Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco called Saturday’s performance at Minnesota “disgusting” after practice on Tuesday. Diaco said the Blackshirts have a lot to work on still heading into week 11.
“There are so many things to fix, so may things we’ve been working on, so many things I’ve alluded to for you guys in terms of the gaps in defending and how hard it is to defend with those gaps and how you eliminate the gaps and then how long it takes to eliminate those gaps,” Diaco said.
The Huskers won’t get long, however, as the team will head to No. 13 Penn State on Saturday as a heavy, heavy underdog.
“The attitude’s just been we’ve got another opportunity on the table,” junior nose tackle Mick
Stoltenberg said. “That’s all we really ask for. At the end of the season, obviously things aren’t going the way that we wanted. It’s definitely kind of prime time to take ahold of the opportunity and really work hard this week and kind of prepare for this one because it’s definitely a big opportunity for us.”
Sitting at 4-6, where does the motivation come from?
“For me, you watch the film on Saturday and that should be all you need to watch to come out here and have a good practice and battle,” senior linebacker Chris Weber said. “That’s not what we did on Saturday. It’s embarrassing and we’ve got to use that moving forward. That’s what we’re going to do this week.”
Penn State heads into the weekend second in the Big Ten in scoring offense and passing offense and has a Heiman-caliber running back in the backfield, making it one of the more dangers offenses the Huskers will see all year.
“It’s weapons at all levels on offense and at offensive coordinator, a great coach,” Diaco said. “Fun system, attacking system, really suits their players well. They’ve got a weapon at tight end [Mike Gesicki] who’s the most productive receiver they have in terms of catches; he’s a major target for them and a great player. Then they have great perimeter skill to stretch the field and create strain and stress. And then you have this back-quarterback running combination in tandem.”
That quarterback is Trace McSorely, the Big Ten’s leading passer who also has nine rushing touchdowns this season. The back is Saquon Barkley, whose name had been a Heiman Trophy front-runner for much of the season.
“He is the total package,” DIaco said about Barkley. “He’s got contact balance, great speed, great vision, powerful runner, big thick-bodied guy, he breaks tackles, he makes you miss, he can jump over you, and you know what’s fun to watch is his pass protection. He’s an aggressive blocker. He’s an absolute, total package, one of the best backs that has been in the league in some time.”
As dangerous as Barkley is, Nebraska has to be careful about devoting too much attention to slowing him down because of the presence of McSorely, Gesicki and others in the passing game.
“Anytime you’re going to load up you’ve got to feel comfortable that there’s an aptitude to do the other piece, to eliminate the other piece as you move your puzzle pieces around, which — I can move all the puzzle pieces around, I’ve been moving them around for years, I know exactly where they should be, where they should go, how they should go — it creates other strain, it creates other strain, and you’ve got to be ready for that strain,” Diaco said.
Stoltenberg cited two areas in particular in which Nebraska has to be solid to deal with McSorely and Barkley.
“They’re two great, dynamic playmakers,” Stoletnebrg said. “Two of the best in the conference at what they’re doing. One important things is obviously just assignments, doing what we’re supposed to and not trying to over-compensate and make plays that aren’t yours. The next thing is tackling, being violent through tackles, making sure we don’t give them second chances. If we get a body on them to make sure we get them on the ground.”
A big week of practice will be key to staying assignment sound. That was a big issue for the Huskers against Minnesota and Stoltenberg said they have to be better this week.
“I really feel like maybe just the way the preparation went, maybe guys just weren’t as ready to play as they could have been,” Stoltenberg said. “We thought we had a good week of practice, we thought we came out and prepared hard. Obviously some things didn’t really fall into place. I think it’s just important to kind of go back to the basics and really review fundamentals, kind of not to look at the big picture but just kind of the task at hand and each day of practice and kind of working on those small details.”
The Huskers will once again be without junior linebacker Luke Gifford as Coach Mike Riley announced at his Monday press conference that he would be undergoing season-ending surgery.
“It’s huge,” Diaco said. “I feel badly for him. He’s going to be OK, but he was doing such a wonderful job and really found a home at that spot; it really suits him. He was becoming a real leader — still doing a nice job as a leader, actually. We’ve given him a role to help kind of coach the field overhang. He really bought into it. I’m not sure he wants to be a coach some day but I think he’d be a hell of a coach.”
Gifford has been on the 70-man travel roster for the last two road trips despite being ruled out likely because of that leadership role the coaches have asked him to fill. Marcus Newby will have to continue playing heavy snaps with both Gifford and reserve Tyrin Ferguson on the shelf with injuries.