JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - It seems like the perfect match-up for Nebraska, one that could ultimately prove to be the difference maker in getting that coveted ninth win and a victory in a New Year's Day bowl game.
Since the beginning of the season, the Huskers' biggest strength has been the play of its front four on the defensive line. Six of NU's 11 Blackshirts are defensive linemen, and when you think of the faces of the team outside of the quarterback, the majority of them come from that dominant unit.
In most any game, Nebraska sees its defensive line as one of its biggest advantages, but on Thursday, that thought may never be truer.
Clemson comes into its Gator Bowl showdown with the Huskers featuring an offensive line that has been riddled with injuries and position changes since the first week of the season. The best example of the Tigers' o-line situation is starting center Bobby Hutchinson, who joined the roster in October after previously serving as a team manager.
As a result, one would assume Nebraska's biggest strength will be going head-to-head with arguably Clemson's biggest weakness when the Tigers have the football. Despite how it might seem, however, the Huskers don't seem to be looking at the match-up that way.
"Early in the season I would have (looked at the match-up as a big advantage)," defensive coordinator Carl Pelini said. "I think we're playing our best football up front, but I think they are too. They've really come a long way. I've said this before, and I meant it - as I look at them over the course of the season, their resurgence, a lot of it is due to the play of their offensive line. I think it's going to be a huge challenge for us."
As Pelini noted, things were definitely much worse on Clemson's offensive front earlier this season. After injuries to tackle Chris Hairston and guard Mason Cloy left the Tigers without two starting linemen, the staff had to get creative to find a way help make up for the losses.
The most dramatic move came when Hutchinson was added to the roster prior to Clemson's Nov. 1 game against Boston College. Not only did Hutchinson take over as the team's starting center, junior Thomas Austin - originally the starting center - moved over to guard to replace Cloy.
Despite all of the shakeups, though, that week proved to be just what the Tigers needed in finding an effective combination on the offensive line. Beginning with a win over Boston College, Clemson ended the regular season winning four of its final five games while averaging nearly 26 points and 340 yards of total offense per contest.
"Those guys have been playing very well," Pelini said. "They're really starting to get comfortable scheme-wise and even though they moved some guys around early in the year, you can tell they're getting comfortable. You don't see the missed assignments and all of the things that you saw early in the season."
Even with Clemson's apparent resurgence on the offensive line, Nebraska still believes it holds an advantage in the trenches with its defensive line. That's how the Huskers see it every game, though.
While most expected the front four to lead the way for NU's defense this season, the d-line has picked up its play considerably in the latter part of the season, playing about as well as a defensive front could the past few weeks. With interceptions, sacks, pass deflections, shutting down the running game, quarterback hurries and even a few touchdowns, the Huskers' defensive line has been able to do it all lately.
"I think all season, especially these last few weeks, we definitely thought that our d-line was our strength," senior defensive end Zach Potter said. "We're going to do everything we can to try and disrupt their offense, and it all starts up front. I mean, you can say that all you want, but I think we've really demonstrated that this year and just really made it a point to make that happen."
Pelini and several of Nebraska's defensive linemen were asked if there were any plans to mix things up to try and take advantage of Clemson's weak points up front on Thursday. The answer was a resounding and emphatic "No."
The way they see it, the majority of their success has come from sticking with their defensive game plan and not trying to get too fancy or creative with their strategies to shut down opposing offenses. By trusting the system, they say, everyone on the d-line has played better, both as a unit and individually.
"I'm not going to get out of my game," junior defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh said. "I'm going to play the way I've been taught to play. I've found that I've made my biggest strides from the way I've been taught defense and the defensive line from Coach Pelini and (defensive line coach John Papuchis). There's no getting out of the elements and going away from the system."
Suh's comments are a perfect example of what Pelini and head coach Bo Pelini have tried to instill in their defense since the day they first took over last spring. As long as the players buy into their defensive system and philosophies, success is only bound to follow.
"That's the whole thing, I think," Carl Pelini said. "Our guys, I thought, as they started to play better late in the year, they really responded to their technique and really honed in. In fact, I'd go the opposite and caution against (changing things up). Never try to do too much. Never try to believe what the media is saying about you. Just play within your technique, play within the scheme. That's when you make plays. When you try to overplay and extenuate yourself, that's when you make mistakes. That's been a big coaching point of mine all year.
"Play within the system and you'll make plays. I know every time a team, on both sides of the ball, starts to experience success, guys want to start pressing and thinking they want to make the big play every play. But trust your teammates, trust the scheme and trust your technique. That's when the big plays come. I think as our guys have grown this season, they've started to realize that, and that's been a big part of our maturing."
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