Physicality is at the root of Nebraska’s defensive resurgence. Interim head coach Mickey Joseph said it simply during Monday’s press conference that if someone’s not physical, they won’t play on his team.
“Growing up in my family, we had to be tough, physically and mentally,” Joseph said. “So it’s No. 1 on my list. If I question your toughness then I can’t play you. If I had a friend that didn’t think he was tough, I wouldn’t hang with that guy.
“Toughness is high on the Joseph list, so it’s high at Nebraska football right now.”
Mental, physical errors happen with so many plays. Mistakes happen even with the utmost preparation. Joseph reiterated the importance of moving onto the next play and not letting a previous play take responsibility for multiple mistakes.
Coaches found satisfaction in the Huskers’ physicality and energy during Saturday’s win over Indiana. Film review confirmed how coaches felt.
Joseph and defensive coordinator Bill Busch wanted to get the Huskers lined up on defense, just like Mickey’s brother Vance did in the Arizona Cardinals’ 26-16 win over Carolina on Sunday.
“When you can get them lined up now they can recognize what’s going on, recognize formation, that’s the big key: recognizing what’s going on but you’ve got to recognize formation,” Joseph said. “I thought they lined up and they played with their hair on fire.”
Those on the field felt it. Sure, there were some minor tweaks to defensive schemes and changes in terminology, but the root of the change came between the defense’s collective ears.
“A lot of it is just the mentality,” senior Chris Kolarevic said. “We switched up the defense a little bit but we were ready to go. Ready to go fly around. I thought we tackled really well, played really well as a defense, and it was a lot of fun. We had a way lot of fun out there.”
Nebraska held Indiana to 71 yards while shutting the Hoosiers out in the second half. It was the first time the Huskers shutout an FBS opponent in a half since leaping out to a 34-0 first-half lead against Maryland on Nov. 23, 2019.
Kolarevic said it wasn’t a difference so much between before and now, but Busch has brought a notable energy. Busch’s constant chirping in practice points out improvements and critiques.
That energy carried into Saturday’s game and snowballed. Nebraska scored on its opening possession and the Husker defense forced eight three-and-outs, including Indiana’s last-chance drive where Luke Reimer batted down a pass to seal the win.
“You could feel the whole team build that confidence, especially as the fourth quarter went on,” the linebacker said. “The defense didn’t give up very many yards, I think, we didn’t let up any points but not very many yards.
“Last year was my first year here and we were kind of in a lot of close games in the fourth quarter and a lot of them didn’t go as well.”
Mentality led to a shift that led to a kinetic difference. Ultimately, that allowed Nebraska to beat an FBS, and Big Ten, opponent for the first time in 364 days.
Nebraska hasn’t won a one-possession game since beating Rutgers in the 2020 season finale, 28-21. While a 1-yard run from quarterback Casey Thompson extended the lead to 14 points with just under 7 minutes left against Indiana, the fourth quarter started tied.
The Huskers had tangible evidence they could win a close game.
“That was the big emotional part for me was seeing their faces after the game because they’ve been in so many big, close games that they hadn’t closed out,” Joseph said. “So just the moment in the locker room, seeing the relief on their face like, ‘OK, we know we can do it.’
“They didn’t have any doubts in the fourth quarter, we asked them to finish in the fourth quarter, we asked them to strain to the finish and they did and they won the fourth quarter.”
Right now Nebraska sits tied atop the Big Ten West despite its turbulent start. The rest of the division has also struggled to find consistency. Through uncertainty, opportunity has blossomed. Players admitted they’re aware of how frantic the conference season has been so far.
But the team’s focus remains interior. Team captain Travis Vokolek mentioned how important that win was to themselves as much as anything else. They’ve proven they can do it. Now they’re intent on doing it again.
“Coach Mick has done a great job emphasizing the most physical team is going to win on Friday,” the tight end said. “So that’s something we want to focus on this week is just being physical in everything we do and being fast in everything we do.”