WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — “They’re going to do a lot of stuff on offense,” was how Nebraska defensive coordinator Erik Chinander put it earlier this week. Purdue gives opposing defenses a little bit of everything, slick play calls and all the window dressing you can want.
The Boilermakers also boast two of the best receivers in the country. Rondale Moore and David Bell have now played 37 games combined at Purdue. One of them has hit for 100-plus yards receiving in a game 20 times and Jeff Brohm.
Only Bell got there on Saturday as Nebraska got its second win of the 2020 season. It was another small step forward for a defense that, at the end of the year, may not wow you with a simple glimpse at the stat sheet. It’s not that kind of defense, yet, but after the Blackshirts were humbled by Illinois two weeks ago while wearing jerseys meant to honor the tradition, they’ve put together two strong performances defined by an attention to detail and effort.
And tackling. Actually, that belongs at the top of the list.
A year ago, Nebraska was one of the worst tackling teams in the country based on its missed tackle rate. This year, noting the improvements there is one of the most consistent refrains you’ll hear. Scott Frost has mentioned it more than once. Chinander cited it when discussing the challenge of playing Purdue.
Brohm knows what he has in Bell and Moore. The Boilermakers create space for both players to work, then get them the ball as often as possible. The pair was targeted on 30 of Purdue’s 46 passes that had a target. Bell entered Saturday averaging 11.5 yards per catch, Moore, who is asked to do a little more than just be a receiver, averaged 8.7.
Take away Bell’s 89-yard touchdown catch in the third quarter––which Nebraska had covered so well with two defenders in position to make a play that they collided and didn’t––and the Huskers held him to 4.8 yards per catch. Moore managed 6 yards per reception, and didn’t have one catch over 20 yards.
“Those guys have some really good wideouts, some really good skill,” Frost said. “You’re never going to stop them, but I thought we did a pretty good job containing them.”
Probably better than pretty good, all things considered. While every defensive coach ever will tell you he wants “hats to the ball,” much of football’s evolution this century has made that harder and harder to do. That’s why they call them spread offenses. It’s why the phrase “tackle in space” has become part of the football lexicon.
On Saturday, 77.8% of the tackles Nebraska made were solo tackles. That typically tells you one of two things. First, you’re probably playing a spread offense when the number is that high. The Huskers entered the day averaging 56.9% solo tackles.
But a high number like that is also a pretty good indication a team is tackling well. Miss a tackle and it usually takes more than one guy to clean it up. Against Iowa a week ago, which isn’t a classic spread team by any means, the Huskers had a season-high solo-tackle rate of 79.7%.
Giving up 27 points is about average in today’s game, but it was one of the few “just OK” numbers on a strong defensive day. Nebraska held Purdue to 3-of-13 on third down, a hint of strength in what had been the Huskers’ biggest weakness to this point.
While Purdue isn’t going to be confused for Osborne-era Nebraska any time soon when it comes to the ground game, the Huskers stacked another strong performance there, too. The Boilermakers managed 19 yards (1.4 per carry) when you factor out sacks.
There’s still work to be done on that side of the ball, of course, but perhaps the best thing about what’s happening with the Huskers’ defense this season is that it can be easy to miss. It’s not one of the top defenses in an elite defensive league. It didn’t add a singular playmaker in the mold of Randy Gregory or Lavonte David. There wasn’t a massive talent upgrade from last year.
The Blackshirts appear to have gotten better, however, at all of the little things that those statistically-strong defenses eventually have to do. Taking on blocks so isn’t fun, but I noticed it as much on Saturday as at any point this season. Being where you’re supposed to be doesn’t make the highlight reel. Tackling well is often thankless, but missed tackles are impossible to miss.
Nebraska did all of those things well against an offense that really forces the issue. That’s two weeks in a row now.
The Huskers’ defense isn’t a finished product, but here near the end of a year that has been unforgettable for all the wrong reasons, it might be something even more valuable to the future of Nebraska football—the start of something.