Quickly, what’s Nebraska’s identity under Bo Pelini? Two words or less.
Depending on how any season of the past four and a half years was going, I suspect that the most common response to that query might be “inconsistent.” There’s certainly a case to be made for that, but this year’s squad is doing a better job of cementing a different identity.
When you think Nebraska and Bo Pelini, the first thing that should probably come to mind is pass defense. This year’s team currently ranks second nationally in passing yards allowed per game (164.4), seventh in pass efficiency defense (100.56), and first in completion percentage (46.4-percent). This isn’t a new development. Here’s where Nebraska ranked nationally in each of those categories in the previous for years under Pelini:
The only obvious outlier is 2008, Pelini’s first year in Lincoln where he inherited the worst defense in school history. That’s easy enough to explain.
Here’s a selection of the starting quarterbacks Nebraska faced in the Big 12 that year: Graham Harrell, Sam Bradford, Chase Daniel, Todd Reesing, Josh Freeman, and Robert Griffin III. Colorado, the Big 12′s top pass defense based on yards that season, finished 73rd nationally. Based on what they were facing, the Huskers were probably one of the twenty best pass defenses in the country that year too. When Nebraska faced Clemson in the Gator Bowl that season, the Tigers completed just 45.9-percent of their passes and had an overall passer rating of 99.75.
The numbers in the remaining years speak for themselves. In 64 career games under Pelini, completing a pass against the Blackshirts is basically a coin flip. The Huskers’ average opponent completion percentage sits at 50.7-percent. The average pass completion percentage across college football over that same span is 59.1-percent. Remove the freakish year of the quarterback in 2008, and Nebraska’s completion percentage allowed over the past four season is 48.99-percent.
This is all by design, but the level of success deserves some recognition. You’ll occasionally hear people mention Pelini’s match zone scheme. (Pattern match in some circles.) The easiest way to understand it is this: In a traditional zone defense, defenders are defending an area — deep half, outside quarter, etc. Essentially, the defense gets to a spot and waits for a receiver to arrive. In a match scheme, the defenders are looking for the most immediate threat in their area and, once that players is identified, matching his route essentially man-to-man.
That’s a brutish description for an ultimately elegant style of defense, but it gives you an idea. The pros of the match zone are that it creates tighter windows for the quarterback and thus more incompletions, it’s well disguised, and it does particularly well against short and intermediate routes while offering run support.
The cons? (They’ll feel familiar for Nebraska fans.) Fewer interceptions, susceptibility to quarterback scrambles and the long ball, and, perhaps most importantly, it’s harder to learn. Almost no high school teams run it and, according to Pelini himself, few at the college level do. When asked a few weeks back how many teams matched routes the way Nebraska did, Pelini offered this as an answer:
“Probably not a lot to the extent that we do it and how we do it. We visit with a couple people that want to go that way. Some people probably look at us and say we are crazy. That’s their philosophy and we have ours.”
But it is working. It has been working from almost the moment Pelini showed up. The difference this year is that Nebraska’s doing it without the surefire NFL talent it had in 2009, 2010, and 2011. What this team does have is experience. With the exception of Mohammed Seisay, no current player in the secondary has ever run anything else in his college career.
The result? A career-low, for now, in opponents’ completion percentage and it could go down. The Huskers’ remaining two opponents — and possibly a third in Wisconsin should Nebraska reach the Big Ten title game — don’t appear to have quarterbacks that are particularly good at exploiting the inherent weaknesses in the scheme. If you’re counting at home, the lowest completion percentage any team has allowed over the past five pass-happy seasons is 45.4-percent by Arkansas in 2007.
That’s within reach for Nebraska this season.
Maybe that will help drive the point home. For now, Nebraska is Pass Defense U.