Updates. With AP Photos.
By L. KENT WOLGAMOTT
LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Even after his defense gave up 653 yards to UCLA and 498 yards and 63 points to Ohio State, Nebraska coach Bo Pelini didn't waver in his belief that things would get better.
Over the last five games, that's exactly what has happened.
No. 17 Nebraska allowed Minnesota a season-low 177 yards on Saturday and held the Gophers to just 10 of 28 passing. Nebraska now ranks 19th nationally in total defense and 41st in scoring defense.
"Obviously, we had a couple games there early on that didn't go well," Pelini said Monday. "But I think we've gotten steadily better as the season's gone on. That's what you try to do. We stayed the course. We didn't panic and our kids have gotten better. Offensively, I think we've been at a high level all year. Right now, we're kind of hitting stride and playing pretty good in all phases of the game."
The Ohio State game was the low point for the defense, senior linebacker Will Compton said.
"Things started to hit the fan," he said. "We always talk about doing your job and staying in the system. We kind of got out of that. We were trying to do other people's jobs. For whatever reason, things weren't clicking. We learned from that experience."
That learning process, Compton said, was led by defensive coordinator John Papuchis, who, when he meets with the defense after a game, always finds some positives from his team's performance.
Even after Ohio State, Compton said, Papuchis praised the defense for its first-half play and emphasized that the Blackshirts weren't as bad as the score might have indicated. With Papuchis, Pelini and the defensive staff leading the way, the players have responded.
"It wasn't anything special," Compton said. "Just prepare and do your job and don't worry about a mistake. Go on to the next play."
Much of the improvement has come in pass defense, where Nebraska's secondary and linebackers are holding opponents to a nation's-best 45.4 completion percentage.
"You never think of something like pass completion percentage when you're out on the field," Compton said. "It's pretty awesome to see."
Asked for his completion percentage goal, Pelini quipped: "Zero. I guess I'm joking to a certain extent. We want to challenge every route. We have pretty high expectations. We work pretty hard at how we play pass defense. It's a big part of how we play, what our philosophy is defensively."
The defense was offered its coveted Blackshirts after Nebraska's 29-28 come-from-behind win at Northwestern. Led by Compton, they turned them down for a week, donning them in practice only after shutting down Michigan in a 23-9 win.
Now Compton said, the defense is playing well and improving each game. The Huskers play Iowa this Friday in the regular-season finale.
"As we're playing well, you kind of understand how good you can be," Compton said. "We know what we have to do and how to do it and stick with it. When we're doing that, we're pretty damned good, When we click, we're pretty tough to beat."