Northwestern’s offense has been up and down this season with four games of 30 or more points and three of less than 20, but the Wildcats are riding a three-game winning streak into Lincoln on Saturday and Nebraska defensive coordinator Bob Diaco is expecting a stiff test.
“Really strong, just like you’d think this team would be,” Diaco said. “Coach [Pat] Fitzgerald is a hard-nosed guy who’s smart and tough and disciplined. His team plays just like that, his offense plays just like that. They’re a staff that’s been together a long time, so there’s a great depth of knowledge of the system of plays and the plays they’re going to call and all the little nuances that go along with it, not to mention a three-year starter at quarterback, a multi-multi-year performer, All-Big Ten player at tailback, an older player at tight end. They’ve just got this really, really jelled-together staff and then a lot of veteran players.”
The Wildcats have struggled along the offensive line and are only averaging 3.5 yards per rush this season, but they do still have Justin Jackson, the four-year starter who is over 5,500 yards from scrimmage for his career.
“If he’s not the best back, he’s one of them in that conversation for sure,” Diaco said. “He’s got an interesting combination of size and speed, a slasher. hard to tackle, very loose hips, a lot of foot action but also breaks tackles, he’s a tackle-breaker, he’s got soft hands out of the backfield, he’s an aggressive pass-protector. Of the backs we’ve seen so far, he’s as good if not better than any one of them.”
The Huskers are aware of the threat Jackson presents. Northwestern has one of the best run defenses in the country, allowing just 3.3 yards per carry, so the Blackshirts cannot allow Jackson to run free if the Huskers want to succeed.
“When I played, my coordinator, he would say all the time, if the team passes for 300 yards, you may or may not lose,” Diaco said. “But if the team rushes for 300 yards you’re definitely going to lose. Rush defense just in general is a factor. We decide on points, not necessarily stopping the run. So if keeping the points down, we need to do something a different way, but if the team can rush at will you’re not going to win. Rushing is a huge piece, especially against a team like this with a dynamic running back who’s going to end the season as the most prolific rusher in the history of the school I’m sure, so yeah, it’s a focus.”
Sure tackling will play a big part in limiting Jackson and the rest of the Wildcats, and that area of the game was a mixed bag last week against Purdue.
“The tackling was strong early and then we had a few missed tackles … There was the sudden change possession turnover on the plus-45 on downs, and then there was a drive-and-a-half there where the tackling wasn’t great,” Diaco said. “Specifically talking to that, with the player at the point of attack, we ended up just under 50 yards worth of yardage after contact, so that’s just unnecessary yardage; that doesn’t need to happen like that.
“You’ve got a player there who’s got the guy wrapped up or should have him wrapped up and the play should end there and to have just under 50 yards after that moment is not what we’re doing. They self-corrected, identified and kind of shut off the valve down the stretch and ended up with three or four real stops there at the end that were critical, and a lot of that had to do with tackling.”
One player who did step up his tackling against the Boilermakers after struggling for much of the season was sophomore cornerback Lamar Jackson, who tied his career-high with a team-best eight tackles.
“That’s what he should be doing,” cornerbacks coach Donte Williams said. “All I saw was a person doing his job, and that’s what he needs to continue to do — his job. And he will continue to do his job.”
The Huskers are still without junior linebacker Luke Gifford who is working his way back from a hip injury.
“He’s doing a good job rehabbing,” linebackers coach Trent Bray said. “He’s in there all the time. He’s trying to get back as fast as he can. We’re just waiting until he’s ready and when he’s ready he’ll be back. Hopefully sooner than later, but we’ll just have to wait and see.”
Gifford’s absence created an opportunity for some of the younger Huskers to see the field including redshirt freshman Colin Miller.
“He did an excellent job,” Bray said. “He came in on third down and he was a big part of why we were as successful as we were on third down. He did a really nice job on special teams. Collin Miller helped us win last week and it’s good to see.”
Miller is a converted defensive end at 6-foot-3 and 235 pounds who won scout team defensive MVP honors last year. Miller has worked at multiple spots in practice, making him a good fit to replace Gifford whose versatility has been key for this defense.
“With Luke being down, he kind of took over for Luke in some of those sub-packages and his athleticism and size and ability are kind of similar to what Luke has, and then he just went in and did a really good job at executing those jobs,” Bray said.
Another player who saw the field for the first time because of the injuries to Gifford and back-up Tyrin Ferguson was Jacob Weinmaster, a sophomore walk-on from Loveland, Colorado. Weinmaster got in the game late in the first half and promptly recorded a pair of tackles.
“The thing about Jacob is he’s a smart kid, tough kid, works extremely hard and when he went in the game he made a couple plays and did what we asked,” Bray said. “That’s good to see a guy like that being able to step up and play in a game and help.”
Like Gifford and Miller, Weinmaster is another versatile player who has worked at multiple spots in practice.
“He’s been all over the place,” Bray said. “He’s kind of been a guy like that — when there’s been injuries, we’ve moved him all around.”
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. 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.