At its best, a Gus Malzahn offense is like a piranha attack. It’s designed to kill you with many tiny bites at a pace that is barely comprehensible. Arkansas State wasn’t at its best on Saturday. Nebraska’s defense had something to do with that.
Seven days after giving up the most yards in the country in week two, Nebraska slowed down the nation’s 7th ranked offense with a solid bit of team defense. Coming in it looked like the Red Wolves quicksilver spread offense would be the perfect test for a struggling Nebraska defense. On Saturday, the Huskers passed.
That last part might be the ultimate takeaway from this game.
Twenty-six different Huskers recorded tackles in the game. P.J. Smith led the way with nine but Josh Mitchell, Daimion Stafford, Ciante Evans and Will Compton all added seven each. Four out of the five leading tacklers play in the secondary?
Conventional football wisdom will say that’s a bad thing, but against this offense it was always going to be the case. Nebraska may be short on the defensive stars it’s had in the past, but for the first time this season the not-yet-Blackshirts looked like what most thought they could be: A unit where the whole was greater than the sum of its parts.
The defensive line is still a work in progress but, after a tumultuous week, they hung together against an opponent that forced them to sprint on and off the field on nearly every play. The front four had four tackles for a loss and two sacks. Arkansas State hadn’t given up a sack all season.
The back seven, too, has a bunch of moving parts. Zaire Anderson made a quiet debut with three tackles in place of Alonzo Whaley. Sean Fisher finally got on the field on defense and made four tackles. The four safeties had 24 tackles combined. Nebraska let the Red Wolves throw short and then did what they didn’t do against UCLA – made tackles.
Add it all up and you have this: Arkansas State ran 69 plays and had only 286 yards. That’s 4.14 yards per play. The Red Wolves came in averaging 89 plays, 574.5 yards per game, and 6.46 yards per play. Quarterback Ryan Aplin, the reigning Sun Belt player of the year, was just 16-for-30 passing for 138 yards. That was his lowest yardage output since he had 19 pass attempts for 126 yards against Florida International in the final game of 2010. On the day, the Red Wolves’ longest play went for 22 yards.
Despite the reputation of its head coach, it was still just Arkansas State but there was a significant difference on Saturday. Too often against UCLA the Husker defenders looked like they were reading different pages of the same playbook.
On Saturday they were on the same page. They’ll have to be going forward.
The defensive stars may be gone for Nebraska but, this week at least, the sky didn’t look totally black.