Wednesday featured a look at the rushing offense, so it only felt right to make Thursday a look at the run defense. The sample size is small, but the Blackshirts made a major leap in an area that has been a major pain point for years.
When Scott Frost arrived in Lincoln, the Huskers were small. That was one of the first “Oh s**t” moments for the new coaching staff; the rest of the Big Ten was simply bigger. Nowhere was that fact a bigger issue than in the trenches.
If you notice, nearly every high school offensive lineman Nebraska has signed since that transition 2018 recruiting class has been a mountain of a young man. On the defensive line, Nebraska has prioritized size all the same.
“We’re in a league with big guys and I think right when our staff got here we didn’t think we were big enough to hold up against some of the huge people we were playing every week, so we made a real effort to get those guys,” Frost said when the early signing period opened in mid-December.
One of the more infamous Frost quotes so far is the one that came after the Huskers lost to Iowa in 2018, when Frost said in the postgame that he looked across the field and saw a bigger team, and he vowed to never feel that way again.
Nebraska has gotten huge in the trenches. Both lines are still very much under construction, but the defensive group might be a little further along than most people would have anticipated.
In 2017, the last year of the Mike Riley era, Nebraska gave up 5.6 yards per rushing attempt across all 12 games and 6.0 against conference opponents. The Blackshirts had the seventh-worst run defense in the country.
In Frost’s first season (2018), Nebraska improved, but the per-carry average stayed at 5 yards. Against Big Ten opponents, it was 5.6.
Last season (2019), Nebraska relied on a trio of senior linemen who are all now playing for NFL franchises and turned in a stronger season overall, but a weaker performance against conference foes. The Huskers’ 4.8 average on the year ranked 102nd nationally. And NU gave up 5.7 against conference foes.
The 2015 season was the last time the Husker defense held its opponents under 4 yards per carry. NU was almost exactly middle of the pack in 2016, but for the three seasons heading into this recently-completed 2020 campaign, Big Ten teams have been able to run on first down then run on second down and move the chains.
A winning team that does not make. Not at the Power Five level, and not in the toughest conference in the country.
Clemson has won six straight ACC titles; the Tigers have been under 4 yards per carry as a run defense every year. The last six SEC title winners have all posted per-carry averages under 4 yards. The 2018 Ohio State title team was the only Big Ten winner in the last six seasons to allow more than 4 yards per run for a season. (The Big 12 and Pac-12 are off doing their own weird things with Air Raids and Pistols and mullets and it’s usually best to limit their exposure in defensive think pieces.)
This season, though. This season the frontline work from Ben Stille, Ty Robinson, Damion Daniels, Casey Rogers, and Jordon Riley gave Nebraska a major boost.
Here’s the “seeing progress” part: Nebraska gave up 4.2 yards per carry against an all-Big Ten schedule.
Here’s the eyebrow-raising, eyeball-emoji-warranting part: With a 23.4% stuff rate on carries from opposing running backs, Nebraska ranked 28th nationally, and with a 56.8% success rate allowed on third-and-shorts and fourth-and-shorts (2 yards to go or less), Nebraska ranked 10th nationally.
In 2019, the Huskers stopped those short-yardage runs only 19% of the time. In 2018, they “stuffed” runs only 15% of the time. Both were some of the worst marks in the country in their respective seasons.
Big picture, the run defense is absolutely trending in the right direction.
But zoom in on specific parts of that run defense and holy hell Nebraska was actually really good at bowing up in short-yardage situations and more than capable of defeating blocks to get to the ball-carrier.
That was obvious in flashes on Saturdays. Damion Daniels just manhandling his guy and swallowing the running back before he ever saw daylight. The 2-5-4 stuff defensive coordinator Erik Chinander messed with worked really well. Nebraska was more clinical than it has been.
When you look at a guy like Robinson who stands 6-foot-6 and 310 pounds, when you look at a guy like Riley who stands 6-foot-6 and 330 pounds, when you look at the growth guys like Daniels and Rogers have made, it’s hard not to come away optimistic with what Nebraska has going on the defensive side of the ball.
The Huskers aren’t pushovers at the line of scrimmage. Consistency is now needed in execution (NU gave up 5.5 yards a rush to Illinois this season), but when folks get to looking back on this season, they shouldn’t have to shield their eyes once they reach the run-stopping portion of the data dive.
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.