husker football players Bootle and Nelson celebrate after a play
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Defensive Growth Impossible to Ignore in Nebraska’s 30-23 Win Over Penn State

November 14, 2020

Luke McCaffrey was getting ready for a potential overtime possession. He asked his left tackle, Brenden Jaimes, to provide updates on what was happening between the numbers.

Nebraska’s offense wasn’t out on the field much in the second half (12 minutes to Penn State’s 18) but their own inefficiencies had as much to do with that as Penn State’s domineering ground game.

It let slip what was at one point early on a 24-3 lead. The offense was out-gained 301-95 in the final 30 minutes and outscored 17-3. Everyone watching braced for a Penn State touchdown that would tie the game at 30-all. Penn State had two chances at it. Nebraska turned them away both times to walk out with a 30-23 win.

McCaffrey wasn’t needed.

“We wanted to be the ones to finish that game off and we did that,” said corner Cam Taylor-Britt after.

Following a McCaffrey interception with 7:39 to play in the fourth, Penn State took over at Nebraska 48.

It drove to Nebraska’s 11-yard-line and got stone-walled.

Nittany Lion quarterback Will Levis put too much on a first-down fade ball and it fell harmlessly to the turf. Corner Dicaprio Bootle played a fade ball to the other corner well on second down and kept star wideout Jahan Dotson from making a play. Nebraska brought pressure on third, nearly got home, and forced an incompletion over the middle. Nebraska brought pressure again on fourth, got Levis moving around, and then safety Marquel Dismuke batted away his throw.

“That was impressive, wasn’t it?” Coach Scott Frost said. “I’ve been here three years, seen us give up some fades and some pass interference penalties. Watching Cam and D-Cap and Quinton Newsome and Deontai (Williams) break up some of those passes, be in the right position, not get penalties, I think it shows the improvement those guys have made.

“Coach Fish deserves a lot of credit for that. I thought they played not just a good game but a smart game.”

A three-and-out (after just 1:03 of game clock) on Nebraska’s next possession again put the onus squarely on the defense’s shoulders to close things out.

This time Penn State got to the Nebraska 9 before the defense stood up.

Linebacker Will Honas brought pressure off the left side and forced a poor Levis pass on first down.

Nebraska dialed up pressure again on second and Levis again missed, this time Williams and linebacker Luke Reimer brought the heat.

The pocket collapsed on Levis on third down. Reimer was in for the sack, linemen Ben Stille and Ty Robinson forced Levis into scramble mode quickly.

Stille ended things with a near sack on fourth down. Levis threw it up as he was going down, but no one was close to it.

“When it comes down to it, we can bend but we just can’t break,” outside linebacker JoJo Domann said. “That’s what we did. We bowed up, we knew there were only so many things they run in the red zone, we got pressure on the quarterback, we locked it down in the secondary. This is what it takes. This is what it takes to win games.”

The offense ran out in the victory formation and kneeled on it for Nebraska’s first win of the year.

Dissection of the offense can come at a later time. Nebraska closed. And after the game, you could feel the surge of confidence that provided.

“Tears of joy,” Williams said. “We were happy. God is good.

“It was just emotional because we finally got over that hump we needed to get over. Now it’s about rolling. Games are about to start rolling, wins are about to start coming, and I see it from this defense. We feel like we can beat anybody that we line up against, especially on defense. We don’t feel like anybody’s better than us.”

Nebraska gave up 501 yards as a defense. The secondary gave up some big plays, notably a 74-yard completion to tight end Pat Freiermuth who was able to get in behind the coverage. But Penn State ran 91 plays.

You’ll live with that if you’re the defensive coaching staff.

Because what defensive coordinator Erik Chinander asks of his group is to make the game-changing plays. The Blackshirts created two turnovers, one of them an interception nearly returned for a score and the other a fumble actually returned for a score. Penn State went to the red zone six times and came away with only one touchdown. Nebraska made the plays that matter when they mattered.

“It takes a weight off our shoulders when our defense can be as stout as ours was today,” McCaffrey said.

The tempo Penn State played with and the sheer volume of its offense tested the Blackshirts. Taylor-Britt and Domann both said as much after the game. It took a toll.

Would defenses of the past have held up at the end, though? Credit the defensive coaching staff for development. Youth blended with veterans all over the field. Defensive coordinator Erik Chinander dialed up pressures for anyone and everyone.

“When he’s on and we’re truly buying into what he’s saying and trying to get across, good things are gonna happen,” Domann said of Chinander, the guy he called the “backbone” of the defense.

In the last two weeks, yardage aside, Nebraska’s defense has given up 21 and 23 points. Pretty solid numbers against modern offenses. Last week, 21 still proved too many. Guys were mad after.

“I’ve been here three years, for us to continue to do that, it’s just very frustrating,” Taylor-Britt said. “I’m a true junior now and I’ve seen everything that we’ve done here. We get up and we get right back down because we get comfortable. What we were telling the guys on the sideline was, ‘Don’t get comfortable. It’s 0-0 again.’”

Things almost slipped. But the Blackshirts held the rope.

“There’s still a lot of things we need to clean up, but I feel like the team needed to turn the page on being in some of those games and not finding a way to get it done,” Frost said. “I feel like everybody in Nebraska can see the progress the defense has made, how much more athletic we are, how much harder they play, how much smarter they play.”

Nebraska’s won games with its defense through Frost’s first 27 games as the head coach. Perhaps more than he thought they’d be able to. Certainly more than he probably would have preferred to need to.

Makes you think that if and when the offense can put a full 60 minutes together—they did have 27 points in the first half, after all—things might really turn.

For now, though, revel in the Blackshirts’ growth.

They showed flashes in an opening loss to Ohio State. They played three strong frames in a game two loss to Northwestern. Saturday night against Penn State, they applied the finishing touch.

“We always talk about winning the game for the team, right? Being on the field when it counts?” Stille said. “Just really proud of the guys to be able to pull this one out.”

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