Nebraska gave up a bunch of yards on Saturday in its 43-36 win over Arkansas State. Maybe you heard.
New defensive coordinator Bob Diaco seemed to hear at least some of the conversation around those numbers and addressed them following Monday’s practice.
“We don’t really talk about statistics,” he said. “We really don’t care. We try to build the plan to keep the points down so that at the end of the game we have one more point than our opponent. That’s the defensive objective.”
Against the Red Wolves, that plan called for the Huskers to live with short passes in hopes of preventing longer ones. Arkansas State quarterback Justice Hansen threw 68 times for 415 yards. The latter total ranked fourth nationally. His 6.1 yards per attempt? That ranked 87th.
Diaco said Nebraska did a “wonderful job” executing the plan.
“We didn’t want to have 50-50 jump balls down the field and have explosive plays down the field,” he said. “We had a plan to put plays together, as many as they needed to, that eventually a drive would stall, an error would happen, an interception, a third down we got off the field, a red-zone stop, and that was going to be the tale of the tape.”
Or, as linebackers coach Trent Bray more simply put it, the plan was “make them have to put long drives together to score.”
After giving up 26 points in the first half – including nine not allowed by the defense and another scoring drive kept alive by a third-down stop wiped out by a penalty – Nebraska held Arkansas State to just a field goal in the second half until the Red Wolves’ final touchdown with 46 seconds remaining. Arkansas State recovered the ensuing onside kick and Nebraska was forced to make a defensive stop to pull out the win.
“It didn’t need to be as exciting as it was down the stretch,” Diaco said.
But the suddenly stressful situation could offers some benefits as the Huskers move through the season.
“It’s great when you can be put in stress situations and come out on top,” Bray said. “We got put in probably every situation in football the other night: kickoff after a safety, a safety of our own, having to rebound after a touchdown on special teams, being put out there after a recovered onside kick, having to win the game on defense.
“There were just so many situations that you may never get in a season [that] we got in one night that we can really learn from.”
On to some other notes from Tuesday’s practice:
>>As fellow coaches in Conference USA, Diaco and new Oregon head coach Willie Taggart squared off three times between 2014 and 2016, which should make the schematic chess match interesting on Saturday.
“I would think that coach has a pretty good idea of the things I like to do,” Diaco said. “I’ve got a pretty good idea of the things that he likes to do. They’re just getting started, we’re just getting started.”
One thing Diaco’s expecting plenty of this week — the run. The Ducks rushed 52 times for 6.69 yards per carry in their 77-21 season-opening win over Southern Utah.
“A staple of a Coach Taggart offense is that they’re tough. He’s a tough guy,” Diaco said. “They love to run the football. There’s a lot of window dressing that goes on, but they run the football and they run it well. That’s been a hallmark of his teams.”
As the head coach at South Florida, Taggart got the best of Diaco’s Connecticut team twice, winning 42-27 in 2016 and 17-14 in 2014. The Huskies took the middle game 28-20.
>>Diaco’s familiarity with Taggart could be a benefit to Nebraska this week. So could facing the Arkansas State attack last week, which shares some similarities with what Oregon will do.
“Spread is spread. You’ve got to defend [the width of the field],” Diaco said. “You’ve got to be sure you’re covered down properly.”
That said, don’t expect to see the same game plan from Nebraska this week.
“Every game has its own recipe for a win,” Diaco said. “If we need to allow for some areas of the field for them to have opportunities in there to make sure that we eliminate or minimize other major liabilities, we’ll have to do that.”
>>True freshman defensive tackle Deontre Thomas was on the field for the Huskers in crunch time on Saturday, which Diaco said was an indication of his maturity as a player. It’s been a common refrain in Thomas’ few months on campus.
“He doesn’t behave [like a freshman], he doesn’t act like that,” Diaco said. “He’s got real high football intelligence.”
Of course, first games are rarely perfect.
“We can’t crown him or anoint him. He’s still a freshman,” Diaco said. “He had some fit things and kind of floating around in there that created a problem for our defense. He needs to just drill down on his job and do his job. Young players tend to get captured by the ball. They can’t take their eyes off the ball.”
Thomas assisted on three tackles in the opener.
>>Safety Aaron Williams may have made one of the hidden plays of the game, jarring a touchdown catch lose at the last second early in the fourth quarter. The Red Wolves were forced to settle for a field goal on the drive, leaving Nebraska with a 41-29 lead.
“I think that epitomizes Aaron Williams,” safeties coach Scott Booker said. “I think I talked about that before, someone talked about him as a safety and what makes him great, but it’s not just how he does stuff here but it’s also in the film room. He knew that that was a play they could be running and so he was able to zone off in his quarter and be there and back up another player so that he could be in position to make that play. It was a tremendous play and a timely play.”
>>Bray was spotted doing up-downs with a group of players following practice. Why?
"That's top secret," he said.
Practice or game related?
Brandon is the Managing Editor for Hail Varsity and has covered Nebraska athletics for the magazine and web since 2012, Hail Varsity’s first season on the scene. His sports writing has also been featured by Fox Sports, The Guardian and CBS Sports.