The worst play — and there were plenty to choose from — came midway through the fourth quarter.
Nebraska trailed UCLA 29-27. On the first play of the Bruins' possession, Brett Hundley took a shotgun snap and threw a lateral to Johnathan Franklin in the left flat.
The design wasn't creative. The blocking wasn't great. But it dared the Blackshirts to make a tackle. They didn't.
Eric Martin had both hands on Franklin for a 5-yard loss. He missed. Stanley Jean-Baptiste dove behind the line of scrimmage and got an arm on Franklin. He missed.
The UCLA tailback raced down the sideline, outrunning Huskers who seemingly had an angle on him. At the Husker 45, P.J. Smith missed. At the 30, Andrew Green missed.
Finally, 59 yards from where Franklin caught the ball, defensive tackle Baker Steinkuhler tripped him up at the NU 21-yard line.
By my count, Nebraska missed 19 tackles last year at the Rose Bowl. By the Husker coaches' count, UCLA's yards after contact totaled 298. By all accounts, it was a defensive disaster.
But that night represents something bigger. Vince Lombardi once said football is only two things — blocking and tackling. One of those skills is becoming a lost art in the game. Among the reasons:
Ľ Due to injury concerns, teams at the pro and college level are hitting less in practice. The trend will accelerate as the NFL and NCAA emphasize concussion prevention. The Pac-12, beginning this season, limits its teams to two full-contact practices per week during the season — and restricted tackling during fall camp.
“You can do all the walk-throughs you want, but if you're not taking guys to the ground, it's hard to learn that skill,” Nebraska defensive coordinator John Papuchis said.
Ľ Up-tempo offenses make defenses vulnerable to fatigue, leading to fundamental lapses. UCLA, for instance, ran 94 plays against the Blackshirts last year. It's one thing to tackle Franklin when your legs are fresh. It's a different challenge after 80 snaps.
Ľ Offseason 7-on-7 leagues are sweeping the high school ranks, especially in the South. There is no tackling.
“It's basically just playing basketball,” said Barrett Ruud, Nebraska's all-time leading tackler.
When so much of a player's practice is spent tagging rather than tackling, it's no wonder fundamentals slip.
Ľ Reason No. 1 by a wide margin, however, is scheme. Offensive strategy in the 21st century is simple: speed in space. Force defenders to make solo tackles in the open field. Lombardi would barely recognize it.
“Back when I was in college, it was always 'gang tackling,' ” LSU coach Les Miles told me this week. “Those two words, they were attached. It wasn't one guy, it was 11 helmets around the ball. ...
“(Now) you must be able to tackle one-on-one with space. It requires different drills, a different approach, a different wrapping technique and different body position.”
The loneliest person on a football field is no longer the quarterback in the pocket, or the kicker before a last-second field goal. It's the linebacker in the open field tasked with bringing down a scatback.
“I'd rather tackle the best back in the league in a 2-yard box than an average guy in a 10-yard box,” Ruud said.
Against pro-style offenses, if you miss a tackle in the box, somebody's going to hustle and make it up after a 5-yard gain. When you're spread out in max coverage, Ruud said, suddenly a whiff leads to 15-20 yards, if not a touchdown.
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Papuchis, a Washington Redskins fan, carved out a few minutes Monday night to watch the season opener, where Chip Kelly unleashed his up-tempo spread and made the Redskins look slow and silly. If Mike Shanahan didn't burn the tape, he'll be counting the missed tackles all week.
“There's probably more of a premium than ever on tackling,” Ruud said.
Yet rare is the opportunity for defenders to practice it full-speed. College players regularly tag or “thud up” — hit and release. But they don't often take ball carriers to the ground.
At Nebraska, coaches constantly preach technique. But a player like Ciante Evans only gets three or four game-like reps per week. (In Tuesday's practice, no doubt motivated by UCLA's scheme, the Huskers were more physical in the open field than normal.)
It's the biggest challenge in building a good tackling team, Vanderbilt's James Franklin said. Making sure players are disciplined and focused enough to fine-tune fundamentals without going full-contact.
Some coaches say thudding in practice is just as good as the real thing. Ruud disagrees, saying it leads to bad habits. In the NFL, he didn't feel ready for the season until he had two or three preseason games of taking ball carriers to the ground. College doesn't have preseason games.
“You do a little bit of tackling in scrimmages, but until you do some live work, I don't think you get as much practice as you may need,” Ruud said.
It's a fine line, Papuchis said, between preparing properly and risking injury. And it leads to creative drills. At Florida, for instance, Will Muschamp's defenders tackle ball carriers into a pole vault pit.
Maybe it works. Florida's defenses ranked fifth and sixth in total yards allowed the past two seasons. The good tackling teams stand out more than ever. Alabama. Virginia Tech. LSU. Nebraska in 2009.
That Blackshirt defense had a dominant front and excellent cover corners. But its underrated skill was tackling, especially by the defensive backs. Every single one of them — Asante, O'Hanlon, Hagg, Gomes, Amukamara, Dennard — won more open-field duels than he lost. That's partially what allowed Bo Pelini to play dime almost exclusively.
(Example: On the first play of the 2009 Big 12 championship game, Texas threw a bubble screen. Prince Amukamara attacked and crushed the receiver in the backfield, helping set the tone that Nebraska was the more physical team.)
How does NU get back to tackling like it did four years ago? It starts with speed. Strength and desire are nice, but more important are footwork and body position.
“You tackle with your feet. Period,” NU linebackers coach Ross Els said. “If that guy's got better feet than you — Ameer Abdullah, etc. — it's really, really hard to get the guy down.”
With fresh faces Nate Gerry, Josh Banderas and Zaire Anderson, the Huskers should be more equipped to chase tailbacks.
“We have guys now that are making some plays in the open field,” Els said. “We're still missing a couple, but for the most part, I think we got a shot at getting people down.”
The safeties are even more important. Since the departures of DeJon Gomes and Eric Hagg in 2010, Husker safeties have consistently struggled in space. Papuchis says NU has some good tacklers developing in LeRoy Alexander and Charles Jackson. Starters Harvey Jackson and Corey Cooper have come a long way, too, he said.
But NU coaches can't really be sure until game day.
Inevitably, UCLA will test Nebraska early on Saturday. Hundley will take a shotgun snap, throw short to one of his best athletes and find out whether the Huskers have fixed the tackling turmoil that led to 653 yards.
If Nebraska can win one-on-one in the open field, stopping the other 10 Bruins will be easy.
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Video: Nebraska coach Bo Pelini talks with the media Thursday following practice: