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Husker Defense Hoped to Atone for ‘Unacceptable’ Performance, Now It Looks to Build

November 30, 2020

Two Saturdays ago, Nebraska played a self-described “disgraceful” game against Illinois on the defensive side of the ball. An offense that came in averaging 17 points a game and 5.6 yards a play scored 41 points and averaged 6.4 a play. 

“We certainly didn’t play well two weeks ago on that side of the ball, but every other game this year I’ve been really happy with how they battled, how physical they played,” head coach Scott Frost said of his defense Monday morning. 

That group is playing with a little bit of confidence right now. They’ve been excellent in the red zone. And after a sleep-walk kind of performance against the Illini, the Blackshirts were once again stout against Iowa. 

Despite a 26-20 loss to the Hawkeyes, Nebraska held its rival under its scoring average, under its yards-per-play average, and well under its yards-per-run average. The 2.9 yards per carry was a season-low for Iowa. The 3.1 yards per carry adjusted for sacks was the best mark the Blackshirts have posted all season. On 30 carries, tailback Tyler Goodson got just 3.7 yards a run.

With Iowa, it’s ‘pound it’ the whole game,” said corner Cam Taylor-Britt. “You have to play with a different mindset. … I’d say Iowa is that gritty, down and dirty team. You have to flip the switch on that. We have to get in there and stop the run.”

Added inside linebacker Will Honas: “That was our plan coming into the game. We saw what they were saying that they needed to run the ball to win and be more physical than us. I feel like we took it to them and stopped the run pretty well.”

Iowa came out somewhat inverted in terms of what most expected to see from the Hawkeye offense. It threw to set up the run. Offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz dialed up throws on the first three plays from scrimmage and on 11 of 18 first-quarter plays. 

“There’s been a couple of big plays a game that we gotta get ironed out and fixed, when we miss a gap or miss one little assignment,” Frost said. “But overall, we’re tackling a lot better. I think we’re playing more physical at the line of scrimmage. We can certainly help the defense out by fixing special teams and field position for them.”

That much is true. 

You heard it from Honas, too. 

“At the end of the day that wasn’t enough,” he said of their performance. “It’s really got to come down to we’ve got to find a way to force a turnover, we’ve got to find a way to win on special teams because no matter how well you play on defense you have to be good in all three phases off the game.”

Iowa’s 13 drives, on average, began at the Iowa 38. That was 10 yards better than the Huskers’ starting field position. (Random aside: the Huskers are 1-0 when winning that stat and 0-4 when losing it.) Five punts only averaged 37 yards a boot and two were returned for 8 and 31 yards. 

Complementary football continues to evade Nebraska. 

A three-and-out forced by the defense in the fourth quarter was erased with a muffed catch on the ensuing punt, putting the defense right back on the field. 

In total this season, the Husker defense has gotten seven three-and-outs, four interceptions (one of which set the offense up 3 yards from the end zone), two fumble recoveries, and a pair of turnovers on downs to end the Penn State game. 

The offense has produced a total of three touchdowns off of those takeaways or quick changes, and yes, that includes the one-play, 3-yard score set up by a Myles Farmer interception against Northwestern. That was Nebraska’s only touchdown of the day.

“We can certainly help the defense out,” Frost said.

While they haven’t done much of that to this point, as long as the other side of the ball isn’t seeing 91 plays a game (Penn State), they seem to be good with being on the field.

“I feel like the defense as a whole, we’re ready and anxious to get back on the field,” Taylor-Britt said. “Even when the offense goes three-and-out, we go down the sideline and we say, ‘We got you offense, we’re ready to go get you the ball back so you can go and score.’ We also tell them if they don’t score we’re gonna go score. It’s like a competition, but we just try to let the offense know that we’ve got them and we’re gonna handle our business.”

Confidence isn’t the right word right now, because the Huskers are still coming up on the wrong side of results, but there was, to some degree, a certain desire to atone for the Illinois game in the way NU approached the Iowa game defensively.

“The way we played was unacceptable to our standard, and we knew we needed to come in and stop the run,” Honas said. “Iowa has a good zone, downhill running team. It was big for us to come back and get some momentum for the rest of the season and try to really get our feet down and play well.

“I think every time you step on the field what you put on tape is who you are. It’s got to be a pride thing. Our record isn’t great but you never want to put something on tape that you aren’t proud of and every play the eye in the sky never lies. So every play you’ve got to bring it.”

Nebraska hopes to carry that same defensive mentality over to Purdue. Vegas views the game as a toss-up (Purdue is favored by just one point). The optimist’s approach is to look at the Boilermakers’ recent performances against Rutgers (a loss, 37 points allowed) and Minnesota (a loss, 34 points allowed) and think that Nebraska’s offense can find a way to get on track. 

The Boilermaker offense has been idling right in that 20-30-point range all season, and they’ll present a much different look than Iowa. Safety Deontai Williams said the group is playing for pride at this point.

“I don’t think I’m going to have a problem with this team keeping them engaged,” Frost said. “This team’s hungry. This team approached last week really well, approached today really well. These guys want to get this right and they’re going to give us everything they have to get it right.”

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