Too bad Nebraska’s on the road next week. Otherwise, it might be time to break out those new Blackshirts alternates.
For just the fifth time since joining the Big Ten in 2011, the Huskers held an opponent without a touchdown. The Northern Illinois offense managed just two field goals and only crossed the Huskers’ 40-yard line three times. The last such trip ended in a goal-line stand, which felt like the ending this defense deserved after three pretty good outings to start the 2019 season.
“That’s what everybody wants to see the Blackshirts do,” cornerback Lamar Jackson said after recording three solo tackles and four pass breakups on Saturday. “That was probably one of the best moments for me during the game.”
The Huskers had a lot of good moments in this one. In fact, the defense has played well enough to start the year—with one key exception—that it might force a rethinking of how Nebraska will win as it moves into Big Ten play.
I certainly didn’t foresee a Husker team whose best weapon could be its defense. The Huskers returned more experience on that side––including experienced cornerbacks, the heart and soul of the unit at inside linebacker and a deeper defensive line—but this was Year 2 of Scott Frost-plus-Adrian Martinez. We’ve seen what Frost’s offenses are capable of with a singular triggerman at quarterback, and Martinez proved to be that in his first season. That was the side with unlimited potential.
The defense? Just be better than last year.
This year’s defense, through three games is significantly better. Nebraska defended a season-high 81 plays on Saturday, but that’s been a pretty standard workload so far. The Blackshirts were on the field for 79 plays in the opener and 78 against Colorado. It’s a heavy load being paired with this quick-strike offense. Only five defenses last season, including UCF’s, faced more than the 79.3 plays per game Nebraska’s defense is averaging so far. Four of those gave up more than 5 yards per play in 2018.
In 2019, Nebraska’s at 4.7 and that’s just the start of the improvements this group can show to this point.
There’s the sacks. Nebraska got two more on Saturday to push its average to three per game, up almost a full sack from 2.08 a year ago.
There’s also the tackles for loss—8.7 per game through three games compared to 5.25 in 2018.
Then there’s the takeaways. The Huskers pushed their season total to nine with two more, an interception and a fumble recovery, against the Huskies. Last year Nebraska managed 20 in 12 games.
Those are all key measures for Erik Chinander’s defense. This thing is built to thrive on negative plays and thus far the Huskers are generating them. But the Blackshirts have been good on a down-by-down basis, too. Nebraska’s defensive success rate—an efficiency measure––sits at 35.9% after three games. In 2018, the Huskers were at 43.5%, which ranked 90th nationally.
All of those numbers include what I guess we have to call a collapse at Colorado. That’s the exception. After 40 minutes of some of the best defense we’ve seen from Nebraska, the Blackshirts blacked out. Colorado hit for a success rate of 58.8% (prior to that: 30.9%) and eight explosive plays (prior to that: zero) over its final 34 plays while scoring 31 points in 20 minutes.
No such worry this week. The goal-line stand kept the touchdown column clean for the defense, and the second-string maintained it with a stop at midfield on the Huskies’ final drive of the game.
“The defense last week played three really good quarters, then the house of cards kind of fell in on us,” Frost said. “We’ve had to learn a lot of lessons as a football team, coaches and players alike, since I got to Nebraska. I kind of feel like we’ve rounded a bit of a corner.”
There’s one more number you should know about right now. Sacks and takeaways and yards (the lack of them in this case) are great, but in the end this game is about points. I like to look at those on a per-play basis. Spend more time on the field, give up more points. It’s pretty simple.
Last year Nebraska gave up 0.419 points per play defensively, 80thnationally. That meant 31 points per game based on about 75 plays defended per game.
This year the Huskers are at .256 despite defending nearly 80 plays per game. Thirty-seven teams were better than that entering today. Just six were better over a full season in 2018.
“This team is just growing and growing,” defensive linemen Carlos Davis said. “We’re not perfect, but we’re working on it. We’re fixing the little things. We’re going to do this thing right.”
Minus 20 of 60 minutes at altitude, a span that looks even more bizarre now, the Blackshirts have been doing just that.
Brandon is the Managing Editor for Hail Varsity and has covered Nebraska athletics for the magazine and web since 2012, Hail Varsity’s first season on the scene. His sports writing has also been featured by Fox Sports, The Guardian and CBS Sports.