John Papuchis shares a postgame moment with Randy Gregory at Michigan's Big House.
Photo by Aaron Babcock/Hail Varsity

Papuchis: Huskers Worthy of Blackshirts

By NU Athletic Communications
Randy York's N-Sider

John Papuchis enjoyed a big day inside the Big House Saturday in Ann Arbor before whisking to Omaha's Scottish Rite Center after landing Saturday night. NU’s second-year defensive coordinator didn’t speed, but he was in hurry-up mode to see Billie Papuchis, his wife, compete in the 2013 Mrs. Nebraska competition. The pageant finished about the time J.P. arrived and even though Billie didn’t win the competition, she was first runner-up. That meant the stay-at-home mom/contestant and her husband, parents of three young children, celebrated Nebraska’s 17-13 win over Michigan at a post-pageant reception.

What a fast-moving life for one of college football’s youngest defensive coordinators. Saturday, his defenders played their most complete game this side of Purdue, and Sunday, even though Blackshirts were not part of a discussion, Nebraska Head Coach Bo Pelini announced the Most Valuable Player awards for a Husker team that snapped Michigan’s 19 consecutive home-game winning streak. With a simulated Tommy Lee drum roll, your Nebraska Cornhusker MVP Award Winners are:

Redshirt freshman quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr., the Cibolo, Texas native, earned the Offensive MVP Award accounting for 66 of Nebraska’s final 75-yard, 14-play touchdown drive that ate more than six minutes of the clock. Armstrong faked a pitch and then had a perfectly timed five-yard TD toss to Ameer Abdullah with 123 seconds remaining. Armstrong is now 5-0 as the Huskers’ starting quarterback this season.

Nebraska’s entire defensive team, which has stuck together in all kinds of weather through its first nine games this season, glued itself together for the last three quarters of a Hail Mary win over Northwestern in Lincoln. Then they rode that momentum for all four quarters of Saturday’s thriller in the Big House. Even though this is a team award, consider sophomore defensive end and Fishers, Ind., native Randy Gregory the individual MVP of what has become a unified group with a collective MVP. A transfer from Arizona Western Community College, Gregory is carving a national name for himself, but values team recognition even more.

Special Teams MVP LeRoy Alexander, a redshirt freshman safety from Toledo, Ohio. The Scout Team Offensive MVP is Greg Hart, a freshman tight end from Dayton, Ohio. The Scout Team Defensive MVP is Courtney Love, a freshman linebacker from Youngstown, Ohio, and the Scout Team Special Teams MVP is Connor Ketter, a freshman tight end from Norfolk, Neb. That's the overall historical picture from Nebraska's coaching staff, and Big Ten honors reflected the analysis. Late Monday morning, Armstrong was named Big Ten Freshman of the Week and Gregory shared the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week honor with Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland.

Stingy Stats Tell a Dominating Story

Nebraska’s defense was masterful Saturday, and stats told the story … 17 total rushing yards from Wolverine running backs, including 6 yards on 9 carries from Fitzgerald Toussaint, who rushed for 138 yards against the Huskers two years ago in the Big House … only two of Michigan’s 13 possessions gained more than 16 yards and both were the result of two successful screen passes … the Wolverines converted only 3-of-15 third downs and 1-of-3 fourth downs … the Huskers are 18-4 under Pelini in November and Saturday’s defensive numbers screamed two more game-winning facts: Huskers finished with seven sacks that resulted in 43 yards of losses and totaled 15 tackles for losses that resulted in a minus 21 yards rushing.

Yes, it was a total team effort on defense in every sense of the word, making it difficult for coaches watching film to name a single team defensive MVP. Given the impact of Big Ten Conference-type honors, Gregory’s picture will be the only defensive photo on the plaque outside the locker room wall at the beginning of the Tunnel Walk. We’ll get to the defense sharing the team MVP award after we communicate what fans seem to enjoy discussing most … when will equipment room workers hand out black practice jerseys and when they do, who will be pulling the fabled mesh jerseys over their heads?

Glad you asked so I could ask Papuchis when they will appear and who will be wearing them. “I don’t know yet,” he said. “I want to talk to a couple guys in the group first. Some athletes, including football players, tend to be a little superstitious. We’ve played so well the last couple of weeks, they might not want to change a whole lot. If they want those jerseys back, they can have them back because they are certainly deserving. There is no question about that right now. They’ll have the opportunity to make that decision if they keep approaching the game like they are now.”

Gregory Stellar Within Team Scheme

Defense is a team game, and Nebraska came together as a team Saturday in Ann Arbor, but Gregory’s play was consistently and dramatically stellar. “Randy certainly has the ability and the character to dominate a football game when he rushes the passer like he did yesterday,” Papuchis said. “I mean, the constant pressure he can put on a quarterback is one thing and his ability to run players down is another. He’s been a great player for us, but the thing people miss about Randy goes beyond his extreme talent. He also plays extremely hard. The guy’s motor is always going. I think that’s the part about him that’s so impressive. When you play so hard and as well as I thought he did, you can’t help but single out one guy on the defense.”

At the same time, Gregory would be the first to share that award with his teammates. “We all saw different guys at different times throughout the game make great plays,” Papuchis said. “I thought Zaire Anderson played a good football game. I thought Michael Rose played well. So did Stanley (Jean Baptiste) and Coop (Corey Cooper) and Ciante (Evans).” Film showed a defense that’s growing up, coming together and playing smarter. “So many had a hand in executing our game plan,” Papuchis said. “There’s no question every single guy who played in that game deserves a piece of that MVP honor.

Papuchis described four cornerstones to Nebraska's overall defensive performance: 1) Getting pressure on the quarterback was a big part of the plan; 2) Using a special pressure package more extensively than normal to achieve a dominating result; 3) Improving the defense’s one-on-one rushing opportunities; and 4) Locking down on early downs to create more advantageous situational opportunities. “We played well throughout the game,” Papuchis said, citing upfront pressure that only backfired on two completed screen passes that Michigan executed to mitigate the relentless pressure.

Rose Plays Well, Leads Husker Tacklers

Rose accelerated his play at linebacker and finished as the Huskers’ leading tackler with eight. “Michael played really well,” Papuchis said. “I was happy for him and proud of him. He adapted. He started the week before against Northwestern and things didn’t go as he would have liked. But he came back, had a great week of practice and really played well in the game. I thought that was a huge part of us winning the game.”

Sunday, Papuchis told his defense that’s the way the Huskers will continue to operate – play the guys who are productive in practice and after earning that right, keep them on the field if they continue to be productive. “You never really know when your number is going to be called,” Papuchis said, “and with a young team, you have to make the most of every opportunity you get. I thought Michael did a good job of handling his opportunity.”

Fortunately, Papuchis did not push the panic button when Nebraska’s defensive stats soared skyward. “From an outside perspective, I know it didn’t look good when things were happening and I was saying we’re not that far off,” Papuchis said. “But I watch film closely and very rarely were there any wholesale busts of assignments. It was usually one guy, sometimes two. For whatever reason, we just weren’t getting all 11 guys executing at the same time. We needed to close the gap with one guy in the vast majority of cases.”

Nebraska Moving on Up Statistically

Saturday, that happened, and Nebraska leapfrogged from the nation’s 70th-ranked team in total defense to 41st. The Huskers also have improved their rank to 37th in scoring defense (22.8 points per game). Improvement has a parallel line to mistakes. “I would have been a lot more concerned four or five weeks ago if every play looked like a fire drill, but that’s not what it was,” Papuchis said. “It was usually one guy missing a run fit or missing his coverage matchup. I knew if we could get that part cleaned up, we could have some success, and that’s taken place. We’re executing, we’re communicating and we’re getting lined up. We’ve played seven straight quarters without the mistakes we were making and we have to keep playing that way.

“In athletics, confidence and belief are critical,” Papuchis said. “I think our guys now know that and they’ve been able to prove it one or two guys at a time. They're seeing that they have the potential to be as good as anybody. Hopefully, they’ll come out of this week prepared for Saturday. I think it would be good for our fans if we come out fast and play fast. I hope we can get that place rocking and make it a tough home-field environment for Michigan State. When we play fast and know what we’re doing, we’re pretty good. We’re much more dynamic than we’ve been athletically, and I don't mean to diminish anyone by saying that. We’re a younger team, but a faster team.”

The Huskers are also developing into a more cohesive team. “It’s hard to put a finger on why that’s the case now,” Papuchis said. "This is the most cohesive team atmosphere in all three phases of the game since I’ve been here. It’s pretty cool to watch. There’s some chemistry that’s definitely been formed here on this team. I think a lot of it has to do with Ronnie (Kellogg III) and Tommy (Armstrong). They’ve both really taken on a leadership role. A little bit of that is inherent in their position, but they’ve done a great job with their leadership in the other two areas (defense and special teams) as well.”

Coaches See Team Playing as ‘One’

Despite being a young team battling more than its fair share of injuries, the Huskers are also a team that controls their own destiny in the Legends Division of the Big Ten. If they’re going to make it to the Big Ten Championship in Indianapolis, they’re going to need more team-specific rather than individual specific MVP awards. Nothing’s better than coaches looking at game film and knowing that your whole defense or your entire offense are playing as “one”.

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