Photo Credit: Ohio State Athletics

Defensive Improvement Starts Up Front for Nebraska in Stopping the Run

October 29, 2020

The Husker defensive line played an interesting game in their opener against Ohio State. Interesting in the sense that Nebraska allowed the Buckeyes to run for 5.4 yards a run (adjusted for sacks) and didn’t feel completely aghast with the line play after.

“I was really proud of how the young guys played,” d-line coach Tony Tuioti said this week. “I thought they were physical at the point of attack.”

That much is true. Nebraska got knock-back on a number of plays. In just the first half, the Buckeyes averaged only 3.8 yards a run on 24 carries.

If Ohio State was expecting to come out and run over NU the same way it did a year ago, that notion was dispelled fairly quickly. Quarterback Justin Fields carved up Nebraska’s defense through the air, but the line of scrimmage wasn’t the cakewalk it had been in years prior.

For four seasons now, Nebraska has been 10th or worse in the Big Ten at stopping the run on a per-play basis. Since joining the league, Nebraska has surrendered 4.9 yards a run to conference opponents. And in the last three years, that number has ballooned to 5.8.

Nebraska’s original opponent for this weekend—Wisconsin, a game that was canceled Wednesday when the Badgers paused team activities—would have presented a perfect benchmark.

Nebraska has lost seven straight in the series with Wisconsin, and a huge part of that goes directly to line play on the defensive side of the ball. Those guys have run for 2,533 yards on Nebraska in the last seven meetings, averaging 8.0 yards a pop.

The Badgers haven’t had to throw it. They’ve been able to do whatever they want on the ground.

And Nebraska expected that to continue. Reports suggested that had the Badgers been able to play the game, they would have been on their fourth-string quarterback. Last year’s starter, Jack Coan, has been out with an injury since before the season started. His backup, Graham Mertz, tested positive for the coronavirus this week. Then Mertz’s backup tested positive. Nebraska was preparing as if running back Garrett Groshek—a high school quarterback—would take snaps under center.

The numbers tell you to run against Nebraska. Recent history says that path leads to successful things for an offense.

“If we can’t stop the run, there’s no reason for them to not stop running the ball,” Tuioti said. He was talking specifically about Wisconsin, but it could apply to anyone.

“So, for us, it’s about stopping the run and taking away what they do best, and then we can make them one-dimensional and now we get a chance to go after them. We’ve gotta earn the right to rush the passer, but it starts with stopping the run.”

Gap integrity is important. Run fits are important. Nebraska hasn’t been good enough in either area in recent years.

Inside linebacker Will Honas called their run fits “on point” against the Buckeyes. Misfitting there was a particularly pesky issue in the front seven a year ago. Ben Stille, a senior starter at defensive end, said they’ve got to be better moving forward.

“We’ve just got to have guys fitting everything right, playing aggressive, attacking everything on the defense,” he said. “”It’s just the details of the defense … and being able to fit those as well as we can up front and on the back end. That’s really the only thing you’re going to fix over these next six days.”

Nebraska has the size now. At least, it seemed in the opener like it did. Physicality isn’t something born quickly, it’s something that’s painstakingly built. Under strength coach Zach Duval now for three years, the Huskers were hopeful this year was a turning point.

“We’ve got to get healthy there, but I thought we held up in the run game pretty well,” head coach Scott Frost said. “I thought we tackled better than we did last year. I thought we held our position to the point of attack better up front against a really good team.

“They’re really good at running outside-zone, mid-zone at Ohio State. I thought we held our gaps pretty well and played those plays really well.”

Perhaps with the cancellation this weekend, Nebraska will be able to get junior college transfer Jordon Riley available for its next game against Northwestern on Nov. 7. Riley missed the opener. He’s a 6-foot-6 lineman listed at 330 pounds. Nebraska had good things to say about his camp.

How he’ll work himself into the rotation will be interesting. Nebraska used five guys heavily in that first game: Stille, Damion Daniels, Ty Robinson, Casey Rogers, and Keep Green. It played a good deal of snaps in the normal 3-4 front but with an outside linebacker replacing a lineman, and then a number of snaps in a 4-3 front with only two down linemen. (Shouts to Jacob Padilla for the charting.)

In its first game of the season, Northwestern ran the ball 53 times for 325 yards. Wisconsin logged more rushing attempts, but no one in the conference was better on the ground in their opening game. How will Nebraska fit for game No. 2 now that it has some extra time on its hands to pour over film and prepare?

Because even though the vibe coming out of the opener was an optimistic one, Stille struck an important note this week.

“A loss by 30,” he said, “isn’t necessarily a step in the direction we’re looking for.”

Changing that starts at the line of scrimmage.

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