For all the troubles the Nebraska defense – specifically the back half – has faced to open the season, the key to unlocking improved play might just be refocusing.
“The players at times were playing and thinking that they should be doing X, Y and Z rather than falling back to their training,” defensive coordinator Bob Diaco said earlier this week. “We had a chance to settle down and play one play at a time, get the call, execute your job, nothing more, nothing less and just see what happens, and sure enough the plays looked better.”
Against Oregon, the Huskers had surrendered 409 yards and 42 points by halftime. But in the second half, the plays sure enough looked better, and the defense blanked the Ducks.
Junior safety Aaron Williams said they have just been plagued by mental mistakes this season. It’s nothing earth-shattering Arkansas State or Oregon has done, even though both have played well, but it’s more about the mental mistakes, that are easily correctable. Against the Ducks, it was as simple as switching up the positioning on the outside. Diaco allowed his corners to press up closer to and shade the receivers a bit more, rather then letting them run loose and dictate the action.
Small tweaks, big results.
“It’s just individuals and concepts and brain farts here and there,” Williams said. “Sometimes we’re not all the way focused on every play and it costs us, but when we are dialed in and focused, we’re able to do what we need to do.”
This week, with its head coach calling for more intensity following their last showing, Nebraska is looking to find that dial earlier and keep it 100 all game. Williams acknowledged that the young guys in the secondary are going through growing pains. All offseason, Diaco stressed there is no substitute for game experience when you’re developing as a football player. Luckily for the Huskers, they’ve gotten as much of that as possible through two weeks.
“When you look back to Oregon, that game right there just makes you grow because of the skill position players,” Williams said. “When you go out there and go against guys like that, that should give you all the confidence and all the game experience you need.
“Even Arkansas State, you look back on them, they had some great skill players on their team too, so when you just go against other great skill players, it settles you in for the whole season.”
After the Oregon game, one of the Huskers’ young corners admitted to getting in his head a bit. Sophomore Lamar Jackson was beat on a deep ball in the second quarter, and said after the game that his confidence was shaken. After getting shell-shocked to open the game, that was a common theme around the sideline.
Diaco isn’t the type of coach that’s going to hype up his players with big elaborate speeches to boost their confidence, that stuff is just “false, fake confidence that might be okay in pregame but once the ball turns over it won’t have lasting effects.” Instead, he tries to grow his players’ confidence in their preparation during the weeks leading up to games.
“When you’re in the arena and you’re trading blows, you know as the competitor you’re either going to rise in that moment with competitive greatness or there’s going to be a moment where you wilt and there’s not a whole lot of words that can change that,” he said.
“What happens is the confidence comes because you prepare and then you have something good that happens to you and you feel good about it, and then you prepare better because you feel good about it and then something else good happens to you, and you feel better about yourself, so you prepare harder and then more good things happen. It just keeps spiraling.”
Williams said that extends beyond the football field, too. It starts when the players wake up, it starts with how they approach each meeting and it starts with how focused they are on blocking out the outside distractions.
“I know our fundamentals and I know our principals as a defense as a whole,” Williams said. “At times in games, some stuff swings our way, some stuff doesn’t but as a group, we can’t let it affect our play. When times get tough we have to fall back to those [fundamentals] and play.”
Nebraska will be missing a key part of its defense on Saturday, but it’ll have a very real chance to make a statement at home that the Blackshirts are better than what the nation has seen through the first two weeks. Williams said he’s not once doubted the team’s resolve, and against the Huskies on Saturday at 11 a.m., they’ll have a chance to show it.
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.