SEATTLE — Steve Sarkisian speaks of the Nebraska defense as if it belongs in the Smithsonian.
The University of Washington’s head football coach marvels at the way the Cornhuskers can flawlessly use seven defensive backs on the field together. He gushes about the defensive linemen’s ability to play two-gap defense like professionals. Sarkisian calls coach Bo Pelini’s squad “a top-five well-coached team in America.”
“Defensively,” Sarkisian added during his Monday press conference, “this is as sound a defense as I have seen in 10 years — playing against really good teams.”
And if you think that’s all just coach-speak, you haven’t seen the Nebraska defense play football.
Sarkisian is hardly alone in his praise of the Cornhuskers’ D. Nebraska, which ranked second in the country in points allowed last year and is 24th two games into the 2010 season, has been converting the masses since Pelini arrived three years ago. The 42-year-old former defensive coordinator in the National Football League and at several big-time college programs returned to one of his former stops in 2008 and has the program back among the country’s elite.
And a big reason is the Big Red defense.
“It’s a great challenge,” UW receiver Devin Aguilar said. “It’s actually exciting. We’re getting ready to play the best. We get to show what we have.”
Coming off an offensive explosion that saw them score 27 points in a matter of less than 24 minutes against Syracuse last Saturday, the Huskies are trying to figure out a way to move the ball against a defense that had seven sacks and five interceptions in its last outing — a 38-17 win over Idaho that included two interception-returns for touchdowns.
“They’re very physical,” UW offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier said, continuing the never-ending stream of praise from the Huskies’ coaching staff. “They’ve got a great pressure package. They’ve got great coaches. They do an outstanding job.”
The key to the system starts up front, where the defensive linemen play a two-gap system that’s common among NFL teams but somewhat rare at the college level. Even after losing All-America defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh to the NFL draft, the Cornhuskers still have one of the more formidable D-lines in the country. Six-foot-6 interior lineman Jared Crick leads the unit, while cornerback Prince Amukamera owns the biggest name on the Nebraska secondary.
“They ask their D-linemen to do a lot,” UW’s Aguilar said. “That’s why they can play so many defensive backs.”
Sarkisian is particularly impressed with the way the Cornhuskers can use multiple defensive backs yet still get solid containment in the run game.
“You’d like to think you have better odds of running the football,” Sarkisian said, “but they hold up pretty well.”
Arizona coach Mike Stoops, whose team failed to score a single point in a 33-0 tail-kicking at the hands of Nebraska at last season’s Holiday Bowl, knows as well as anyone how disruptive the Cornhuskers’ defense can be. Stoops was impressed with the way Nebraska’s defense was able to use extra defensive backs without losing much when an offense tries to surprise them with a running play.
“They’re good at stopping the run with one less guy” in the box, Stoops said this week, “and that allows them to do a lot of things. They’re unique in their ability to be that good up front.”
When the Cornhuskers do to their nickel, dime and beyond coverages, it makes things even more difficult for an opponent to find a rhythm in the passing game.
“There’s not a lot of error, not a lot of room to throw balls,” Sarkisian said. “So there’s a real onus on the quarterback to know what coverage it is and anticipate throws and be accurate.”
Senior quarterback Jake Locker knows this will be one of his biggest challenges to date.
“They are a really, really good football team,” he said this week. “Discipline, well-coached, fast, try to capitalize on your mistakes. So it will be important that we try to minimize our mistakes and play as fast and as physical as they do.”
Nebraska’s defensive players don’t seem to be as in awe of Locker. Senior safety Rickey Thenarse told the media this week that the Cornhuskers won’t be intimidated by the big-name passer from UW.
“We don’t want to put him on no pedestal,” Thenarse told The Associated Press this week. “We want to go out and prove that we can take down a good quarterback with our defense. We’re a pretty confident group. We’ll just see on Saturday.”
What the Huskies will see on Saturday may well be the deepest, most sound and downright dangerous defense they’ll face all season.
“They’ll be a big challenge for us,” Nussmeier said. “… We’ve got to prepare very well mentally, we’ve got to be ready to come out of the gates, and we’ve got to play fast.”
The Huskies continued to use their new-look offensive line at Wednesday’s practice, but afterward Sarkisian was mum about whether it would be featured at the start of Saturday’s game. The past two days have seen freshman Erik Kohler get all the snaps at left guard, senior Ryan Tolar moved over to right guard and senior Gregory Christine working with the second team. … Running back Chris Polk returned to practice Wednesday after sitting out the previous two days. Sarkisian said he was given the days off to preserve his body through the season. … Reserve linebacker Victor Burnett (concussion) could be in jeopardy of missing Saturday’s game, while Sarkisian said running back Johri Fogerson (hip) is “doubtful.” … Wide receiver Cody Bruns has been working as the backup punter this week, and he showed an impressive leg during Wednesday’s practice. “He functions,” Sarkisian said. “The good thing is, when he’s back there, we’ve got a variety of things we can do. So he adds a lot of versatility when he’s back there.” Junior walk-on Kiel Rasp has taken over as punter since senior Will Mahan suffered a season-ending knee injury at practice last week.