The Blackshirts are in the hands of greenhorns.
Nebraska's defense, long known as the Blackshirts and once the monsters of the Midwest, slipped in recent seasons, then hit a free fall in the opener against Wyoming two weeks ago.
A 37-34 survival seminar with Wyoming rolling up 602 yards? It was time to send in the cub scouts.
Linebackers Josh Banderas and Nathan Gerry, both first-year freshmen, were rushed into the starting lineup last week. The No. 23 Cornhuskers routed Southern Mississippi, 56-13, holding the Golden Eagles to 284 yards.
Sure, it was Southern Mississippi's 14th consecutive loss. But Nebraska can't afford to grade on a curve, not after watching the Wyoming rodeo.
Banderas and Gerry were one answer.
"We trust them, and I think they handled it," Nebraska Coach Bo Pelini said. "They are mature guys who showed good instincts."
UCLA, Nebraska's opponent this Saturday, also utilizes first-year freshmen on defense — plenty of them. But although many played on defense against Nevada, none started.
Nebraska once was known for corn-fed behemoths on defense. But the game has changed. Speed trumped strength on offenses across the nation.
The Cornhuskers were 11th nationally in total defense in 2010. They slipped to 37th in 2011 and were 35th last season.
The numerous missed tackles this season have Pelini concerned.
"I thought we got sloppy a couple of times on the perimeter the other day," he said. "At times I thought we made some plays in space that helped us. [If] you miss one tackle in this day and age, it will cost you. That's a big part of the game now."
Banderas and Gerry each had three tackles against Southern Mississippi. Both, though, brought energy to the lineup. Pelini was reserved in his assessment, saying only, "I thought that they did some good things. I [think] they have a long way to go."
As for the rest of the defense, Pelini said the team "executed well" against Southern Mississippi and "made adjustments better." But, mainly, he said, "We weren't our own worst enemy, which we were a lot of times against Wyoming."
Pelini will know more after playing No. 16 UCLA. The Bruins rolled up 653 yards in beating the Cornhuskers, 36-30, last season.
"We had a lot of missed tackles in that football game," Pelini said. "There was almost 300 yards of offense after first contact. That's kind of what their offense is built on. It's about creating space and creating one-on-one opportunities for their guys."
Pelini insisted Monday that he was not itching for payback this week.
Asked whether he was using last season's game as motivation, Pelini said, "I don't use that at all. It's the next team on our schedule. We lost the game to them last year. That's part of being a competitor. You want to go out there and win the football game. This affords us that opportunity."
Good coach-speak, but …
Several media outlets reported that after beating Southern Mississippi, Pelini noted that UCLA was next, telling his players, "They are coming into our house, and we owe them."
No way anyone would call that a motivational ploy.
UCLA will play New Mexico State at 7:30 p.m. on Sept. 21 at the Rose Bowl. The game will be broadcast on the Pac-12 Networks.
Twitter: @cfosterlatimesCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun