When Miami quarterback Frank Costa looks at Nebraska's defense, he sees a familiar sight.
"It's like they've taken a page out of our playbook," said Costa, who will face the top-ranked Cornhuskers in the Orange Bowl tonight. "Speed has always been our trademark, and now they're copying us."Nebraska's defense, particularly its linemen, used to be big and slow. The Cornhuskers began shifting to smaller, speedier players a few years ago after seeing the success teams like Miami and Florida State were having with that style.
Some of that success was against Nebraska, which is 0-7 against the Hurricanes and Seminoles in bowl games since 1984.
"A lot of our philosophy has come from Florida State and Miami," Nebraska defensive coordinator Charlie McBride said. "We saw speed was hurting us, and we knew we had to make some changes."
So the Cornhuskers switched from a 5-2 alignment to a 4-3, pulling a man off the line of scrimmage to give them more flexibility and better pass coverage. They also started looking for quicker players who could run down the opposition instead of running over them.
The new formula has worked well.
Nebraska now has one of the best - and fastest - defenses in the nation. The Cornhuskers are second nationally in points allowed, fourth against the run, fourth in total defense and 10th in pass defense.
Their statistics still aren't as good as Miami's defense, which leads the country in three of the four major categories. Still, Nebraska's Tom Osborne said his defense may be the best he's had in 22 seasons as coach.
"People always talk about our '83 team," he said, "but we won a lot of games like 70-40, things that looked like basketball scores. We're better balanced now."
And speed is the main reason. Miami's defensive starters have slightly better times in the 40-yard dash, but they are are clocked by hand, which produces faster times than the electronic method used by Nebraska.
"Speed-wise, I think we're comparable," Nebraska quarterback Tommie Frazier said. "We may be faster at some positions and they may be faster at others."
To find faster players, Nebraska has had to recruit in other regions. Only three defensive starters are homestate products.
"We are in a part of the country where speed is not that big of a factor in the high schools," McBride said.
As the Nebraska defense has gotten faster, it's also gotten smaller. While the Cornhuskers' two tackles average 280 pounds, ends-outside linebackers Donta Jones and Dwayne Harris are in the 220-pound range.
Miami's defensive linemen average 258 pounds, seven more than Nebraska. The biggest difference, though, is that the Hurricanes have a dominant player - tackle Warren Sapp, who won the Lombardi Award as the nation's top lineman or linebacker.
"I haven't seen anyone block him one-on-one," Miami defensive coordinator Greg Mc Mackin said. "If they think they can do it, I'd like to see it."
Another defensive difference is their pass coverage. Nebraska primarily plays man-to-man, while Miami prefers zone.
"They take a few more chances than us," Miami safety Malcolm Pearson said. "We try not to give up the big play."
The game is sponsored by FedEx.