Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Despite Incredible Performance, Nebraska’s Defense Left Without Reward

September 26, 2021

Nothing being read the day after Nebraska lost to No. 20 Michigan State in the fashion which it did—23-20 in overtime—is going to make the pain go away. But if you’re a true fan of defense, defensive coordinator Erik Chinander and his Blackshirts made you proud Saturday night.

If you can, try to wipe the supposed-to-go-right-but-went-left punt and 62-yard touchdown return from Jayden Reed from your mind. Keep the thoughts from the Husker defense, though. That unit was the only silver lining in the black hole that turned out to be East Lansing, Michigan.

Nebraska’s defense played the best game of the season. It performed a magic trick on one the biggest storylines of the game, Kenneth Walker III, making him disappear. Walker came into the contest leading the nation in rushing yards with 493. The Wake Forest transfer averaged 164.3 rushing yards per game, but on Saturday he was held to 61 on 19 carries. If it weren’t for his 23-yarder in overtime, Walker averaged a measly 2.1 yards.

Outside linebacker Garrett Nelson, who had six tackles and two for a loss, said containing Walker was at the top of the priority list. Everyone in the meetings leading up to Saturday was aware of the running back’s gaudy 8.65 per-carry average.

But on nearly every carry, the Huskers’ front seven built a wall of scarlet and cream in front of Walker and collapsed it on him. 

“It’s hard to run the ball when you have 11 dudes trying to tackle you,” Nelson said. “We didn’t change anything, we played the defense that we know we can play and played for each other.”

But on a night where the Huskers kept the Spartan offense from gaining a first down in the second half—the defense forced five three-and-outs and held Michigan State to fewer yards (14) than plays (15) in the third and fourth quarters—it turned out to not be enough. 

If not Saturday night, when will it be enough? 

I feel terrible for them because the defense is playing really well right now and we didn’t have any business losing that game,” head coach Scott Frost said.

Outside linebacker JoJo Domann, who finished with four tackles with one for a loss, said his unit has more to give. Players will always strive for more, but from the outside looking in, the defense did its part. The Spartans were inside the Nebraska 10-yard line twice in the first half, but came away with only six points. Six is better than 14, and those red-zone stops helped Nebraska head into halftime trailing only 13-10 instead of a possible 21-10 deficit.

“We had a good half, but it wasn’t great by any means. We have more to give. This whole team has more to give,” Domann said. “We’re not done, we’re not going to roll over. This hurts, we want to win the game. We’re competitors. But ultimately it’s how we respond to these moments that are going to define us.”

To Domann, what the defense and the team does next will determine the rest of the season. The Huskers need to find four wins in their next seven games to qualify for a bowl, something that hasn’t been done since 2016 when Mike Riley was around. Northwestern (2-2, 0-1 in the Big Ten) is the next opportunity on Saturday.

Ready for another night game? Kickoff with Pat Fitzgerald’s Wildcats is slated for 6:30 p.m. CT.

“You want to win. That’s why you put in all the work, so you can reap the rewards of your work,” Domann said. “Ultimately our identity is not wins and losses, this is Nebraska football and we take pride in that. So we owe it to Nebraska football to respond from this, learn something from this, be better from this, because what else can we do at this point.”

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