Judging by the banter that I've seen on various Husker message boards, the jury is out on whether or not Bo Pelini should give out the coveted Blackshirts to the Nebraska defense. The tradition, which goes back to Bob Devaney's third season, is a hallowed part of Nebraska football lore, which is funny because the only reason that the color is black is that the sporting goods store gave assistant Mike Corgan a deal because they weren't selling. Can you imagine if neon yellow had been the best deal?
Luckily, black was the best bargain, and Nebraska's defense has never been the same since. Which brings us back to the present day. Many fans are pointing to the defense's performance against both Virginia Tech and the shutout performance against Louisiana Lafayette as worthy of having the blackshirts bestowed before next week's melee against the Missouri Tigers, and to be honest, it's hard to disagree with them.
Nebraska's defensive rankings through four games:
Scoring defense: 7 points per game (3rd nationally)
Total defense: 285 yards per game (23rd nationally)
While those are obviously good numbers, this is where Bo Pelini's decision to withhold the blackshirts comes in. Pelini isn't going to hand out something so valuable just because of a few solid games. If you look at Bo's quotes throughout camp and this season, the thing constantly preached is "playing up to expectations". Not the media's expectations, not the expectations of the fans, up to Pelini's expectations.
Which is why the Big Red are still sans blackshirts. Bo doesn't care about rankings, he cares about across-the-board effort and consistency. As we saw with Virginia Tech, one play, no matter how good the other 60 or 70 went, can cost a team a ball game, and Pelini will continue to keep the shirts in the box until the Husker defense can achieve his goal of perfection.
While Husker fans bemoan that Pelini is ruining the "tradition" of handing out the blackshirts before the first game, they need to know that Bo isn't the first Husker coach to make players earn the jerseys on a daily basis.
While Tom Osborne instituted the aforementioned practice of giving out the blackshirts before the first game, Bob Devaney's policy is nearly identical to that of Pelini's. Initially, the black pullovers were distributed each day at practice and collected immediately afterward. A player might have it one day and a gray one the next: the blackshirt wasn't a right as a starter, it was an honor that had to be earned on a daily basis in practice throughout the season.
Having lofty statistical rankings is all well and good, but the results in games are not what makes a defender a "blackshirt". It's on a cold Tuesday afternoon in November, when the last place you want to be is on a practice field yet you have the focus and determination to play to your highest level on every play. Anybody can get up for games, it's the times when the lights are off and nobody is watching when championship teams are made, and Bo expects his team-especially his defense- to play at that level no matter what. And I for one agree with him.