Photo Credit: Ben Solomon

Blackshirts Have Gone from One of the Worst 3rd-Down Defenses in FBS to One of the Best

December 19, 2020

Cam Taylor-Britt pops into the offensive huddle sometimes just to reassure that group the defense has their back. Defensive coordinator Erik Chinander will tell his guys they should want to be on the field. If there’s a little bit of anxiety between the two sides of the ball, no one shows it. Nebraska’s defense seems fine carrying the Huskers.

“We love pressure, man,” said Taylor-Britt, a junior defensive back. “We don’t fold under pressure when it comes. We just take it on and put our best foot forward. Honestly, when the offense doesn’t do so well, we try to hype the offense back. We let them know we have their back.”

Nebraska’s now held its opponent under 30 points in six of eight Big Ten games played this season.  That happened only three times in nine games the year before, and twice the year before that. 

When the offense was sputtering in the first half, the defense did its best to keep Rutgers from creating separation. The margin was only one score at the halftime break. Then when the offense found its footing in the second half, the defense did its job when it was on the field. 

The nine first downs allowed against Rutgers were a season-low. 

Nebraska was without two of its top three inside linebackers—Collin Miller and Luke Reimer. No problem. Their stand-in—Nick Henrich, a redshirt freshman who’d been playing outside—led the defense with 12 total tackles. 

Nebraska turned it over four times in the first 40 minutes of the game. Rutgers started its possessions, on average, at its own 40-yard-line. (Nebraska’s starting field position was 20 yards worse.) Poor positions to start? No problem. The defense has been dealing with that all year. 

“It’s hard to overcome four turnovers, a fake punt and a kick-return touchdown,” said coach Scott Frost. “I don’t know if anybody in the country’s done that this year. But the D kept battling. I thought they were really good on third down tonight, which we needed to improve. I think that’s way better.”

Rutgers only scored 14 points as an offense—two field goals, a touchdown, and a two-point try—and those three scoring drives all came off turnovers. The defense forced three three-and-outs and did their part to limit exposure in the second half. 

The Scarlet Knights ran 18 plays in those final 30 minutes Friday night. They gained 59 yards (3.3 per play), didn’t find the end zone, and turned it over once. Taylor-Britt picked off quarterback Art Sitkowski on what proved to be the Scarlet Knights’ final drive. 

“Big-time players make plays in big-time games,” Taylor-Britt said. “I feel like this is a big-time game. They called my number and I just had to make a play.”

That’s been the defense for most of this season. 

They’ve made big plays when big plays were needed. 

Lately, that unit is starting to turn in more efficient performances, too. 

Rutgers averaged 4.8 yards a play, the second-lowest output for a Nebraska opponent this season. It also went 2-for-13 on third downs, the lowest conversion rate for an opponent this season. 

That’s one area the Blackshirts can point to and puff out their chest a little bit.

“Two-for-thirteen is obviously a really good job,” said linebacker Garrett Nelson. “We talk about practice all the time, and that’s what we do in practice. We practice being perfect. We practice getting off the field. We practice not making mistakes and things like that. We’ve been practicing the way that we should be and now obviously shown on the field. I’m really proud of the defense. I love playing under (Chinander) and all our guys. It’s fun, man. It’s fun to play with this defense.”

The Huskers have allowed opponents to convert just 13 of the 53 third downs they’ve faced in the last four games. That percentage, 24.5%, would be the second-best mark in the country over a full season. They’ve gone from legitimately one of the worst third-down units in the country—54.0% in the first four, which would currently rank 125th out of 127 teams—to one of the very best.

“We love playing defense and we think of it as another opportunity to go show what we do, go show what Blackshirts are all about,” Nelson said. “We love the opportunity to go on the field. We love the opportunity to play. 

“Once we get down what happens? What happens to our team? You can’t sit there and feel sorry for yourself. You’ve got to go play football and you’ve got to go be excited to play and play for each other. That’s the best thing is being excited to play with each other, and I hope everybody saw that tonight, how excited we are to play with each other.”

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