Nebraska’s offensive line was going the wrong way early in 2017. The Huskers gave up one sack to Arkansas State in the opener, but shut out Red Wolves’ defensive end Ja’Von Rolland-Jones, one of the nation’s best pass rushers. (Rolland-Jones got his first two sacks of the season in last night’s win over Georgia Southern.)
A week later, the Huskers allowed two sacks to Oregon’s aggressive 3-4. The Ducks are currently tied for fourth nationally at four sacks per game. Then came the one that still doesn’t make much sense – allowing three sacks to Northern Illinois. That’s still a third of the Huskies’ season total. Somehow the Huskers held up for the most part against a dynamic Oregon rush on the road, but couldn’t handle the Huskies’ rush at home. It still doesn't add up.
Nothing a game against Rutgers can’t fix, however. Nebraska allowed zero sacks there, then two last week to Illinois. Overall, Nebraska’s a little bit better than average at not allowing sacks, ranking 45th nationally at 1.6 per game.
But here comes Wisconsin. Like Oregon, the Badgers are averaging four per game. Last week against Northwestern, Wisconsin had eight. And this, from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, outlines how it “might could” (to borrow a Mike Riley-ism) get dicey for Nebraska on Saturday:
[Northwestern QB Clayton] Thorson was sacked twice on first down, twice on second down and four times on third down.
UW rushed just four men on six of the sacks, five men on one sack and six on one sack.
“It was really just a four-man rush and those guys were just winning,” said inside linebacker Chris Orr, who recorded the sack with six rushers. “I think we have some exotic pressures in our hip pocket. And we haven’t shown any of the new stuff we have. Guys are just winning. They were just flat-out winning.”
I normally don’t like to spend this much time talking about sacks. Just as it’s possible for a baseball team to be efficient offensively without a ton of home runs, a pass rush can be getting the job done without high sack totals, so whatever total Wisconsin ends up with on Saturday could be somewhat incidental. If the Huskers give up three or four sacks but control the rush on the majority of the other passing attempts, they might be fine.
I noted yesterday in a game preview, that the Badgers’ tackles for loss average is actually greater in losses than in wins. The same isn’t quite true for sacks, but it’s about even. In 25 wins under Paul Chryst Wisconsin has averaged 2.56 sacks compared to 2.33 in six losses. Nebraska’s just going to have to live with some losses on Saturday.
But what I’m confident can’t happen is outlined by Orr above. There were two parts of his quote that stood out. One, “It was really just a four-man rush and those guys were just winning.” The Huskers’ offensive linemen are going to have to win perhaps more than their fair share of those battles up front.
If they can, then they’ll need to be ready for part two from Orr: “. . . we haven’t shown any of the new stuff we have.” If that’s accurate, then Nebraska probably isn’t going to be able to game plan its way to better protection, either. At least not entirely. At some point the Huskers are going to have to “just flat-out win” some matches of its own again.
Football games are usually decided that way, but it often seems to come down to that against Wisconsin.
The Grab Bag
- Well, look at that. Nebraska volleyball beat another ranked team, No. 14 Michigan State, and is the only undefeated team in Big Ten play.
- Wisconsin tight end Troy Fumagalli returned to practice on Wednesday, but the Badgers are still dealing with a couple minor injuries on the offensive line.
- Former Oklahoma Coach Bob Stoops told the Atlanta Touchdown Club that he is definitely done coaching.
- According to the Omaha World Herald, Omaha AD Trev Alberts will not be the next AD at Nebraska. USA Today columnist Dan Wolken, however, said outside interest in the job is "strong."
Today's Song of Today
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.