As part of our Year in Review series we're taking a close look at why the 2019 Nebraska football season went the way it did. The series originally appeared in the December issue of Hail Varsity. Make sure you don’t miss more stories like this by subscribing today.
Nebraska’s defense got better in 2019. Just a little bit better, but it was a little bit almost across the board. The Blackshirts improved in yards per play, points per play, overall efficiency, explosive plays allowed, negative plays generated, the list goes on. It wasn’t enough to offset an unexpected regression on offense, but Nebraska as a program isn’t at a point where it can be too picky about its progress. Better is better even if it’s not yet good enough.
There was one area, however, where Nebraska’s defense wasn’t better. There was one area where it was nearly as poor as the much maligned, forcibly forgotten Bob Diaco defense of 2017. The Huskers made all of those slight improvements mentioned above, and more that weren’t, with a missed-tackle rate that was among the highest in the country.
Per SportSource Analytics, which supplied the tackling data for this story, Nebraska had a missed-tackle rate of 12.3% in 2019. That ranked 92nd nationally––the national average at the end of the regular season was 11.1%––and 13thin the Big Ten. The latter ranking might be of more immediate relevance for the Huskers. In early November, four of the eight teams with the lowest missed-tackle rate this season were Big Ten teams—top-ranked Iowa (6.3%), No. 2 Maryland (6.8%), No. 5 Ohio State (7.6%) and No. 6 Indiana (7.7%).
Football success is always a multivariate equation. Maryland’s presence near the top of those rankings is an indication that a good tackling team can still play poor defense overall. Baylor and Oregon ranking lower than Nebraska shows that successful defenses aren’t always great-tackling defenses either. But in the Big Ten, typically a league stuffed with stout defenses, sure tackling is a matter of keeping up with the Joneses. If a team isn’t going to tackle well, its defense has to make up the difference somewhere else.
Nebraska has been lagging of late with the missed-tackle rate going up each year from 2014 to 2017. In Bo Pelini’s final season as head coach the Huskers missed 7.2% of their total solo tackle opportunities, it went up to 8% in Mike Riley’s first season, 2015, then 10.9%, then 12.7% in Riley’s final season. Nebraska’s new staff got the miss rate down to 10.4% in 2018 before it crept back up this season.
|YEAR||MISSED TACKLES %||VS. RUNS||VS. COMPLETED PASSES|
Was the high miss rate why the 2019 season, as a whole, will be remembered as a disappointment? Not on its own, but it contributed. Sometimes it was impossible to miss.
The Huskers missed three total tackles on Colorado’s first two touchdowns as the Buffs erased a 17-point deficit in the fourth quarter. Nebraska missed on Purdue tight end Payne Durham twice to give the Boilermakers a 14-13 lead right before halftime. Leading No. 15 Wisconsin 14-10 in the second quarter, the Huskers had two more misses on a 57-yard touchdown reception by A.J. Taylor. The Badgers never trailed after that. Tyler Goodson’s 55-yard touchdown run for No. 17 Iowa included a missed tackle in the box. Three of those instances involved a miss around midfield. Say the Huskers come up with stops there and force field goals on the two others. That’s a difference of 29 points on a season where the Huskers outscored their opponents by a total of three and, by a Pythagorean Wins formula pioneered by Bill James, raises Nebraska’s expected win total from 6.01 to 6.71 on just five plays.
“There’s about four games you can point to one play and say if that play is different, that game’s different,” Scott Frost said after the loss to the Hawkeyes. He may not have been talking about those four games or those four plays, but the point still stands. With a margin that thin can the Huskers afford not to be at least an average team in terms of tackling?
Teaching tackling has become a cottage industry of sorts in recent years. Thank Pete Carroll for that. When he took over the Seattle Seahawks in 2010 he instituted a rugby-tackling system that soon became known as Hawk tackling. After winning two NFC West titles and Super Bowl XLVIII in his first four seasons, Carroll released an instructional video touting the system as a better and safer alternative.
Nebraska bought in, literally, paying an outside consultant, Atavus, $100,000 to teach Hawk tackling between the 2015 and 2016 seasons. The Huskers’ missed-tackle rate went up, but their points per play improved by 11%. Defensive coordinator Mark Banker was fired anyway.
“To say alarming would be an understatement,” Diaco, Banker’s replacement, said of Nebraska’s tackling when he arrived. The Huskers missed more tackles that year under Diaco, and the whole consultant controversy became a thing.
Enough of a thing that Frost was asked about it during his first spring on the sidelines in Lincoln. He said he was a poor tackler as a safety in the NFL until he reached Tampa Bay and learned proper technique, the technique he and his coaches which teak the Huskers themselves.
“If you're going to run through a tackle and be aggressive, you're going to miss some until you get good at it," Frost said. "I want guys to continue to try to make the big hit, the splash play, the impact play.”
Perhaps tackling then, like some other areas over these first two seasons, shows that the Huskers are still only part way through their progression towards “getting good at it.” Particularly in the secondary. Nebraska’s defensive backs were an active unit this season ranking 38th nationally (fifth in the Big Ten) in havoc rate, a tally of tackles for loss, passes defended and forced fumbles divided by total plays. Tackling from that group, however, was another matter.
Nebraska’s missed-tackle rate on completed passes this season was 20.5%, the highest mark since 2014. Putting more defensive backs on the field made it worse. In its most common nickel package, 3-3-5, Nebraska had a miss rate of 15.7%. In the Huskers’ base defense, 3-4-4, it was 11.7%.
That could be important as the Huskers turn the page to 2020. Nebraska will lose five starters from the front seven and returns just 56.8% of its 2019 tackles on the defensive line and at linebacker. The secondary, however, returns three starters and 71.6% of its 2019 tackles. The defensive backs probably need to be the backbone of the Blackshirts defense in the season ahead.
It definitely wouldn’t hurt anything if the Blackshirts as a whole threw the bones a little more often after a successful tackle. Beats getting thrown, which has become a little too common of late in Lincoln.
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.