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Kelly King
September 22, 2003
D as in DominantInvigorated by a new coordinator, Nebraska's defense showed its old form in shutting down Penn State
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September 22, 2003

College Football

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D as in Dominant
Invigorated by a new coordinator, Nebraska's defense showed its old form in shutting down Penn State

When did Nebraska players get an inkling that new defensive coordinator Bo Pelini was a little intense? Perhaps it was when he introduced himself to the Cornhuskers last January and delivered a speech so rousing "that it made the hair on your arms stand up," says junior linebacker Barrett Ruud. Or when the 185-pound Pelini intervened in a fistfight that broke out between Ruud and 365-pound guard Jemayel Phillips during a spring practice and came away with a bloody nose. Or when, as players piled on top of one another after a spirited preseason practice, Pelini, 35, threw his body into the middle of the scrum. "It was a surprise to see a coach jumping up and down and getting loud in the pile," says senior linebacker Demorrio Williams. "He's so fired up all the time."

The attitude is catching on with players. After a 7-7 season during which Nebraska's vaunted Blackshirts surrendered 361.9 yards per game, the Cornhuskers are allowing an average of just 208 yards this season, fewest in the nation. In an 18-10 win over Penn State last Saturday that improved Nebraska to 3-0, the Huskers' defense showed how far it has come since a punchless performance in a 40-7 loss to the Nittany Lions last September.

Pelini, who earned a reputation for getting the best from his players as linebackers coach for the New England Patriots (1997 to '99) and the Green Bay Packers (2000 to '02), is proving to be the biggest score from Frank Solich's staff overhaul last winter. Pelini didn't waste time studying previous Huskers playbooks or entertaining players' notions about what went wrong under predecessor Craig Bohl. He reviewed video of Nebraska's games last season, but instead of taking notes on what schemes weren't working, he jotted down the names of the players who hustled hardest "I knew I wanted to do very different things X's-and-O's-wise, so I didn't want a tainted view," says Pelini, who runs a zone-based defense in which speed is the chief weapon.

Problems persist with the offense—field goals have accounted for 27 of the team's 66 points—but the Blackshirts are confident they can carry the 15th-ranked Cornhuskers, back into the top 10. "Now that Coach Pelini is getting production from us, he's saying that he wants a whole lot more of it," says sophomore defensive tackle Le Kevin Smith. "The great thing is, so do we."

Surprising Washington State
New Faces, Similar Results

Washington State coach Bill Doba really couldn't blame the writers who cover the Pac-10 for picking his team to finish seventh in the conference. He knew the prognosticators were focusing on whom the Cougars had lost from last year's 10-3 team, which went to the Rose Bowl: coach Mike Price, who left for Alabama; quarterback Jason Gesser, their alltime leading passer; and cornerback Marcus Trufant, a first-round draft pick of the Seattle Seahawks.

But Doba was focused more on what Washington State had, which is why he had a feeling his team would be better than almost anyone outside Pullman expected. It's becoming clear that he was right. After nearly knocking off Notre Dame on Aug. 30, the Cougars routed Colorado 47-26 in Boulder last Saturday. "I felt we had some big-play people on offense, and I thought we would be able to get after the quarterback pretty well," Doba says.

Senior quarterback Matt Kegel, who threw for 310 yards against the Buffaloes, is proving to be a capable replacement for Gesser, and receiver Sammy Moore is one of Washington State's big-play makers. The Cougars don't have as many individual stars on defense, but coordinator Robb Akey has the team blitzing more.

Washington State put a scare into Notre Dame, but the Cougars squandered a 19-0 lead and lost 29-26 in overtime. With that defeat in mind, Doba kept his halftime message simple on Saturday. "We just talked about how we needed to finish," says Doba. "I really don't know how good Notre Dame is or how good we are yet, but I think we might be pretty good."
—Phil Taylor

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