Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Contextualizing Nebraska’s Defensive Performance against Georgia Southern

September 11, 2022

For much of last season, Erik Chinander’s defense gave the Huskers a chance to win games. 

The Blackshirts allowed just 22.7 points per game and never gave up more than 35, keeping Nebraska in games while the other two units attempted to figure things out. They never did, and Nebraska went 3-9 as a result.

Against Georgia Southern on Saturday night, Nebraska surpassed the 40-point mark for just the ninth time in 47 games under Scott Frost, putting up 42 points. The Huskers averaged 7.1 yards per play, passing for 318 yards at a 67.6% completion rate and running for another 257 yards on 5.5 yards per tote. The Huskers went 9-for-13 on third down and didn’t turn the ball over.

Casey Thompson diced up the defense with his arm and legs, Anthony Grant and Ajay Allen formed a dynamic one-two punch on the ground and Marcus Washington had a career game out wide. The Huskers marched 98 yards in 15 plays to take the lead with just over three minutes to play.

Despite all that, Nebraska lost. Again.

“That one hurt,” Frost said after Nebraska’s 45-42 loss to the Eagles. “We win as a team, lose as a team, and we got beat today. I think we got out-schemed, didn’t have an answer. On one side of the ball we could’ve played better, in some other areas too. They got after us.”

Frost used some variation of “win together, lose together” five different times in his post-game interview that lasted five minutes and forty seconds. After three seasons of Frost’s offense stumbling along, he had no interest in pointing fingers at his defense on Saturday. However, it’s hard to lay the blame anywhere else when a team gives up 45 points.

All those offense numbers I listed above for Nebraska? Georgia Southern’s were even better. 

The Eagles averaged 7.5 points per play, totaling 409 yards through the air at a 66.1% completion rate and 233 yards on the ground at 7.8 a pop. Georgia Southern went 9-13 on third down and 2-for-2 on fourth down.

Quarterback Kyle Vantrease lit the Blackshirts up with the quick passing game while running back Gerald Green nearly matched Grant’s production on a third of the carries. 

The Eagles’ 642 yards were the third-most by a Nebraska opponent in program history, and the most ever at Memorial Stadium. The 1956 Oklahoma Sooners hold the record with 656 yards in a 54-6 beatdown while the 2012 UCLA Bruins are second with 653 yards in a 36-30 defeat for the Huskers. The rest of the top 10 consists of Power Five teams (plus Notre Dame) as well, and only six of those top 10 included a higher yards-per-play average than what Nebraska allowed to the Eagles.

Georgia Southern went 3-9 and averaged 20.3 points per game last season before undergoing a coaching and drastic system change. The Eagles landed an experienced quarterback in Vantrease, a transfer from Buffalo, and put up 59 points in week one, but that was against a bad FCS team in Morgan State and they only totaled 509 yards with a per-play average of 6.5.

Nebraska did record two takeaways (both interceptions by Marques Buford Jr.), but the Eagles punted just once all game, and the Huskers benefitted from clock mismanagement on the final drive of the first half or they would have given up even more points. Nebraska has only failed to force a punt twice in program history (Missouri in 2008 and Ohio State in 2016), and it nearly did so again on Saturday.

All things considered, Saturday night might have been the worst defensive showing in Nebraska history. The Eagles did exactly what Nebraska expected them to do, and the Huskers couldn’t stop them.

“They ran a lot of what we’d seen,” Frost said. “I don’t think we won very many one-on-one matchups. Just looking at it, they got inside of us on slants when it was supposed to be inside technique. Broke a couple tackles. I said at halftime we don’t have enough eyes on the ball in a couple of our coverages, and guys not running well after the ball enough. There were some tunnel screens on us that we didn’t get back out of it on the defensive line. That’s not supposed to happen.”

Despite all the previous struggles, the offense gave Nebraska a 42-38 lead with 3:05 remaining. With one stop, the Huskers could have gotten out of there with a victory and spent the next week of practice trying to resolve the issues that put them in yet another close game. The Huskers could not get that stop, however.

The Eagles marched 75 yards on 11 plays in just 2:29 of game time. The Blackshirts stuffed Georgia Southern on third-and-short early in the drive, but Nebraska gave up a 6-yard fourth-down completion rather easily to keep it going.

What followed: incomplete pass, 10-yard completion, incomplete pass, 7-yard completion, 27-yard completion on third-and-3, defensive holding, an incomplete pass and an 8-yard touchdown run from Vantrease. Nebraska looked to have had a chance to pick off one or two of those incomplete passes, but couldn’t capitalize.

The touchdown came on a quarterback draw, a brilliant play call from the Georgia Southern coaching staff because the Nebraska defense had to be thinking pass. Vantrease started the play by motioning his running back out to the left, which led to nickel Isaac Gifford sliding out alongside him. As Gifford shifted, freshman linebacker Ernest Hausmann shifted outside to cover the slot receiver, and safety Marques Buford did the same. That left four defenders covering three receivers to the left side of the field and no one in the middle.

Garrett Nelson rushed wide, Stephon Wynn Jr. got sealed to the inside by the left guard and Vantrease had a massive hole to run through. Luke Reimer ran over late from the weak side and Hausmann tried to recover as well, but Vantrease managed to dive for the end zone before they could stop him. Ball game.

“We have a lot to look at,” Frost said. “Looking forward to getting in the film room and looking at it, spending some more time with the defense and seeing what we can get fixed. I think in that game, we probably had a notion we could do pretty well in some of our base calls, and we needed to mix up the looks a little bit because they were getting in the right thing for what we were in. We didn’t execute great.”

That answer from Frost begs an important and terrifying question: If the Blackshirts couldn’t win one-on-ones or execute their basic stuff against a Sun Belt team like Georgia Southern, how can they hope to do so next weened when Oklahoma comes to town?

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