Just before the start to the game against Buffalo last week, something out of the ordinary happened.
Nebraska won the coin toss, but instead of putting his offense on the field first, head coach Scott Frost—known for his high-scoring attacks at UCF, but not so much at his alma mater—called on the defense.
The defense beginning the game hasn’t happened often during Frost’s tenure. Since 2018, only 10 of his 35 games have started with the Blackshirts being on the field. Frost has started 71% of his games with the ball, but of those 25 drives to start Nebraska has only scored on 11 of them, or 44%. The Huskers have had the ball in two of their three games this season and haven’t come away with points in either of those drives.
The goal that many coaches and teams want to accomplish is winning what’s called the “middle eight,” the final four minutes of the first half and the first four minutes of the second half. Teams want to score at the end of the second quarter and again to start the third quarter—a double-dip of points, so to speak, that doesn’t give the opponent’s offense much of a chance to intervene.
A good example of that was last season’s game with Iowa. The Huskers trailed 13-6 toward the end of the first half, but managed to go on an 11-play, 75-yard drive that resulted in a 1-yard Adrian Martinez touchdown run to tie the game with 29 seconds left before halftime. Nebraska completed the double-dip when it took its opening drives of the third quarter down the field and cashed in with a 5-yard scoring run from Rahmir Johnson. Just like that, Nebraska won the “middle eight” game within the game and led the Hawkeyes 20-13. The Huskers ultimately went on to lose the game 26-20, but you get the idea.
Nebraska’s defense was the first on the field that day against the Hawkeyes as well. With only two of the Huskers’ six opening-game drives producing points in 2020, maybe it’s time to start seeing what the defense can do to start, right? That’s music to Eric Chinander’s ears.
“As far as what I like, I love it. Let’s put us out there first, let’s set the tone for this football game,” Nebraska’s defensive coordinator said. “Our guys know that the biggest series of the game is either the first series of the first quarter, or the first series of the third quarter. But I really like it when I know the plan ahead of time and I can let the guys know, if we win the toss, the (Black)shirts are goin’ out first and it gets those guys excited, and I know they like to play first.”
Opening-game defensive stops can create just as much energy and momentum as opening-game touchdown drives. The defensive players themselves like to be out there first, as well.
Nebraska inside linebacker Luke Reimer, who just recorded a team- and career-high 16 tackles against Buffalo, said he likes it because it gives the defense a chance to set the tone for the game—just like Chinander did.
“I always like going out first,” Reimer said. “It kind of calms me a little bit nerve-wise, too, so I don’t have to wait another five minutes or however long the offensive possession is before I get to go play.”
Ty Robinson echoed Chinander and Reimer’s thoughts. The defensive lineman from Arizona wants to be on the field first in Norman. He wants his unit to be the one that makes Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback Spencer Rattler think about what’s coming his way.
“We’re tone setters,” Robinson said. “We’re going to go out there and let you know how the game’s going to go for the rest of the 60 minutes. I’m really happy they put us out there first (against Buffalo) so we can kind of set the tone, set that edge, let them know what’s going to happen.”
Through three games, Nebraska’s defense has been a bright spot of the team. The Huskers are allowing an average of just 13.3 points per contest. Their five touchdowns given up are fewer than five other Big Ten teams, four of which—Northwestern, Indiana, Ohio State and Minnesota—have played one fewer game. Their 20 tackles for loss is the most in the Big Ten and tied for seventh nationally.
Frost said he trusts the defense, that’s why he decided to put it out there against Buffalo. Chinander said that, at the end of the day, it’s the head coach’s decision whether to take the ball or not if he wins the toss. And he’ll roll with whatever that decision is.
“We talk about trying to score at the end of the first half and getting the ball back in the second half,” Frost said. “I think if the wind was blowing we would kick it through the end zone and we want to put the defense out there and have the possession in the second half. That probably won’t always be that way but the first couple weeks we felt like that was the right decision.”
What’s it going to be in Norman?