LINCOLN, Neb. – Look, 497 yards of offense is a lot. It feels even larger than the actual number after an offseason of hearing nothing but good things about defensive coordinator Bob Diaco’s new Nebraska defense.
The state might wake up Sunday morning and feel hoodwinked. Mark Banker’s bad defense – the 2015 one – only gave up 400 yards per game, and his decent one allowed about 364. Wasn’t enough for him to keep his job.
So what should Husker fans do with 497?
Forget it. Here’s why.
Arkansas State ran 89 plays, yet Nebraska held a 4-minute edge in time of possession. Those 89 plays gained an average of 5.6 yards. The average FBS offense gained 5.8 yards per play in 2016. The average through the first 44 games of 2017? Also 5.8. This is the new normal.
The Red Wolves bubble-machine offense attempted 68 passes, tied with Louisiana Tech in 1998 – hi, Tim Rattay – for the most ever by a Nebraska opponent. Arkansas State quarterback Justice Hansen completed 67.6 percent of those throws, many of them quick-hitting swings and screens in quick succession that forced the Huskers to defend sideline-to-sideline.
This is how Arkansas State often plays football, but it was a particularly evil plan of attack against three Nebraska cornerbacks – Dicaprio Bootle, Eric Lee Jr., and Lamar Jackson – seeing the most extensive playing time of their young careers. Those corners got tested again and again.
But here’s what didn’t happen. The Blackshirts didn’t bust.
Mike Riley said the Huskers’ biggest problem defensively wasn’t the parade of bubble screens, which Arkansas State executed well. “I thought the times we gave them a big play because of a missed tackle were probably the things that hurt us the most,” he said.
There actually weren’t many of those though, depending on your definition of “big.” Arkansas State only managed two gains of 20-plus yards and two more of 15 or more. Limiting those plays are what Diaco’s defenses have historically done best, and Nebraska did a good job of it in game one. Despite seeing pass after pass thrown in front of them, the Huskers’ young corners maintained their cushion, didn’t creep up and rarely got beat deep.
“In the film we had, [Arkansas State] did a lot of vertical game,” Lee said. “We were definitely making sure we didn’t get beat over the top and playing the coverages that were called.”
Here is where I’d like to tell you what Diaco said of those coverages, but he bolted from the post-game locker room at something more than a jog but less than a sprint. It wasn't that he didn't want to answer questions about this defensive performance. He doesn't seem to enjoy answering questions about any defensive performance. The proof is on the field.
But the players were all saying the same thing.
“At the end of the day you have to do your job because each man out there knows what you got to do and find a way,” Jackson said. “We tightened up a little bit, but we didn’t want to go in too tight because they would just burn us over the top. We just stuck to our game plan and did what we needed to do.”
Translation: Better a bubble screen than a big gain. This is the Diaco method of defense. Nothing hurts worse than a big play.
The Huskers didn’t play it perfectly, and that was to be somewhat expected given the learning curve. But it played it well enough to get a win and there are more things indicating Nebraska executed its plan than there is evidence to the contrary.
Nebraska gave up an average number of yards on a per-play basis. It made Arkansas State drive the ball to find the end zone. The average Red Wolves’ touchdown drive took more than 10 plays. The Blackshirts came up with two red-zone stops on five trips, and held Arkansas State to a field goal once, nearly as good as a stop. (Meanwhile Nebraska’s offense went 4-for-4 in the red zone with three touchdowns.) The Huskers managed five quarterback hurries and a sack. Arkansas State’s vaunted pass rush had two and one. The 36 points allowed? Nine of them don’t go on the defense’s tab.
Sometimes in today’s football, especially against an uber-spread team like Arkansas State, this is what winning defense looks like. It’s not always pretty.
Diaco’s defense eventually will be. I think.
I think that not because 497 yards actually isn’t that many or because 36 points should really be 27. Those numbers are what they are.
I think it because Nebraska defended 89 plays on Saturday in a new scheme, and there were maybe three or four that felt like total breakdowns. That’s a percentage that will win the Huskers some ball games.
That approach is already 1-0.
Brandon is the Managing Editor for Hail Varsity and has covered Nebraska athletics for the magazine and web since 2012, Hail Varsity’s first season on the scene. His sports writing has also been featured by Fox Sports, The Guardian and CBS Sports.