Midterm Report Cards: Nebraska’s D
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Midterm Report Cards: Nebraska’s D, Fast Starts, and Soul Searching

October 15, 2019

With the Huskers’ season at a natural midway point, we’re handing out report cards this week on Hail Varsity dot com for the offense, defense and special teams. Except we’re starting with the defense. Here it is.

“When we come back the basics of what we do need to be better. We need to come off the ball better up front, we need to tackle better. … All the little things. … They were running three or four run schemes, we knew what they were going to be coming in, they ran them and they worked. When those things happen, you’ve got to bring more people up into the box to try to get the run stopped and then all the other stuff works off it. I give them credit for that. We need to be more like that on offense and we need to be more physical on defense so they can’t put us in those situations.”

Scott Frost, post-Minnesota

That is football at its most basic level and Nebraska failed. Saturday’s performance is going to sit in the mouth for two weeks while the Huskers await Indiana on Oct. 26 at home, and with an off weekend, there’s nothing really the Huskers can do to silence the “sky is falling” rhetoric circling the program. 

I don’t think people every really believed in the Nebraska defense.  

Nebraska was 4-2 entering a road matchup with 5-0 Minnesota. The line was one score. The weather was bad. It projected as a close game even if the Huskers were on a backup quarterback because this team has, all season long, been propped up by a pretty good defense while the offense figured out why the engine flooded and the transmission fell out. Saturday’s result is what you get when the jack holding everything up snaps. 

To relate this to an actual report card, or some college equivalent since I don’t think professors send out actual report cards (mine didn’t), the Nebraska defense was the borderline B student throughout the first half of the class that either didn’t study the night before or showed up on the day of the midterm more hungover than Kiefer Sutherland the morning after he tackled a Christmas tree in a London hotel lobby and torpedoed its grade.

The Blackshirts were rolled over on a cold and wet night in Minneapolis. First-quarter physicality from the Gophers led to a second quarter full of running wild (159 yards on 17 carries) which led to a third quarter full of play-action faking (20 points, two 45-yard completions) which led to a statement win. 

Or a statement loss, depending on your vantage point. One that left the Husker defense looking around for answers immediately after and has them probably doing a little bit of soul searching during the off week.

It hasn’t been a failure on that side of the ball this season, I don’t think, and there’s plenty of time left to right the ship, but these next few weeks will be of paramount importance because these last few weeks have been a massive disappointment. 

Enough to completely undo the first month-ish of the season?

Let’s go group by group.

The Defensive Line

Some numbers first:

  First Seven Nonconference
YPC allowed 4.47 (83rd) 2.18
Rushing TDs allowed 15 (123rd) 3
Sacks 16 (t-35th) 9
Tackles for loss 50 (t-12th) 26
Expl. run plays allowed 44 (t-122nd) 9
Stuff rate 20.0% (62nd) 22.5%

Obviously the three down linemen (sometimes four lately, which has been an interesting tweak as the run defense has cratered) aren’t solely responsible for every number up there, but with the way defensive coordinator Erik Chinander runs his system, linemen set the table for a lot of it. 

And this group opened the season really well. Oklahoma State transfer Darrion Daniels looked a dominant presence in the middle. The Davis twins on the ends looked comfortable in starting roles for the first time. Ben Stille and Damion Daniels and Deontre Thomas were serving as rotation players and everything was working. Nebraska didn’t give up a 100-yard day on the ground through the first three weeks. 

The front line only supplied nine of the 26 tackles for loss and four of the nine sacks, but when nonconference play concluded, inside linebackers Collin Miller and Mohamed Barry were talking about how much easier their lives were with Daniels in the middle holding up guards while Khalil and Carlos Davis pressed the edges.

The front guys had a havoc rate of 10.9%. That unit finished 2018 with a havoc rate of 3.6%. 

(Havoc plays include tackles for loss, forced fumbles and pass break-ups. The rate is a percentage of the total plays faced.)

Illinois ran for 6.5 yards per carry, adjusted for sacks, in Week 4. Then Ohio State ran for 7.8, again adjusted for sacks, in Week 5. Minnesota hit for 6.6 last Saturday. 

“Out of position,” Daniels said of what went wrong against the Gophers. “I feel like we were out of position a lot of times. We’ve just got to learn our fits and get it fixed.” 

Minnesota head coach PJ Fleck said after the game he felt like Nebraska’s front line needed to be moved laterally in order to open up space. That, combined with wonderful execution from Minnesota’s offensive line and a quarterback in Tanner Morgan who changed something seemingly every play at the line of scrimmage, offered a blueprint for the non-Wisconsin teams left on Nebraska’s schedule. (Wisconsin doesn’t need help running the ball.)

The Huskers will need to set the edge better, though that doesn’t fall squarely on the line’s shoulders, and they’ll need to be better at pushing back the line of scrimmage the way they were in the nonconference. Get back to the nasty they showed to open the season. 

That should still be in there, which is why this grade is essentially average. The big guys up front were great, then not so great to balance everything out. They will need to figure out how to get back to the former over these remaining five games.

Midterm grade: C

The Linebackers

Whoa boy, this group has been used and abused this season. 

Opposing offensive coordinators are isolating inside ‘backers Will Honas and Mohamed Barry in space and finding success. Whether that’s targeting the two in pass coverage, attacking the guy left in the box to spy the quarterback (hello, Ohio State) or running RPO action straight at them. 

Collin Miller, the third in a strictly-three-man rotation at the two spots, was fantastic against Colorado but has progressively faded.

Since conference play began, the inside backers have combined to make four tackles in opposing offenses’ backfields. Between the three of them, the don’t have a single quarterback pressure in Big Ten play, either. (That’s according to official statbooks, though hurries are a very noisy stat in college so take that with a grain of salt.)

Barry has had a strange season. He’s got 60 total tackles, which once again has him near the top of the Big Ten leaderboard for the category (third, to be exact), but I’m struggling to think of a single game where I thought to myself, “Barry is having a day.” He’s just been around the ball a ton, and he’s been around the ball a ton lately because offenses either want him to be or the running back got to the second level no problem.

As for the outside ‘backers, Nebraska is again down to a three-guy rotation of Alex Davis, Caleb Tannor and JoJo Domann. Tyrin Ferguson has been a complete nonfactor this season (only three solo tackles).

Davis has now struggled to do much of anything consistently all season. The image of Ohio State motioning its boundary receiver right to left then slanting the entire offensive line left with him just to suck Davis completely out of the play and allow Justin Fields 14 yards of green grass to convert third-and-10 on the ground is one that has stuck with me. 

He’s played more than any other outside backer and to this point in the season has:

  • Eight solo tackles
  • Two tackles for loss
  • Zero sacks
  • Zero forced fumbles
  • Zero pass break-ups
  • Zero interceptions

He’s credited with three quarterback pressures, though he has none in conference play. 

I like Davis. He was the talk of the offseason from most of the Blackshirts who could talk about such things and I thought long and hard about including him in my “10 Most Intriguing Huskers” list, but that was mostly because he’s a physical freak who hadn’t done much leading up to this season and it was going to be interesting to see if he could flip that script when it mattered. That question has been answered through seven games. An outside linebacker in this kind of a 3-4 defense can’t have the above numbers and keep his job.

Garrett Nelson has played sparingly, and I think he might be one of Nebraska’s best options at this point just because of how hard he plays when he’s on the field. He’s already burned his redshirt, so his usage in the second half of the year will be very interesting. He and Tannor probably offer the highest upside of any guys on the defense. The problem presently is they’re just both so young. 

Nebraska’s in a tough spot here. This group has struggled collectively, but reinforcements are few and far between. One freshman inside linebacker is recovering from fall camp surgery and the other has completely dropped off the face of the earth; Nebraska’s traveling with two walk-ons instead of Jackson Hannah, who hasn’t appeared in a game. The outside linebackers on the roster minus Garrett Snodgrass (also kinda on a milk carton) haven’t been mentioned by design. The guys on the field just have to start playing a lot better.

Midterm grade: D

The Defensive Backs

Let’s end on a good note. I’m probably more bullish on this defense as a whole than a lot of folks right now, even if the last two sections don’t sound like it. There’s been real improvement, both in how it looks (just block out the Minnesota game for a minute) and how it reads in box scores and spreadsheets. That isn’t better reflected anywhere other than with Travis Fisher’s group.

Nebraska has been good about making opposing quarterbacks both inefficient and inexplosive. The unit's 5.7 yards-per-pass average, adjusted for sacks, ranks 44th nationally, while the 58.3% completion clip against is tied for 46th. Nebraska's 12.9% explosive pass play rate against ranks 33rd.

Plus, through seven games this coverage unit has more pass breakups (33, tied for fourth nationally) than it did through all of 2017 (28, 126th). The seven interceptions has Nebraska on track for its best season turning opposing quarterbacks over in three years.

Then, if you look at the third-down numbers it looks even better. Nebraska ranked 105th in the country in third-down defense last season. Opponents converted at a 43.2% clip. That number is down to 38.9% this year.

Offenses are averaging 5 yards a play against Nebraska when they throw on third, and they're only converting 35.5 percent of the time when doing so. The Huskers have six sacks and three picks and have only given up two scores (both came from inside NU's 15-yard-line). 

Senior Lamar Jackson and junior Dicaprio Bootle have formed an under-the-radar good duo and junior safety Marquel Dismuke leads all Big Ten defensive backs in tackles.

Midterm grade: B

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