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Northwestern Prep Requires Throwing Out the Wisconsin Gameplan for Nebraska

October 09, 2018

When Erik Chinander, Nebraska’s defensive coordinator, went back through the Wisconsin game film, nothing really shocked him. It was a lot of what he expected to see because it’s what he’s been seeing.

“Once again, guys being in the right spot and not being able to make the play right now,” he said. Then there’s the depth issue. “Lack of depth, we were playing decent early and then got worn down as the subs came in.”

All offseason, Nebraska’s defense prepared opposite a spread, tempo offense. There are plenty of those types in the Big Ten, like the team they’ll face this week, but there are still traditional powers that run, well, power. Like Michigan. Like Wisconsin. Both games this season have left Nebraska’s coaches feeling they still have a ways to go before catching up to the “big boys.”

“I’m concerned we have a long ways to go football-wise, we have a long ways to go strength and conditioning-wise if we’re going to catch up and be able to beat teams like Wisconsin and Michigan,” Chinander said. “Teams like that, that are going to be physical and run the ball, we’ve got a ways to go in all those aspects.”

On the Big Ten coaches teleconference call Tuesday, head coach Scott Frost said another offseason to spend preparing for other teams instead of learning their own stuff will make a major difference for Nebraska. It’s about getting more reps going against those formations where everything is condensed, inside linebackers coach Barrett Ruud said.

“A lot of times people think when everything’s all condensed down it’s not as precise of a game but actually it’s more precise of a game,” he said. “You’ve got a lot of people switching, gaps change really fast. Typically, against spread teams, you know where your gaps are and it’s a little easier to fit things up.

“It’s a precise game when you tighten things up, especially when you’re not used to seeing it a whole lot.”

Which this particular Nebraska defense isn’t. What they are used to seeing is spread. Enter Northwestern.

“Probably couldn’t be much more different,” Chinander said. “Wisconsin’s going to line up with big people and pound it and throw it 10 times a game and Northwestern’s going to throw it a lot more and use the run as the sprinkling, the changeup.”

And, ironically, it’s the presence of a fullback that can change everything.

“Just a fullback, I mean that changes the gap every single play,” Ruud said. “Formationally [against Northwestern], we’re not seeing any fullbacks, we’re not seeing a bunch of really tight sets, you’re seeing them use all 53 yards of the field. As far as the actual run game, the plays are a little similar but you’re doing it in space now as opposed to doing it in a tight box.”

Chinander said Nebraska doesn’t have the personnel right now to give really good scout team looks for the traditional stuff; that’s something the coaches are going to have to either fix or coach better, he said. But they do have plenty of reps banked against spread formations, so we’ll have to wait and see if Chinander’s Sunday morning film watch shows anything different after Nebraska’s next game.

Other News and Notes

>> Freshman running back Maurice Washington took over at kick returner against Wisconsin. Which means special teams coordinator Jovan Dewitt was asked about him Tuesday. Boy, did he have high praise.

“It’d be hard not to say to watch the film and say every time he touches the football he doesn’t look different than other guys on the field,” he said. “It’s one of those balancing acts as his role increases and he matures through his development, I don’t think he’s anywhere near his potential yet. As he develops I think his role on offense increases and his role on special teams increases. It comes back to the balancing act of how much you give him in what situation.

“We’ve tried to put him back there a couple of times and I think things are starting to click for him in terms of where he needs to be and how to run things. That will come with more reps, but you can see his role expanding for sure.”

Senior running back Devine Ozigbo, the guy who will likely spend the remainder of his final year trying to fend off Washington, could look at his role as just that, keeping the guy below him from taking his spot for as long as he can. But Ozigbo is approaching the freshman differently.

“I hope I can teach him a lot my last year here,” he said. “We have a bunch of other good guys between us that will keep helping him grow. Honestly, it's just like a feeding process. I'll do whatever I can, give him whatever I can and he's going to make plays because he's a great player himself.”

>> Safety Deontai Williams caught a pick in practice Tuesday. There hasn’t been enough of that in games; Nebraska is dead last in the Big Ten with just two interceptions in five games.

But, cornerback Dicaprio Bootle currently leads the Big Ten in passes broken up with 10. Chinander doesn’t want to see that. Neither does secondary coach Travis Fisher. Because if you look up those 10 pass break-ups, there’s also a zero next to Bootle’s name in the interception column.

“Right now, we’re okay with knocking balls down,” Chinander said. “We’re celebrating after a knocked-down pass. Passes aren’t supposed to get knocked down, they’re supposed to be intercepted. We’ve got to be disappointed with a knock-down and mad we didn’t get the pick.”

Nebraska only has four turnovers forced as a defense this season and forcing turnovers was a hallmark of Chinander’s Central Florida defense. He said getting the guys to flip that switch from instinctually celebrating a PBU to going all out for the pick is a little comfort-based within the scheme and a little cultural. It’s a work in progress.

>> Freshman corner Cam Taylor is still learning. That’s probably the best explanation for why his playing time has been limited after an offseason of hype.

“Right now I think we have good corners and to put a young kid out there in a situation where he might take it on the head a few times is probably not ideal,” Chinander said.

Monday, when Taylor met with the media, he said the biggest thing for him right now is staying in the film room and mastering the playbook. He said he knows the playbook, but he wants to know it “like the back of my hand.”

>> What is leading to wideout JD Spielman’s success? Chinander, who has to try and slow Spielman every day in practice, has thoughts.

“There are some guys who are just burners and I would rather cover a burner than a guy like JD who’s got all that wiggle, can sit it down in a zone, can feel space around him,” he said. “He’s really hard to cover and I think what Coach Frost does offensively really lends itself to JD’s game.”

>> At inside linebacker, Nebraska is really lacking in depth. There are the first two guys, then the second two guys, then… well…

“The bad news is we’re not getting [injured] guys [like Will Honas] back, the good news is the guys who are going to take their place this week [like Collin Miller and Jacob Weinmaster] have gotten a lot of reps whereas last week they probably didn’t get as many.

“I think we’ve done a good job of getting guys ready to play all four spots as opposed to one guy playing Mike, one guy playing Will, so if the Will goes down only the next Will can go in. I think all four guys are more ready now to play both spots.”

Ruud said they’re optimistic about the foursome right now, but it’s not a really a choice of “if” guys are ready or not. They have to be.

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