To mark the return of the I-80 Preview podcast for another season, I took this very long preview of Nebraska’s defense and made it a podcast. That won’t be a regular occurrence and the I-80 Preview feed will be back to regularly scheduled podcasting––a game/opponent preview––the Thursdays before Nebraska games. Point is, you can listen to this article if you want to, and, since I’m not planning to do that often, you could call this a limited edition.
Nebraska’s defensive success in 2021 didn’t come totally out of the blue. One, Erik Chinander’s group had been gradually improving since he arrived in Lincoln. They were incremental steps, but progress was apparent.
Two, the Huskers had a boatload of returning production entering last season, fifth-most nationally. That’s always a good starting point and almost always results in improved performance from the prior season.
In last year’s version of this same podcast—a preview of the Nebraska defense—I wrote that the 2021 Blackshirts could make enough gains to be a defense “I’d put in the 24 points per game range…” The Huskers allowed 22.7, which is close enough for me because it boosts my ego. (To be fair, 43 of the points allowed last season weren’t scored on the defense, so really the Blackshirts allowed less than 20 points per game, which dents my ego some, but we need to be honest here.)
Point is, even though it was reasonable to expect the Huskers’ defense to put forth its best season yet, they burst through the ceiling I’d set and did it against one of the toughest schedules in the country.
The second half of that sentence where I mentioned 24 points per game a year ago? It concluded thusly, “…and you can win some games with that.” Got that one completely wrong. No matter how many times you look at it—and nobody really wants to look at it ever again—it will never not be astounding that Nebraska football, in 2021, averaged about 28 points per game and gave up about 23 and only won three games.
Of course, the defense more than held up its end of the deal last year, as it pretty much has been doing the past four seasons.
This year presents a different challenge. The Huskers are middle-of-the-pack in returning production on defense. They have to replace four key contributors on the line, three in the secondary and one jack-of-all-trades in JoJo Domann. The linebackers are clearly the strongest unit in 2022, and should be even better than a year ago (when that group was pretty darn good).
How do the Blackshirts maintain the momentum they’ve engineered over the previous four years?
EARLIER THIS WEEK, Chinander said one of the keys for the defense in fall camp was not getting “bored doing normal stuff exceptional.” It was a pretty elegant construction in a plain-spoken way, which makes it close to a perfect football-coach quote.
But it also serves as something of a summation of how the 2021 Blackshirts improved their scoring average by nearly a touchdown from the previous season. Nebraska was pretty average at keeping teams off schedule, ranking 73rd in passing success rate allowed, 81st in rushing and 81st overall. It didn’t produce a lot of tackles for loss per game, 83rd, or sacks, 98th. The Huskers didn’t force anywhere near enough turnovers, 102nd, and didn’t luck into any either. Over the past two seasons the Blackshirts have recovered five of 22 opponent fumbles. On average, you’d expect a defense to come up with 11 of those.
Yet, Chinander’s defense found a way to keep points off the board. The Huskers were elite at limiting big plays, fifth against the rush, fourth against the pass and third overall. Keeping a lid on things allowed Nebraska to give up some yards on a pretty consistent basis—those success rate numbers—but it still had to get timely stops. And it did, particularly in its own territory. The Blackshirts allowed 2.97 points on drives that crossed their own 40, eighth-best nationally.
It should’ve been enough for Nebraska to win more games. That said, it was a bit of a high-wire act. Give up one or two more explosive plays in a game or get one fewer stop in scoring territory, and, in a more typical season—not one of the most atypical ones I’ve ever seen—and a game or two can flip from a good result to bad. It was a really thin margin between giving up 23 points a game and 29. Last year was probably not one easily replicated.
Which might be the good news in 2022. Trying to recreate, or even build off, last season’s successes might be risky. How it actually unfolded was slightly improbable to begin with, and now Nebraska would be chasing that approach with basically an entirely new defensive line and 70-to-80% of a new secondary (depending upon how you want to count).
No, maintenance might be enough here, even if it takes different strengths to simply stay the same. If you encounter the devil and he offers you a deal that locks in 23 points a game for the Blackshirts in 2022, take it. That should be good enough for Nebraska, as a whole, to get where it needs to go.
Assuming you don’t encounter the devil—music history leads me to believe he spends much of his time in SEC country—here are three keys to the Huskers just doing it themselves.
THE PASS RUSH HAS POTENTIAL
There aren’t a lot of sacks in a college football game—about 2.25 a side in 2021—but they are plays that pack a lot of punch. The winning team in a game last season averaged 2.9 sacks per game, the loser 1.5. If the average team managed 2.25, you’re not even talking about the difference one more, or one fewer, sack can make.
Nebraska, as a team, hasn’t averaged more than 2.25 sacks per game since 2013, Randy Gregory’s first year on campus, but it’s as well-stocked with pass rushers of a more vintage variety than it has been in some time.
Garrett Nelson led the team with five last season, not a huge number but the second-most for a Husker since 2018, and Nelson seems poised to only be better in 2022. Caleb Tannor has had two sacks each of the past two seasons, not a number an average college football fan would even notice, but if you’ve watched every one of Tannor’s snaps over that stretch, the potential is still there for more. Ty Robinson is the one known the Huskers have on the line, and he also had two sacks a year ago.
That was the setup post-spring, and it would’ve been pretty solid on its own. Then the Huskers added TCU transfer Ochaun Mathis to the mix. He has the most apparent ability to get to the passer, recording nine sacks in 10 games in 2020 before dropping back to four last year (but still earning all-conference honors both seasons). Put it all together and you have two guys, Mathis and Nelson, who have shown the ability to be persistent pursuers of the passer, and two more guys, Tannor and Robinson, who could be, particularly if teams are busy dealing with the other two.
In this specific area, it’s as strong as the Huskers have been in years…on paper. Now, sacks aren’t everything. If a team influenced the quarterback on every attempt, but never sacked him, any coach in the country would take that. But, typically, bothering the QB a lot leads to more sacks, and more sacks typically lead to fewer points.
Last season, Nebraska’s defense gave up a score on 32% of its total drives. On drives that included a sack, that percentage dropped to 25%. Pretty good return on just a handful of plays.
WHO WILL DO THE DIRTY WORK?
Playing on the defensive line, in all but the most exceptional cases, is rarely a sexy job. If you do it well, and as instructed, few people may notice. Since 2018, Nebraska has had one true defensive lineman, Khalil Davis, average four or more tackles per game in a season. Ending up on the stat sheet is not really the gig.
The job is to do the dirty work, and, given what the Huskers could have behind that line in 2022, finding people to do the dirty work is imperative.
Last August, Scott Frost noted early in fall camp that Nebraska had a group of linebackers who could “really run.” He wasn’t kidding. Inside linebackers Luke Reimer and Nick Henrich were everywhere, recording 109 and 99 tackles respectively. Nickelback JoJo Domann had 73 tackles and would’ve approached 90 on the season if he hadn’t missed the last two games.
It wasn’t just the linebackers. First-year starter Quinton Newsome had 57 tackles, the most for a cornerback at Nebraska since Joshua Kalu in 2016. That total outpaced a pair of senior safeties, which rarely happens regardless of experience gap, and this year’s secondary should be even quicker (if less experienced). The 2021 defense was one that could tackle, and four of the top five tacklers return for 2022.
Those players being able to demonstrate their strengths again, however, might depend on the line doing what it did so well a season ago—eating up blockers. Ty Robinson was part of the group that did it in 2021 so there’s reason for optimism there, but beyond that some new names are going to have to be ready to go.
Walk-on Colton Feist is firmly in the mix. The fact that he is, as a walk-on, is perhaps a good indication he’s suited to the always-underappreciated work ahead, but he’ll be logging major snaps for the first time. Same for Nash Hutmacher, a weight room king. Transfer Stephon Wynn Jr. played at Alabama, and that comes with its own assumptions of quality, though he wasn’t one of the Tide’s top-line guys. Texas Tech transfer Devin Drew has the most experience of the new additions, but he just arrived in Lincoln on Aug. 9 so there’s bound to be a learning curve early in the season.
The Huskers’ back seven should be pretty strong, good enough individually to maintain an above-average scoring defense, but it’s a team game and a lot hinges on what happens up front.
IT’S LUCKY, BUT IT’S NOT LUCKY
One of these days I’ll stop trying to understand Nebraska’s relationship with turnovers over the past 20 years, but today is not that day. Chinander was mostly pleased with the Huskers’ first scrimmage, but there was one slight pain point.
“We had a couple shots to get some balls out that we didn’t get out,” he said. “We did get a couple of interceptions, so that was great to see…You have to be an opportunistic defense. You have to run to the football.”
Ahh, yes—opportunity. When it comes to takeaways, it really might be the key term. “It’s lucky, but it’s not lucky because you’re running to the ball,” Chinander said. “When you run to the ball, good stuff happens.”
Every team in the country is really focused on forcing more turnovers in fall camp right now. Every team is really focused on it every fall camp. But there’s no reliable recipe for turnovers (at least not the football kind). Luck is always part of the equation, a roll of the dice, and, as Chinander sort of noted, maybe all you can do is give yourself as many rolls as you can.
A few years ago, I started mashing some numbers together looking for a way to measure Takeaway Opportunities, TakeOpps for short. It’s just a combination of forced fumbles—not all of which are recovered by the defense—and passes defended. On average over the past four seasons, a defense has needed to have about 3.4 TakeOpps to produce one takeaway.
The Huskers needed 4.6 TakeOpps to produce one takeaway a year ago, 113th nationally. In 2020 the Blackshirts needed 5.3, 114th nationally. In 2018 and 2019, Nebraska’s defense produced a bunch of takeaway opportunities, ninth- and 18th-most nationally, but the past two seasons have seen those numbers backslide and the actual takeaways have followed. That includes some bad turnovers luck, too.
All you can do from a coaching perspective is exactly what Chinander appears to be doing—keep driving the point home, keep rolling the dice and one of these seasons the Huskers are bound to go on a takeaway-fueled run.
The season ahead wouldn’t be a bad one for the Blackshirts to get back to 2018 levels of nearly seven TakeOpps per game. This defense might need more sacks. Broadly speaking, the 2021 unit was really solid, but not splashy. It was a veteran defense and leaning on execution was the right play.
With what Nebraska has to replace, the 2022 group might need to be a little splashier which would be a little more volatile. It’s likely to give up more big plays, and you have to offset that somewhere. Being better on a down-by-down basis (i.e. success rate) is the safest way to do that, but something tells me havoc—plays in the backfield, pass breakups, actual turnovers—might be more realistic.
If the Huskers create it, they still might not match last year’s 23 points per game, but they probably wouldn’t be far off.
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.