USC backs expose Blackshirts' shortcomings

Nebraska defensive back Andre Jones lunges to make a tackle during Saturday's 49-31 loss to USC. The Huskers allowed the Trojans to rush for 313 yards.

It's not just an isolated incident anymore. Nebraska's rushing defense is a problem.

No one seemed to have any answers following a 49-31 blowout loss to Southern California on Saturday. Defensive coordinator Kevin Cosgrove, not prone to making assessments immediately following a game, continually defaulted to, "I need to see the tape."

In the meantime, here is a more telling statistic: after three games, Nebraska is 100th nationally in rushing defense. Only one program ranked lower than the Cornhuskers in that statistical category has a winning record, and it will take the field against Nebraska this weekend.

With Ball State on tap and the Big 12 Conference season just around the corner, the Huskers have a major weakness exposed. The larger issue may not be the problem itself, but how to fix it.

"Basically, fundamentals," Callahan said during Monday's Big 12 coaches' teleconference. "That's the one area that we addressed, fundamentals. Just total fundamentals, the function of defensive football, just the fundamental position of defensive football."

The Trojans' running game was aided by the Blackshirts, who from the very start displayed sloppy pursuit and missed tackles. Instead of flying to the ball, defenders planted their feet in the turf, then had to play catchup as a speedy stable of USC backs blew past NU's front lines.

Since the beginning of spring practice, inexperience and youth on the defensive line figured to be the weakest link of Nebraska's defense. After resounding punishments the last two weeks, it appears the defensive line still has work to do. The pressure is higher than ever now, with opponents sure to target Nebraska's Achilles' heel.

USC's rushing was so effective against Nebraska that the Trojans barely had to use their primary offensive weapon, quarterback and Heisman hopeful John David Booty.

Booty was relegated mostly to short passes throughout the game, finishing with just 144 yards and a long pass of 21 yards. His minimal workload denied the Huskers' secondary the opportunity to measure itself against an exceptional quarterback and passing game.

"It wasn't really tested," Cosgrove said. "We didn't have the opportunity to test it because of their ability to run the football."

The Huskers will get a break from top-tier offensive lines against Ball State this weekend. Despite averaging 185 rushing yards after three games, the Cardinals' ground attack should offer relief to the Blackshirts and, more importantly, the chance to regroup and refocus.

As a whole, the defense is allowing far more yards than any Husker player or coach would like - an average of more than five yards per play and 339 yards per game. But more than 200 of those yards are coming on the ground, and the word is out that if a team can run the ball, it has a shot at beating Nebraska.

"You can't go in the tank after a game like this," NU senior linebacker Bo Ruud said. "You've got to have the mindset of improve off this and get better and try to win out or you go in the tank and call it a year. But I know our team; we're not going to do that. We're not going to go in the tank."

jonathancrowl@dailynebraskan.com