There are no perfect defenses. Everything has weaknesses and a lot of people this week are asking if it’s time for Nebraska to take stock of what it’s willing to live with and what it isn’t.
Under Bo Pelini, the Huskers have developed into a lights-out defense against the pass. It’s Pelini’s trademark as a head coach. His route-matching system is an intricate and elegant way to defend. It’s a zone defense with man-to-man coverage benefits. Alabama does a lot of it, but they’re one of the few teams willing to take on the labor-intensive task of teaching it.
When asked last year how many teams tried to match-routes the way Nebraska did, Pelini said “not a lot.” But coaches go with what they believe in and, in this case, it’s tough to argue against the results from a statistical perspective.
Nebraska’s opponent completion percentage has ranked first, ninth, second and fourth nationally the past four seasons. The Huskers scheme, which is designed to create tiny passing windows, works in that regard. But that only matters in the number of wins it delivers and that’s been as static as the Nebraska’s stingy pass defense.
Meanwhile, the rushing numbers have been growing at a rate that’s too large to ignore.
The chart above illustrates what we’re really talking about when we ask “What’s wrong with the Blackshirts?” The problem is pretty clear.
So is it time for Nebraska to give up something in pass defense in hopes of reversing the trend against the run? I thought it was coming into the season and the Wyoming game only reinforced my initial feeling there. The Cowboys had success both on the ground and through the air, but we knew coming in Wyoming might have some success passing the ball. The shocking part was 219 rushing yards and 7.19 yards per carry.
Nobody saw that coming. To a man, the Nebraska staff said “it’s fixable” this week, but that might only be true if the Huskers take a hard look at their approach to stopping the run.
The way I see it, there are really two options here:
1) Stick with the foundation of the Pelini system, run the same type of coverages that oftentimes put five people in pass coverage against spread teams and hope your young front starts winning some one-on-one battles and cuts down on mistakes. Nebraska will need the latter to happen regardless of the scheme as the season progresses, but is it too big of an ask right now given the inexperience on defense? Alabama can run its version of a match-up zone system and be lights out because it’s got a position-to-position talent advantage over most teams. Alabama wins those one-on-one battles. Nebraska isn’t Alabama.
2) Give the guys up front some help. Ask the secondary, the strength of the team, to win more one-on-one battles, live with some increased passing numbers. You’ve got to give up something and the evidence for favoring run defense over pass defense is pretty compelling. It’s not that Nebraska is consciously deciding to live with giving up four-plus yards per carry. Nobody would do that. It’s that without guys like Ndamukong Suh and Jared Crick inside, it has been under this current scheme. So what can you change right now? The approach or the ability of Vincent Valentine, Thad Randle, Maliek Collins et al?
Even when you simplify it, that’s a tough philosophical choice. Go with what you believe in or go with what might get results right now?
That’s not a coaching question, that’s a life question and it’s one Nebraska is facing right now.
A few other numbers worth noting from week one…
–In 12 of Pelini’s 16 losses since 2009, Nebraska has held its opponent below it’s season-long completion percentage.
–In the fearsome five games over the past calendar year — the four 2012 losses plus the Wyoming game — the Huskers allowed those teams to average 9.5 yards per play on 145 first down plays. Only 45 of those plays were passes. Winning football games starts with winning on a down-by-down basis and that…well…ain’t it.
–We talk frequently about Kenny Bell’s chances of becoming the first 1,000-yard receiver at Nebraska, but he might have as good a shot at breaking the school record for receptions in a season this year. Bell had seven catches in week one, but more telling was that Taylor Martinez threw to Bell 10 times against Wyoming. Jamal Turner and Quincy Enunwa each had four targets last week. Marlon Lucky holds the single-season receptions record with 75.
–One of the good things for the Huskers defense in the Wyoming game was its third down defense, but that’s slightly misleading. The Cowboys were officially 1-of-8 on third down, but that doesn’t include three first downs Wyoming got via Nebraska penalties. One was an offsides call on Ciante Evans, one was pass interference by Nathan Gerry and one was the debated roughing the passer on Randy Gregory. A 12.5 percent conversion rate isn’t bad by any means, but it could’ve been at 9 percent. Luckily for Nebraska, none of those penalties extended drives that ended in points.