Published Friday, September 13, 2013 AT 9:53 AM / Updated at 12:11 PM
The larger picture in Nebraska’s defensive plan for UCLA
Sam McKewon Omaha World-Herald

Several times in this week’s course of interviews, Nebraska’s defensive coaches have uttered “I like our plan” enough to know they’re not trying to blow smoke about their confidence in the scheme they’ve designed to stop UCLA.

That’s because the Bruins’ offense — a dose of Mike Leach passing principles mixed with some veer and option running plays — isn’t that hard to figure out. Most spread offenses aren’t. Most wishbone offenses aren’t. And while UCLA obviously doesn’t look or play like Georgia Tech or Navy, the principles governing coordinator Noel Mazzone’s offense are similar enough.

The Bruins are going to make NU defend the same smallish set of play concepts over and over — out of different formations, with slight twists in motions and route combinations — and test the young Huskers’ discipline to trust their coaches and each other.

In terms of a “coaching test,” this isn’t trying to prepare for Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison’s array of pressure schemes, or Georgia’s offense.

This is a larger picture kind of exam. Does Nebraska’s defense have chemistry, fundamentals and communication? Does it have the athletes to mark and mash UCLA’s offense in space? Does it get frustrated after a couple scoring drives and lose composure? Does it get lazy for one play and let a receiver get deep for an easy touchdown.

Mazzone’s offense — Leach’s offense, for that matter — depends on defenses failing once or twice in spectacular fashion, then worrying so entirely about that failure that it allows death by a thousand swing passes and sweep plays. Think back, for what I’m sure will be a terrifying second for you, to the 70-10 hyena-cackler Nebraska suffered at the hands of Texas Tech in 2004. The game turned just 74 seconds before halftime, when the Red Raiders hit an 80-yard pass over NU’s best corner, Fabian Washington. Texas Tech led 21-3 at the break.

Here’s the yardage gained of each passing play on Tech’s next touchdown drive in the third quarter: 10, 7, 9, 5, 6, 6, 6.

And the next touchdown drive: 9, 5, 3

And the next touchdown drive that included passes: -2, 8, 6, 11, 14, 3, 5, 6, 14, 5

Fast forward to 2008, and Nebraska’s 37-31 loss to the best team Leach ever had at Texas Tech. The Red Raiders had the ball for all of 19:48, gave up 471 yards — and won. They averaged 8.77 yards per play, taking what the Huskers offered — the pass to scatbacks Baron Batch and Edward Britton, who caught five passes for 130 yards.

UCLA’s structure is somewhat different. This Bruins Nation post does a nice job of explaining who Mazzone is as a coach and what he teaches. The guy’s had about 12,000 jobs, which is actually a sign that he knows what he’s talking about and his offense is easy enough to install. He never worked for Leach, but the passing game principles — which utilizes one or two backs flaring into the flat while one or two receivers stretch the defense vertically — is similar enough to Leach’s. The bottom line is that Mazzone has a system, he’s going to stick to it, he even sells it, and Nebraska’s coaches ought to know enough about these kinds of offenses to have a perfectly lovely plan for theoretically stopping it.

But gameplanning, as we all know, isn’t solely what a coach can do to prepare his unit or team, and it’s that larger picture that I’m most interested in examining Saturday. I’ll watch the Husker sideline, substitution patterns, and whether Pelini chooses to use a safety to help his true freshmen — Nate Gerry and Josh Banderas — cover Bruins. I’ll be curious to see how NU corners handle the deep ball — UCLA’s offense must throw the ball deep if the short stuff is covered, or it’s not trying to stretch the defense vertically enough to open up the short routes. I’ll watch tackling. And I’ll watch to see if this defense keeps its head in the game after a few mistakes. I’ll watch to see if Pelini gets impatient, and tries desperate blitzes, too.

Of course, Nebraska’s offense can help the defense immensely by playing to its potential. NU offensive coordinator Tim Beck is more unpredictable than Mazzone, but that can make the offense’s results more unpredictable, as well.

About Sam McKewon

Sam McKewon covers Nebraska football for The World-Herald. Got a tip, question or rant? Good. Email him at sam.mckewon@owh.com. And follow him on Twitter at @swmckewonOWH. And call him at 402.219.3790.