Don't Call it a Rebuild in Nebraska's Secondary
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Hot Reads: Revisiting the Huskers’ Defensive Punch List from 2018

July 11, 2019

You know you're really in the deep water of the offseason when you start looking at what you wrote a year ago. About this time in 2018, I was writing about three numbers that needed to be better on offense and defense. I should probably do that again for the 2019 season, and will at some point, but for now let's look at last year's punch list.

It seems like offense always gets top billing––kids these days with their points and their phones, etc., etc.,––so let's start with defense. Nebraska got better on that side of the ball, depending upon how you want to measure it. Bottom line, the 2017 Huskers gave up 0.529 points per play (120th) and the 2018 Huskers gave up 0.419 (82nd). That's progress. It was the 11th-best improvement for a defense last season, and there's still plenty on the table for Nebraska in 2019.

Here's how the Huskers' defense performed in what I thought would be key areas of improvement.

1. Opponent Completion Percentage

From last year:

This number should go down for the Huskers in 2018, and that's probably going to come with an increase in explosive touchdowns (those of 20-plus yards) but that's just fine. One of the things Nebraska's defense was legitimately good at was limiting those big-play touchdowns; 29.3 percent of the touchdowns allowed a year ago covered 20-plus yards, which ranked 29th nationally. Didn't much matter because teams were able to move the ball on a play-by-play basis against the Blackshirts thus limiting the need and opportunity for 40-yard scoring strikes.

That number did go down in 2018. Nebraska ranked 115th in opponent completion percentage (64.5) in 2017 and improved to 33rd (56.0) last year. Nice work, Travis Fisher. The explosive-touchdown number I mentioned only ticked up slightly (29.8%). Doubly nice work, Travis Fisher.

The growth from Nebraska's secondary remains remarkable a year later. There are still things to fix––the Huskers gave up a few too many big plays in the passing game––and Nebraska needs to find a new pair of safeties in 2019, but my outlook is optimistic for that group. Especially when you pair it with what should be an improved defensive line.

2. TakeOpps

From 2018:

For this brand of defense to work, the Takeaway Opportunities need to be frequent. The Huskers would need to jump to better than 6 TakeOpps per game to most likely rank in the top 30 nationally and about 5.7 to hit the top 40. Anything above average would be a great result for Nebraska this season, however. Combine that with a little turnovers luck and then the Huskers might really have something.

It took the Huskers a while to get going here, but a strong second half of the season had Nebraska averaging 6.75 TakeOpps (forced fumbles-plus-passes defended) per game, tied for 12th nationally. It was not, however, combined with "a little turnovers luck." Eleven of Nebraska's 69 passes defended were interceptions. Based on national averages, you'd expect that interception total to be closer to 14. On the fumble front, the Huskers recovered 9-of-22 fumbles and you'd expect them to come up with 11.

Overall Nebraska was -4.8 takeaways (expected-minus-actual) a year ago, 115th nationally. But the good news is that the Blackshirts took a significant jump in how many takeaway opportunities they created. Now they just need to convert a few more (and be a little luckier).

3. First-Down Defense

Where we were a year ago:

It's really tough to be good on defense if that defense isn't good on first down and Nebraska wasn't last season. The Huskers gave up an average of 6.65 yards per play on first down. Add in that Nebraska wasn't good at creating negative plays (turnovers and TFLs) and it was virtually impossible for the Huskers to end drives when the opposing offense was in second-and-four on average.

That number came down a little bit to 6.39 in 2018, but that still ranked 101st. This is one that's definitely going to end up on the punch list again for 2019. The real problem was stopping the run. Nebraska gave up 5.63 yards per first-down rush (114th). Teams are going to face a steady diet of runs on first down anyway, which means a defense better be ready to stop them. Nebraska really struggled with that a year ago, despite making a little bit of big-picture progress.

Tomorrow we'll review the offense.

The Grab Bag

  • Nebraska volleyball and John Cook are ready to get back to work following the team’s trip to China and Japan.
  • Greg Smith looks at the Huskers’ chances of having a big year in recruiting on the defensive line.
  • Need a driving-to-Chicago soundtrack? We offered our picks, plus plenty more, in the latest Mailbag.

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