Nebraska's Secondary Looks to Build on Illinois Performance against Ohio State
Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Nebraska’s Secondary Looks to Build on Illinois Performance against Ohio State

September 24, 2019

If you throw at Dicaprio Bootle once, he feels disrespected. Don’t throw his way at all. Last year, the cornerback tied for 10th nationally in pass break-ups; his 15 in 12 games led all Big Ten players. Teams threw at him and as the season progressed and Bootle grew into his role, it began to go poorly for them. 

This year, Bootle has four PBUs in four games. Teams are throwing at his cross-field teammate instead. As a result, no one in the country has more pass break-ups through four than Lamar Jackson.

The duo is developing into a pretty capable pair of lockdown corners for the Huskers, but the statistical success, or lack thereof, hadn’t really highlighted that. Entering the Illinois game, Nebraska was dead last in the conference in pass defense, yielding nearly 300 yards a game through the air to its first three opponents.

Now, part of that has to do with the fact gaining yardage on the ground was about as difficult figuring out what’s perpetually up with the NU special teams, but the front seven had consistent success through three games in a way the secondary didn’t. Signature moments, yes. Consistently shutting down the other team’s aerial attack? No. Illinois, with Brandon Peters at quarterback, seemed like a group that would move the ball through the air out of necessity but also because it could. 

Instead, the Illini were 9-for-23 with 78 yards throwing the ball. One touchdown — a deep shot over Bootle — and a pick courtesy of Cam Taylor-Britt. The second-worst passing day for the Illini in the last five years. 

“I wouldn’t say surprised,” Bootle said, when asked if the result shocked him. “That’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to keep everything in front of us, we’re trying to eliminate the big plays and keep the yardage down as much as possible. So I wouldn’t say surprised — especially knowing what we talk about, what we want to do as a defensive unit.”

After allowing at least four explosive pass plays (15 yards gained or more) in each of the first three weeks, Nebraska gave Illinois two. In spite of the 38 points surrendered and the slow start, there is absolutely something the secondary can take from the Illinois win and build on moving forward. 

“That was big,” Jackson said. “That makes you feel good. Whenever you keep somebody below 100 [yards], that’s big, especially because of the fact most teams in this league want to throw the ball and air it out, including this team coming in here this week. We’re going to have a lot of chances to make plays on the ball because they want to stretch the field vertically. We’ve got to make sure we’re on our stuff this week, technique’s got to be down to a T, we’ve got to try and make plays this week.”

With all due respect to Peters and the Illinois offense, Justin Fields and the Buckeyes present a slightly stiffer task. 

Look atop the Big Ten standings for explosive plays. Ten-yard gains from scrimmage? Nebraska is one, Ohio State two. Same for 20-yarders. No one has more 30-yard plays than the Buckeyes. The ground game with J.K. Dobbins, the Big Ten’s leading rusher right now, and the option game with Fields opens up head coach Ryan Day to take shots down the field. Ohio State also leads the Big Ten in 30-yard pass plays. 

The Buckeyes will not be afraid to test Bootle or Jackson. They will not be afraid to test Marquel Dismuke or Taylor-Britt at the safety spots. The last three Buckeye teams to play Nebraska have rung up 958 yards through the air.

Fields will stress the Husker secondary in a way Dwayne Haskins last year didn’t. And he’s arguably the best athlete Ohio State has had at quarterback in a while. 

“If one of our guys get there with a less-mobile quarterback, it’ll be a sure sack,” Bootle said. “With him, he’ll be able to squirm around, move around, and extend plays, so that’s something you’ve got to be ready for. Be ready to plaster receivers when plays get extended and stay on your man and try to make it happen.”

Defensive backs coach Travis Fisher always hammers home the importance of eye discipline, but this week it’s paramount. Keep track of your man when the play breaks down and Fields is on the move. 

Not much else will change from a schematic standpoint. Not much should.

The Huskers are third in the country in havoc rate (forced fumbles plus tackles for loss plus passes defended divided by plays faced). Aggression is the emphasis each and every day. Go make a play or take the ball away. 

Does that have to be tamped down a bit when you’re playing a quarterback who, if he breaks containment, is capable of out-running a defensive back? Fisher said his guys will take “educated risks.” Defensive line coach Tony Tuioti said they still have to go.

“We’ve got to be who we are,” he said. “We can’t change who we are. Obviously Justin Fields is a great athlete, he’s very mobile, he’s gotten out of potential sacks because he’s so mobile and he does a great job keeping his eyes downfield and throwing the football. … We’ve just got to do a great job of making sure we trap him as much as we can. Looking forward to that challenge, we’ll see what happens with our guys.”

Having an entire offseason’s worth of practice against Adrian Martinez helps in that regard, and defensive coordinator Erik Chinander agrees there are some similarities in the way Day attacks teams and the way Scott Frost does. Formations change, tendencies are hard to identify. But this defense handled the offense in the summer. And it’s taken care of business, for the most part, through four games. 

“One thing I have always heard about playing defense is that the coverage and the pass rush work in unison,” defensive tackle Darrion Daniels said. “This past game, I’m not sure on how many passing yards they had, but it wasn’t that many. It just shows how far [Bootle and Jackson] have come and how huge they step up for us when the defensive line is slacking on the rush. We know that we can depend on them to keep their man locked. As far as us, we know that they are going to hold them long enough to get to the quarterback. Just seeing what they are doing is phenomenal. It just gives me a lot of hope going into the season because they just keep getting better and better and better.”

The hope is the arrow stays trending up with the secondary. The fifth-ranked Buckeyes will almost assuredly tell us whether or not this group is for real. They sure seem to be. With Illinois needing five points to win and taking over possession with two minutes to play in last Saturday’s game, Peters threw four times. All four fell harmlessly to the turf. The Illini needed 80 yards and got nothing. Jackson made sure of it on the first two attempts; Dismuke handled the last two.

Bootle wasn’t thrown at.

“You’ve got to embrace those moments,” he said. “Those are moments you come to play defense at Nebraska for. When the bell is rung, you answer the call.”

Saturday will bring a few more of those. We’ll see if they can do it again.

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