to score more than 21 points against them so far this season. But they will have to play one of their best games of the season to boost them to their first Big 12 title since 1999.
“You hope when you have a challenge that is so great that it brings out the best in your team,” Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. “I think our kids have an edge to them that should help them out. They have things to prove and this gives you the next opportunity. It’s a tremendous challenge and one that we look forward to.”
The Longhorn offense is third in the country in scoring (43.0 points) and 11th in total offense (451.6 yards). Texas is one of the most balanced offenses in the country after running the ball 447 times and passing it 462 times this season.
“They do everything well,” Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh said. “They have balance and great receivers. I don’t see a problem in their offense. They have a mobile quarterback who can hurt you with his arm and his feet. It will be a big challenge that we’ll be up for.”
Nebraska is third in the country in scoring defense (11.1 points) and 11th in total defense (291.4 yards). The Cornhuskers rank among the top 25 teams nationally in six major defensive statistical categories -- rush defense, pass efficiency defense, scoring defense, total defense, sacks and pass defense.
Their star-studded defensive cast is headed by their strength inside with Suh and Jared Crick, who are the best pair of defensive tackles in the Big 12. Suh undoubtedly is the best defensive player in the conference and maybe in the nation. Crick is a solid producer who set a school single-game record for sacks earlier this season with five against Baylor.
The secondary also is dotted with playmakers, including All-Big 12 first-team selections Larry Asante at safety and cornerback Prince Amukamara.
The Nebraska talent has caught the attention of Texas quarterback Colt McCoy, who says it could be the toughest defense he has faced this season.
“They're really physical,” McCoy said. “They're really well coached. You see that on the film. They're not going to make mistakes. They're just really good at what they do. It's going to be a huge challenge for us.”
The team that has been the most successful against the Longhorns this season was Oklahoma, which brought a variety of new blitz packages against McCoy. It caused him to fumble and throw an interception in his worst game of the season.
Pelini was a former member of the Oklahoma staff and has several close friends still there, including defensive coordinator Brent Venables and coach Bob Stoops. It wouldn’t be a surprise if Pelini had contacted the Oklahoma coaches to find out what they thought was successful against McCoy.
Former Nebraska defensive coordinator Kevin Cosgrove elected to utilize a similar strategy against McCoy and Texas in 2007. While they blitzed on virtually every down, the gambling strategy paid off for a 17-9 Nebraska lead after three quarters.
The Longhorns adjusted in the fourth quarter with a heavy use of a zone-read play with Jamaal Charles, who rushed for 216 of his 290 yards in the fourth quarter alone. The result was a wild 28-25 comeback victory for the Longhorns.
McCoy, then a sophomore, struggled in that game by completing only 12 of 28 passes for 181 yards.
But that Texas offense and McCoy’s sputtering performance is a marked contrast from this season, when he’s developed into the conference’s best offensive player and a likely finalist for the Heisman Trophy.
“He can do it all,” Asante said. “He can look you off, come back the other way. He can scramble. He's a better runner now. ... He's a better passer, more accurate. He's just an overall good quarterback.”
In order to combat McCoy, Nebraska defensive coordinator Carl Pelini has said that his team can’t afford to rush four down linemen and send seven players back in pass coverages.
One key might be gleaned from a defensive alignment that was used regularly against Colorado. The Cornhuskers used a five-man front with six defensive backs. It was the defense that was employed when safety Matt O’Hanlon produced a 20-yard interception return for a touchdown.
“I believe we have to play mistake free defense,” Asante said. “We have to put it together and play the best football we’ve played all year to beat these guys. It’s as simple as that.”