PETERS: Defense earns Blackshirts, but perfection is far off

By Chris Peters on October 29th, 2012

Eric Martin exited the locker room donning a famous Nebraska Blackshirts practice uniform.

They’re back – both the uniforms and the playing style that warrants them.

Nebraska held Michigan to less than 100 yards rushing and 100 yards passing on Saturday. While Denard Robinson missed more than half the game because of an injury, it was apparent on the field that the Huskers were playing dominant defense, even with Robinson in the game.

Michigan’s wide receivers couldn’t get free, and when they did, they only showed glimpses of their elite talent, and running back Fitzgerald Toussaint struggled all game, earning just 2.5 yards per carry.

The Huskers were, in a lot of ways, riding the momentum they left Evanston with last week. Husker coach Bo Pelini felt so good about his team coming out of last Saturday’s win against Northwestern that he gave out the Blackshirt uniforms at Tuesday’s practice. The players themselves, however, felt like they hadn’t earned them, so they shelved the uniforms.

After Saturday’s game, a 23-9 win against the Wolverines, Martin felt no shame walking out of the locker room in the jersey. Rightfully so – the Huskers earned them.

The Blackshirts have come to symbolize improvement more than just a dominant defense. A team only earns them when Pelini feels like the unit has shown enough improvement and has shored up the issues it needs to improve upon.

Tackling was the biggest problem early in the season. An early season loss against UCLA was a nightmare in terms of tackling. Saturday against Michigan, there were no clear missed tackles, at least none that resulted in big plays.

Then came the issue of defending against mobile quarterbacks. The Huskers were gutted by Braxton Miller at Ohio State, who rushed for 200 yards. Since then, Nebraska has faced two of the best in the Big Ten – Kain Colter and Denard Robinson – and has held both fewer than 100 yards in their time on the field.

Another flawed element of the defense was turnovers. Many people, including coaches and players, expressed disappointment with the lack of turnovers generated by the defense, who had a habit of dropping interceptions. Saturday, the Huskers hauled in three, two of which resulted in points on the ensuing drive.

The players acted maturely, delaying the acceptance of the Blackshirts a game until they felt they truly earned them. On Saturday, they came out and proved the three biggest issues had been cleared up and the unit had shown the improvement it needed to in order to earn the Blackshirts.

Now, the defense is still far from perfect. While the uniforms and the honor that come with them provide a nice morale boost to the team, the defense still has to prove it deserves them every week.

The defense is still flawed in many ways. Much of the time Saturday, the Huskers couldn’t generate a pass rush, especially from their front four defensive linemen. Michigan’s offensive line manhandled the Huskers, and if the defense wants to step up to an elite level, it can’t allow opposing quarterbacks more than five seconds in the pocket like it did against the Wolverines.

In addition to the pass rush, penalties have plagued this team. Helmet-to-helmet hits and pass interference flags seem to come out on a game-to-game basis for this squad. Unforced errors can be crushing to a team when everything else is going right.

The Blackshirts have made good progress, and they’ve definitely shown they are mature and developed enough to don the jerseys, but the process is far from complete. All it takes is one bad game and it’s back to square one.

Chris Peters is a senior journalism/advertising & public relations major. Reach him at sports@dailynebraskan.com

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