Nebraska’s offense is preparing to take on the Big Ten’s worst defense on Saturday in Illinois. The Illini are giving up an average of 36.9 points per game this season.
However, after giving up 40-plus in three straight weeks including 63 to Maryland, defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson resigned, leaving head coach Lovie Smith to take over as the defensive play-caller. The Illini beat beat Minnesota 55-31 last week.
The midseason change makes game preparation a bit more challenging for the Huskers.
“It changes from a standpoint of numbers and metrics and tendencies, so to speak, and different situations like third down and first and second down, what are they doing? What is their personality?” offensive line coach Greg Austin said. “Everybody has a different vision as to what they think it should look like. Now, with Hardy Nickerson stepping down and somebody else calling it now, you can take some of the games that we have in the system and count those games but you always have to count the games where the guy that you’re really going to be going against, that’s more the information that you have to use.
“So there’s certainly a difference in philosophy and we have to make sure that we respect what they have in terms of the old coordinator. You’re looking at that more from a personnel standpoint but then schematically and call-wise, you have to take more into account with a new coordinator.”
One thing that might help the Huskers prepare is that head coach Scott Frost has some familiarity with the kind of Tampa 2 defense Smith runs because of his previous coaching and playing experience.
“That’s helpful, obviously, because he understands some of the rules but there are some differences with regards to some of the stuff they do and we’ve just got to be prepared for that,” quarterbacks coach Mario Verduzco said.
There is plenty of film out there of what Smith likes to do from his decades of experience in the NFL and college, but Nebraska has just one game’s worth of film of Smith calling plays with this roster.
“It’s tough,” Austin said. “Some of it’s going to be coaching as the game goes on, a lot of it’s going to be coaching as the game goes on. With one game under their belt with a new coordinator, they’re just going to expand on the packages that they have and add in a couple wrinkles here, there or wherever. There’s going to be a little but of an unknown and a little bit of a guess game, but those are the games that are fun.”
Austin said Saturday’s 36-31 loss to Ohio State one of those “fun” games, even if the final result didn't go Nebraska’s way.
“This past game was fun, honestly,” Austin said. “It was a chess match. Ohio State, good players, good scheme. They changed up from going — they had a lot of ‘mugs’ (double A-gap pressures) beforehand so we had to certainly prepare them and respect that; they didn’t do any of that this game. They ran some new patterns, some new defensive line movement patterns, so you have to come to the sideline and really dig down, really teach some of that stuff that they’re doing as in-game adjustments. Those are the things that make the game fun. Obviously winning is the ultimate goal in doing all of that but it was kind of cool coming to the sideline and getting those guys coached up as to what they’re doing and the adjustments they have to make for it.”
Nebraska’s offense ground to a halt in the third quarter, but even so the Huskers cracked 450 total yards for the sixth straight game and Austin said his group in particular handled all the in-game adjustments well.
“They did a pretty good job handling it,” Austin said. “Those are the things we’re stressing as we move forward. These guys are cerebral, these guys know enough about the game plan and know enough about the plays that they’re running conceptually to make the adjustments, to make the footwork adjustments, how they’re handling the back side of zone read.”
Austin said the line handling those adjustments is a sign of how much progress the players in his room have made since the beginning of the season.
“For us to do the things that we did and the in-game adjustments that we made this past week, there was no way we could have done that — I go back to the Troy game,” Austin said. “Those guys didn’t do anything — I’m not going to say that they were inferior personnel-wise but some of the things they did schematically, our guys just weren’t always in tune to it and now it’s just a testament to us being young in the scheme and young in the technique and everything else associated with it. You look at that experience and then you look at the experience from this past week, if we had that knowledge under our belt, it would probably have been different outcome.”
The Illini has struggled to stop most of the teams on their schedule this season, but Austin said their front can cause some problems.
“They’re big, they’re quick, they hold their gaps, they have some movement patterns, they’re playing better as of late, they have a new defensive coordinator that puts more guys on the line of scrimmage, so they’re going to take us off of some of our double-team blocks so we’re going to have our work cut out for us,” Austin said. “I’ve been stressing to the guys it’s a man to man game. So know your match-up and destroy your match-up.”
Regardless of what the Illini throw at the Huskers from a schematic standpoint on Saturday, Verduzco said Nebraska has to show up ready to play.
“They’re going to play hard, I know that,” Verduzco said. “They played hard last week. I think they’re probably playing with some confidence now and we’ve just got to make sure we’re ready to go.”
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.