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."
COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES Pat Ricketts (28) and the Blackshirts held Penn State to 203yards of offense.