The Blackshirts are right where they should be, at this point, in their development.
Those were defensive coordinator Bob Diaco’s words Saturday night following a 31-24 overtime loss to Northwestern in which the Nebraska defense gave up 475 yards and 232 rushing yards. The Wildcats were a perfect 4-of-4 in the red zone, with three touchdowns against just one field goal, with the final touchdown sealing the win.
It’s the fourth time this season the Nebraska defense has surrendered 450 yards or more in a game. But with Diaco’s defense it’s not about the yards, it’s about the points. That’s been a point of emphasis this season from the new defensive coordinator. Despite what the numbers said in Nebraska’s fourth home loss in six games this season, Diaco said after the game that he sensed improvement.
“There was a lot of good things in a highly competitive game where six inches decided the day,” he said. “Every player is improving.”
Diaco referenced cornerback Lamar Jackson’s play to illustrate his point. Jackson has struggled this season with both consistency tackling and defending the pass, but last week against Purdue he led the team in tackles (eight solo) and this week he had another strong showing.
“Let’s take Lamar Jackson for example, he’s really finding himself on the field,” Diaco said. “He’s really becoming a strong, prepared player and even today, there were a few moments where he could have done better – like everybody, every single person on the D – but he’s getting better.”
The same could be said for a player like redshirt freshman safety Marquel Dismuke, who made his first career start against Northwestern and played nearly every snap. Dismuke said his confidence has grown with each passing game as he’s gotten more and more reps. All evening long, he was right in the action, with four solo tackles and three assists.
Perhaps one of the feel-good moments for the defense was the third-and-goal play from inside the 1-yard line in overtime. Quarterback Clayton Thorson tried a sneak, but Nebraska created a wall at the goalline and kept him out. After the play, guys like linebacker Mohamed Barry and corner Chris Jones were demonstrably excited.
“The defense did their best I think after giving up some yardage in the overtime to try and keep them out,” head coach Mike Riley said after the game.
Thorson scored a play later on what would become the game-winning touchdown from less than a yard out. A few inches that decided the game.
Riley said he didn’t like the run defense in the first half, when Nebraska gave up 127 yards on a 6 yard-per-carry average, but that he felt things got better as the game wore on. Still, as the run defense improved, the coverage in the secondary sagged. The Huskers gave up a 42-yard pass play late in the second quarter and then a 20-yard gain on third-and-9 early on in the fourth.
Diaco said the defense can’t, and shouldn’t, be expected to be able to stop everything at this point.
“There’s no reasonable reason, considering where the defensive program is at, to believe that they should be able to do everything that needs to be done in a game,” Diaco said. “The things that happen in a game create an impossible circumstance to win against a great team. I’m not disappointed in any way with our players. The players are right where they should be in their development.
“The resources in our package to stop whatever we need to stop are there. Then, when you do that, you open up something else, so you call something to allocate and eliminate the run and expect another piece of it to operate. We’re not, our unit is not where, down by down, we can just call up and put pressure and strain in other areas. Then you give up explosive plays in the passing game. If you do that, you have no chance.”
Diaco said, whether it’s the pass or the run, his players have both the physical and mental traits needed to stop whatever is thrown at them. He was upset with a few plays here and there, but at the end of the day, his defense was a few inches from winning, they just couldn’t quite get it done.
Nebraska has three games left on its season and a 4-5 record. It has two games on the road, one against a top-10 team in Penn State. It also has a season-concluding showdown with an Iowa team that just walloped No. 6 Ohio State 55-24.
Dismuke said a bowl game is the last thing on the team’s mind right now.
“We just going to take one game at a time right now, one game and that’s it,” he said. “We’re not worried about the future. Just what’s next, next week, and that’s what we’re going to prepare for.”
Diaco said his “heart is wrenched” for the seniors playing in their next-to-last game in Memorial Stadium to go through an ending like that, but that he has no doubt they’ll continue to look for those few inches they need to be better next week.
“It’s an inch here, an inch there,” he said. “"I'm optimistic in change here, flip the page, to find a few inches, for each person, for me, find an inch.”
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.