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UCLA-Nebraska Preview: Examining the Huskers' Vaunted Blackshirt Defense

With our early season big game against the #15 / #23 ranked Nebraska Cornhuskers this weekend, we continue our preview of this week's opponent, turning to look at the Huskers' legendary Blackshirts, the hard-hitters that lead Nebraska on the defensive side of the ball.

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How important is hard-hitting tough-nosed defense to Nebraska football? When you consider the mere fact that the team's most famous moniker tracks the black practice jerseys that defensive starters and stand-out contributors are awarded, you can see why Husker fans pride themselves on their team's defensive prowess. In fact, the Blackshirts are now an entrenched part of college football lore. But, despite their legendary status, there is some cause for concern on the defensive side of the ball in Lincoln, with a huge hole that we hope Jim Mora and our Bruins can exploit, despite having to play against a defense with a huge home field advantage at Lincoln's Memorial Stadium.

First, let's start with the statistics. On paper, the 2012 Nebraska defense was pretty formidable, finishing at #35 overall in total defense, between #34-ranked Ohio State and #36-ranked Utah, surrendering 360.64 yards per game. In fact, the Huskers finished #4 nationally in pass defense in 2012, giving up just 168.1 yards in the air per game. Key for the Blackshirts is that they return three experienced, talented upperclassmen in the secondary (Ciante Evans, Josh Mitchell, and Stanley Jean-Baptiste).

But, statistics don't tell the whole story, as the Huskers lost two first-team all-conference players in safety Daimion Stafford and defensive end Eric Martin, as well as leading tackler linebacker Will Compton. Heading into the season, the pundits seemed to universally agree that the front seven for Nebraska would be the Huskers' Achilles heel, with the secondary expected to carry the load, just as in 2012. In fact, SBN's Bill Connelly had a great Nebraska preview that echoed the consensus opinion, with some really good number crunching.

Yet, for some odd reason, statistically, Nebraska's 2013 opponents have had more success throwing than running the ball (the Huskers are surrendering 302.5 passing yards per game, as opposed to just 140.5 rushing yards per game). Why is that odd? Given how the Nebraska front-seven has to replace far more parts, the game plan for opponents seemed easy to discern: run, run, run. But to everyone's surprise, the Blackshirts have been surprisingly inconsistent and vulnerable, giving up over 600 yards to Wyoming, barely squeaking out a 37-34 win over the Cowboys (a consistently mediocre program in a very mediocre Mountain West conference, finishing at 4-8 in 2012, 8-5 in 2011, and 3-9 in 2010), following a solid defensive performance in a 56-16 win over Southern Miss(with 4 interceptions, 2 returned for touchdowns, ultimately being the difference-maker). As our friends at Corn Nation have noted, the Blackshirts have become "schizophrenic" on defense, with the Huskers' 600+ yard defensive lapses becoming increasingly frequent, and the total offense surrendered per game has been on an upward swing since 2009.

So, which Nebraska defense will show up on Saturday? The anemic, half-asleep unit that almost let mediocre Wyoming slip in a huge upset, or the vaunted Blackshirts of years past? The money is on a stout Nebraska defense getting up for a nationally televised game against a UCLA team that upset them last year in the Rose Bowl, so Jim Mora and Noel Mazzone will have to dial up a game plan to exploit whatever issues (inexperience on the front seven and/or inconsistency in the secondary) Nebraska ends up having on Saturday (and fortunately, the Bruins have shown themselves to be very well balanced, running for 345 yards and passing for 302 yards in the 58-20 win over Nevada). Right now, Vegas seems to agree with the casinos giving Nebraska the advantage by 4 to 4.5 points.

Yet, when you compare the pieces left from UCLA's 2012 offense that put up 653 yards on the Huskers to what Nebraska returns from their 2012 defense in Pasadena, the odds ought to tilt for the Bruins, with four returning OL starters, some excellent freshmen contributors, Shaq Evans, Jordan Payton, Devin Fuller, and of course, Brett Hundley, and on the trip to Lincoln. Logically, if Hundley is able to put up 305 yards in the air on a more robust Blackshirts defense, you would expect he'd be able to follow suit again in 2013, with an improved and more experienced OL balancing out the loss of Jet Ski and Fauria.

And with that, your defensive preview for this Saturday's game against Nebraska comes to an end. For more on the Huskers, head on over to the friendly folks at Corn Nation. Otherwise, fire away in the comment thread with your thoughts, opinions, takes, etc. on the Nebraska defense that Hundley and Co. will take on this Saturday morning.