Winning in the trenches is one of the biggest key to winning football games, and although there are frequent flashes from the entire unit, Nebraska isn’t doing that consistently enough on the defensive side of the ball.
“The guys have to keep on working at the techniques,” defensive line coach Mike Dawson said following Tuesday's practice. “I think we’ve got to continue — we use the term “strike” — getting our hands on people, being able to recreate the line of scrimmage. The more knock-back we can get, the more that’s going to help the defense. We’ve got to go from trying to get knock-back and then transitioning to the pass game and keep continuing to try to get after the quarterback a little bit more.”
Pass rush is a key area for the Huskers. Nebraska came out on fire up front, racking up 10 sacks in their first two games. However, during the first half of the season, in the process of trying to rush the passer the Huskers have also lost contain far too many times and allowed easy escape routes for quarterbacks to take off and use their legs. That’s the balance Dawson is trying to find with his unit.
“That’s the tricky spot sometimes, Dawson said. “You try to educate them: when we talk about rush lanes, this is what we mean. This is how we squeeze the quarterback — you've got to keep them in the pocket, you can’t let these guys run free any more. You can’t in college football, find a guy that is a true, stand there and drop back [quarterback] like the old days when you talk about the drop back guys. All these guys are athletic enough to at least get out of the way and move and if you ever break down in your rush, be able to go ahead and escape, especially when you’re rushing three and even if you’re rushing four.
“You’ve got to be smart in what you’re doing that way, but at the same time if you know what you’re doing and you understand where you’re supposed to fit, I think you can rush fast and that’s the goal that we’re trying to get done. But you’ve got to be smart and know what you’re doing, and once you get that done it’s just like every other position. If you think you stink; you don’t have to think about where you’re going and you can run real fast and get to where you need to go.”
The Huskers have already surpassed last season’s sack total with 15, 8.5 of which are by defensive linemen. That being said, Nebraska recorded just two sacks against Northwestern on Saturday despite the fact that the Wildcats had 64 pass attempts. Quarterback Clayton Thorson had plenty of time and space to make throws during Northwestern’s 99-yard game-tying drive at the end of regulation.
“I think they’re showing improvement as far as numbers-wise and where we’re at compared to where we started, I guess, from a year ago looking in,” Dawson said. “We’ve got to continue to increase those sack numbers. There’s not a D-line coach in the country that would say ‘Aw, we have too many sacks;’ that’s not going to happen. You want to recreate the line of scrimmage. TFL numbers will keep going up and we have to be aggressive that way to get those done and then you have to be able to get these offenses off track. If you can get sacks, not only on third down to get off the field — which we know is the most important; that’s why everybody calls it the money down — but if you can get them on first and second down to get the offense off the schedule they want to be on, then you’re going to have a chance to start controlling the games. We’ve got to continue to move in that direction, definitely.”
A side-effect of an aggressive pass rush can sometimes be roughing the passer penalties, and one of those cost the Huskers against Northwestern. Nebraska had the Wildcats backed up at their own 1-yard line, but junior nose tackle Carlos Davis was whistled for contact to the quarterback’s head on the first play, giving the Wildcats plenty of breathing room. Dawson said he probably couldn’t repeat what he told Davis after the play in front of TV cameras.
“It’s just a fine line,” Dawson said. “He’s trying to be aggressive, he’s trying to get after the quarterback, I think anxious and hungry to make a play and I think that part’s great. However, in this day and age — we walked about it with Freedom [Akinmoladun] when it happened to him, he got the same call on him against Purdue. Now, Freedom’s, if you watch it, he kind of got pushed in the back and was kind of thrown into it and all that stuff, but we made a big point about that deal — you cannot hit the quarterback, with any part of your body, in the head. In this day and age, you can’t do it. They call it from peewee football to the NFL, I think everybody’s going to call that call and it’s an easy call.
“What we try to get them to do is go towards the throwing arm, you want to be off the middle of the body so you stay away from the head, and we actually pinpoint it: attack that throwing elbow so you’re not going and trying to hit down the middle of the body. He’s a guy that all he wants to do is win for this team and I don’t think it was a malicious, ‘Oh, I’m going to be reckless and get a personal foul here.’ I think it was ‘I was trying to be aggressive, I put my hands up to try to bat the ball down and then I just kept on going and just forced my way into it.’ Not only Carlos has to learn from it, we all have to learn from it as a defensive line so that error doesn’t happen again. Once is too many, now we’ve had it twice. Now we’ve got to be smart.”
Akinmoladun said avoiding penalties has been an emphasis in the defensive line room all season long.
“It’s probably one of Coach Dawson’s main points every single day,” Akinmoladun said. “After every game if you have a penalty, we sit down and already know what Coach Dawson’s going to say. He throws up the play and says, ‘Why did you do this?’ We explain, he corrects us on what to do instead of getting those penalties because there are certain things that have changed. Having him correct us and for us to understand the things that we can and cannot do has helped us and we’re looking forward to decreasing those.”
Despite the poorly-timed penalty and the final result, heading into the fourth quarter, the Nebraska defense had only allowed seven points (the Wildcats had one offensive touchdown and one defensive one in the first three quarters). Akinmoladun said the game was one of the defense’s best so far — until things went south.
“Everybody was locked in,” Akinmoladun said. “I’m pretty sure that this was the shortest tape that we had to do a lot of corrections. There were some minor issues, this and that, things we have to fix, things we have to work on and then we were able to get to Minnesota.”
The next step for the Huskers and the defensive line is to put together a complete game, and they’ll get that chance when the Golden Gophers visit Lincoln on Saturday.
Jacob Padilla has been writing for Hail Varsity since 2015. He covers football, volleyball men’s basketball and prep sports. He also co-hosts the Nebraska Preps Postgame and Nebraska Shootaround podcasts for the Hurrdat Media and Hail Varsity podcast networks. 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.