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Football is a lot like life, and as Vince Lombardi once observed, it requires perseverance, self-denial, sacrifice, dedication and respect for authority.
Bo Pelini isn't exactly in Lombardi's league yet, but the former Green Bay Packer assistant and Husker head coach and his team went 5-for-5 on those essential character qualities in 2009, and that's why Nebraska led the nation in defensive scoring and came within a whisker of a Big 12 Championship and a BCS bowl game while earning its highest final ranking in eight seasons.
Take it from a Hall of Fame coach who now sits in an athletic director's chair on game day. Even though it's hard to compare teams, the Huskers were "certainly one of the best defensive teams that I've seen around here," said Tom Osborne, who goes beyond the X's and O's in describing a Nebraska defense that shut down Arizona, 33-0, in the Holiday Bowl.
Osborne was Nebraska's head coach and Charlie McBride the defensive coordinator in 1984, the only other Husker team that led the nation in scoring defense.
The '84 Huskers gave up an average of 9.5 points in a 10-2 Sugar Bowl-winning season. The 2009 team yielded an average of 10.4 points in a 10-4 Holiday Bowl-winning season.
Both teams also led the nation in pass-efficiency defense, and the '84 team led the nation in total defense while the '09 team finished 7th in that category.
Not coincidentally, both the 1984 and the 2009 Husker defensive teams were led by mobile linemen who could create havoc and control the line of scrimmage.
The '09 team recorded the Huskers' first ever shutout in 46 bowl games and scored the first shutout in 32 Holiday Bowls.
"I just think the leadership on that team and the focus they had was exceptional. Their decisions to give some things up made a big difference," Osborne said in a 15-minute video interview with HuskersNside, the premium site on Huskers.com.
Osborne pointed out that the Unity Council, resurrected by Pelini when he returned to Nebraska, made a decision last summer to give up alcohol.
"The best teams I was around made similar decisions like that," Osborne said, adding that players getting together and deciding what they're willing to give up is often the difference between being very good and being great.
"This team," Osborne said, "was willing to give up a lot. They worked hard, and it all came together."
While Pelini talks about the daily process, Osborne said it's all about focusing "not on yesterday and not on tomorrow, but on today and making sure you use it to get better."
2003 Was a Glimpse of Things to Come
Few work that daily process better than Pelini, who came to Nebraska in 2003 as the defensive coordinator for a team that had given up 335 points and lost seven games the year before his arrival. In his first time around at Nebraska, Pelini overhauled and remolded the Blackshirts into a team that led the nation in pass efficiency defense (88.7 efficiency rating), led the nation in turnover margin (+1.77) and led the nation with 32 interceptions.
Pelini's ability to get a team to persevere and sacrifice and dedicate itself to achieve previously unimaginable goals was pivotal in Osborne's decision to bring him back as head coach a day after Bo led LSU's defense to a national championship.
Osborne knew in 2008 that Pelini passed the resiliency test. He marveled at how Nebraska rebounded from a 52-17 loss at home to Missouri, then pushed nationally prominent Texas Tech to overtime the next week in Lubbock. Then, after losing 62-28 at Oklahoma, the Huskers won their last four games in 2008, including a 26-21 win over Clemson in the Gator Bowl.
Somehow, Pelini-coached teams have that rare knack to hit the "Control, Alt, Delete" button when things go wrong. Last year's failures became this year's incentives. After a 35-point loss to Missouri in Lincoln, the Huskers beat the Tigers by 15 in Columbia. And after giving up 62 to Oklahoma in Norman, Nebraska beat OU, 10-3, in Lincoln.
Sometimes, when teams lose as lopsidedly as Nebraska did in 2008, "It can cause a team to fold their tent and just become very mediocre," Osborne said. "But we didn't do that a year ago, and we didn't do it this year either. So I was really pleased with our ability to bounce back and refocus and stay the course. That's always the hallmark of a good team. You either get better or you get worse, and this team certainly got better."
Osborne knows the defense carried the Huskers this season, and he also knows that the front four were the strength of the team. Nebraska's athletic director learned long ago that any time a front four is good enough to push players back into the quarterback and reduce his vision and his throwing lanes, it's easier to dominate.
Suh, Crick, Allen and Turner Set the Tone
That's what Ndamukong Suh, Jared Crick, Pierre Allen and Barry Turner did in 2009, and that's what Rob Stuckey, Chris Spachman, Bill Weber, Scott Strasburger and Ken Graeber did in 1984.
All-America Safety Bret Clark led that '84 defense, a unit that also included the likes of Mike McCashland, Neil Harris, Dennis Watkins, Dave Burke, Mark Daum and Marc Munford. Danny Noonan, Jim Skow and Brian Washington, all of whom went on to NFL careers, were underclassmen who had an impact on that defense. Skow, in fact, might have been the Huskers' most experienced defensive lineman that season, even though he only had three career starts at that point.
Clark, McCashland, Harris, Watkins and Burke loved to hit, but that '84 secondary had nothing on a '09 secondary that included Prince Amakamura, Dejon Gomes, Larry Asante, Matt O'Hanlon, Alfonzo Dennard and Eric Hagg.
Ex-Husker I-back Jeff Kinney, the Player of the Game in the Game of the Century, loved watching the Blackshirts work their magic this season. "I was a guest coach on the sidelines for the Oklahoma game," Kinney said last week in San Diego. "I focused in on the secondary that entire game, and I've never seen a Nebraska secondary cover like those guys did that night. They sold out every play."
The '84 defense played with the same abandon and reflected what McBride always said: "If something doesn't kill you, it makes you better." The 1983 Husker defense wasn't very good, statistically, and most of the players returned on that '84 defense. They had all been through the fire, survived and became really good, even nation-leading in both scoring defense and total defense.
Who knows? Maybe the same thing will happen with Nebraska's offense in 2010. Just about everyone on the offense returns. If they stay healthy and improve at the same rate the defense did in Bo's second season, it could be interesting.
Once the Blackshirts understood the concepts and knew the defense, the game slowed down and became simpler for everyone. Here's hoping the same transformation happens offensively with experience, confidence and maturity.
They Knew What Was Coming, but Couldn't Do Anything
Osborne, of course, concentrated on the offensive side of the ball when he was coaching, and most of his former players, to this day, are proudest of playing on teams that challenged defenses head on with the kind of basic, hard-nosed, physical style of football that Pelini would like to see return to Memorial Stadium.
Such physicality has been properly restored with the Blackshirts. The idea now is to deliver an equal dose of offensive intensity so that Nebraska can push the replay button on a tried and true formula that Osborne and his staff perfected: Making Mondays through Fridays more physical and more competitive than Saturdays.
There's obvious complexity built into such simplicity, but when you see it in action on a daily basis, players consider it a sight to behold. Not only do practices simulate game-day experiences, but enthusiasm goes up, as well as morale, productivity, unity, chemistry and anything else you might think of.
"Our defensive coaches do a real good job with fundamentals and just basic football," Osborne said. "They're not trying to trick people all the time. They just line up and play you. The offense probably knows pretty much where they're going to be, but they couldn't do anything about it."
Sound familiar? The offensive swagger Nebraska found in its last game of 2009 is bound to carry over to 2010 when the Huskers will be one of the favorites to win the Big 12 Championship and rank among most preseason top 10s. They're already in ESPN's top 10 for 2010. One ESPN analyst, Robert Smith, includes Nebraska in his 2010 top 5.
Last week, while Nebraska celebrated its Holiday Bowl win at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, an athletic director patted an offensive coordinator on the shoulder, and they ended up walking off the field together.
There was a new bounce in a coach's step after he had diversified a healthier offense and given everyone a sneak preview of 2010.
Here's a question to ponder and perhaps even comment on:
What can happen if Husker opponents have to face a physical defense and a physical offense in 2010?
Tell us about your fondest memories of Nebraska football and, if inclined, what you expect next season.
"Oh I hate to say 'I told you so', but I wrote in back after the Iowa St. game and told everyone to be patient because the Iowa St. game was an anomaly and Coach Pelini had these guys focused and headed in the right direction. I truly believed it then, and I believe it even more now. WE ARE BACK!! Good things to come next year with that schedule. Thanks Bo and Tom. We're in good hands once again!"Tom Gunlicks, Sioux Falls, South Dakota
"I am a die-hard fan from NYC. I have rooted for this team since they were robbed in 1982 against Penn State. While I have been a fan for almost 28 years, I have never been to Nebraska. Still, I claim Nebraska as my school and will always cherish the fact that we put out a team of hard working, blue-collar individuals. I am so glad to see the team I have rooted for throughout the years restore the order. I took great pleasure in seeing this team's defense slug it out with teams for four quarters, daring them to score. I loved seeing the "Biggest of the Big Uglies" get his due as the premier player in college football (Someday, the Heisman will become more than a popularity contest and a true testament to what is actually done on the field). Mr. Suh is going down in my book as my favorite player of all time. He returned to school to help revive Husker tradition, and he did just that. 2009 will go down as a great year, and the best thing about it is the hope it brought for 2010. Go Big Red!!!!!!!!" Michael Kuhlie, New York City
"You asked about our most special moment of the 2009 season, and I didn't have to think for a second before settling on my personal highlight. My son Korey is in his first year of law school at Duke. He is the holder of two season tickets that were selected in the lottery when the North Stadium was expanded. During his undergraduate years, we attended almost every home game together. We also loved to travel together to road games. Now that he's far away at school, I choose friends to sit in his seat. I also traveled to meet him so we could drive to Blacksburg this year to attend the Virginia Tech game. My favorite memory came when he made a special trip home to see the Oklahoma game. Just as the players lined up for the opening kickoff, he gave me a hug and said, "Let's not forget how happy we are right now." Obviously, we were even happier at the end of the game. I hope to never forget how proud I am of being a supporter of a team that stands for such guts, sacrifice, preparation, and hard work; a team that exemplifies character in which we deeply believe; and how special it is to be a member of a group of fans that know how to display sportsmanship."Jim Christensen, Holstein, Iowa
"My greatest memory? Too many to pick just one. I recall the Alabama bowl game of 1972. Rodgers had a punt return that has never been topped in my book. I recall the first time Christian Peter was put in to play. It was against Oklahoma and things weren't going so well. He just blew up their pocket and destroyed their passing game. And perhaps my FAVORITE would be back in 1969 or '70 when Guy Ingles, Jerry Tagge and Jerry List came to my class at Bryan Elementary in Lincoln for a visit. I was in 3rd grade at the time, and the guys played some ball with us during recess. We had a ball tyring to show off for them. It's something you never forget. Go Big Red!"Richard Barnes, Phoenix, Arizona
"I'm stoked about the return of the Blackshirts. They deserve so much credit, as do Bo and Carl Pelini. I'm also proud of Shane Watson for his dedication and his humility in taking advice from an 'old coach' and his efforts to bring the offense back. I was at the Holiday Bowl hoping for a good game, and it turned out to be a GREAT game! I'm proud to be a Husker fan. Aloha!"Ron Arnold, Honolulu, Hawaii
"While a losing effort against Texas, the Blackshirts served notice that NU is not going to back down from anyone. There was true fear and frustration in the eyes of the UT players. They know they caught a lucky break. Like most Husker fans, I can't wait for next season."John Lemr, Seattle, Washington
"Pete Carroll said it best when interviewed after USC beat Boston College: "I'm glad we did not have to play Nebraska." Favorite memory: Taking my 6-year old-son to Qualcomm for his first Husker game. Driving back home, all I heard was "Go Big Red!" over and over again. Huskers, you have one more new fan! With the great job against the Wildcats, all of the negativity surrounding the program has just gone out the window. All of the people who said the Huskers aren't what they used to be sure changed their tune after that win. Hopefully, this is one big turning point, and you can get back to doing what the program has done best for so long - be a big time fear on everyone's schedule. Remember back in the '90s when people were getting sick of hearing about the Huskers and their titles? That time is on the horizon again. There are some losses that need to be avenged. Do it big time in 2010!"Joey Wallace, Henderson, Nevada
"My favorite Husker memory dates to spring 1973 just before Coach Osborne's first season. He was the speaker at my high school athletic banquet, and he joked about trying to find a receiver named Dinger to catch balls from quarterback David Humm for a Humm-Dinger combination. That was also the year Nebraska installed artificial turf, and I was lucky enough to have Coach Osborne give me a sample of the turf. Another fond memory was listening to an Aggie brag about A&M's superiority and how he quieted down when I pulled out my Nebraska press guide with a picture of the team's multiple national championship trophies." Dale Griffiths, Coppell, Texas
"Whoa! Hold on Husker fans. We're not back yet. I, too, am a diehard Husker fan but a little more cautious and realistic. The '09 defense was unbelievable and may go down as one of the best in college history, highlighted by the play of Ndamukong Suh. However, we still have a lot to prove on offense. Sorry for the pessimism, but I'm just trying to be realistic. I hope you are all correct, and I am wrong. Good Luck '10 Huskers!"Mike Heer, Atlanta, Georgia
"I have loved Nebraska football for the last 16 years. My fondest memory was when I saw the Huskers at their best in a 69-7 drubbing of Oklahoma. It was a dominating defense led by Wistrom and Peter. The year was 1997. It was Tom Osborne's 250th victory as a head coach. Over past seasons, I was never discouraged about the program. I knew, with time, Osborne would return to help the Blackshirts return, so we could get back to the toughness we all expect and show no fear to anyone. I was thoroughly overjoyed with the way they played this season. Suh was the best defensive player I have seen in the last decade. His tenacity and overpowering of opponents was awesome!!!!! Good Luck to him in the NFL. GO HUSKERS IN 2010!!!! Bring the Trophy back to Lincoln!!!!" Thomas Kvicky, West Chicago, Illinois
"I know when a defense responded like this one did. In 1994, Tommie Frazier goes down. Brook Berringer goes down, and we are working with a third-string quarterback and still end up winning a national championship because the defense got together and said we have to do this. Ask the Peter brothers, Grant Wistrom, Terry Connealy, Phil Ellis, and on and on. Yes, the 2009 Nebraska defense was one of the best and watching last night's game made me believe that Nebraska probably could have won that game. Those two mistakes Alabama made at the beginning of the game could have been their worst nightmare, and our defense would have shut them down. We could have beaten Alabama. For me though, the most important thing to remember is the '94 and '95 teams didn't lose a game. The stats for the 2009 defense may be better, but they lost some games."Rebecca Plambeck, Hastings, Nebraska
"My childhood memories are filled with Saturdays of work while listening to Lyell Bremser excitedly announcing a run or a defensive stop. I somehow recall NU as the underdog with a whole lot of heart and the will to win. The days of old are gone for sure, but I certainly feel that the old days of such pride in the character of our team and the pride of the state is back. Values of life have been instilled in the players once again, and it certainly shows on the field."Chris Duryea
"Fortunately, I have two great memories for 2009. The first was being able to take my son to his first Husker game, which was the 300th consecutive sellout. The second was being able to take my wife to her first game. Even though it was the loss to Iowa State, she got to experience what game day atmosphere in Lincoln is all about."Troy Strang, Alliance, Nebraska
"My all-time favorite memory is still Alex Henery's 57-yard field goal against Colorado. That's as big as it gets. Coach Pelini believed this was the best option at the moment. To have a kicking game as good as we have makes a coach's strategy that much easier, especially in tightly contested games."Jimmy Colalella
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