BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – Based on social media reactions, the day began for most Nebraska fans with a rude awakening from Kirk Herbstreit. The ESPN broadcaster joked his way through an “is Nebraska for real” segment on College GameDay, making it pretty clear how he felt about the question.
Over the first 10 minutes of Nebraska’s 27-22 win over Indiana on Saturday, it looked like the Huskers were playing to answer that question emphatically. Nebraska raced out to a 17-0 lead on a pretty good Hoosier team on their home turf.
The 50 minutes that followed, however, made it a question again. The offense, missing a couple of key pieces in Cethan Carter and Jordan Westerkamp and featuring a walking-wounded offensive line, sputtered while going scoreless over the second and third quarters. The 2016 Tommy Armstrong Jr. looked a little like the 2015 Tommy Armstrong Jr., throwing two interceptions and making some additional desperation heaves.
Going into Saturday, if there was one thing about Nebraska that was close to top-10 worthy it was the offense, and Indiana shut it down for a long time. If the Huskers don’t have that – a dangerously balanced offense helmed by run-threat quarterback making suddenly solid decisions – what do they have?
Well, they might have a rapidly improving defense that just may have proved on Saturday that it’s good enough to win games on its own.
“I thought our defense was overall outstanding considering the production Indiana has had for all of this year and for multiple years,” Coach Mike Riley said. “We really made some really good plays and played solidly on defense for a very long time.”
Indiana entered Saturday averaging 453 yards per game, fourth in the Big Ten. Prior to last week’s loss to Ohio State, the Hoosiers were humming along at nearly 500 yards per game. Nebraska held Indiana to 333 yards on Saturday and it did it in the most old-fashioned way possible – it tackled.
The Hoosiers’ version of the up-tempo spread offense is meant to do what most offenses these days are designed to do: get players in space. Indiana is generally pretty good at it and it was great at it on Saturday.
How great? Fifty-two of Nebraska’s 62 tackles were of the solo variety. That’s 83.9 percent, which, in a close game is about as much of a high-wire act as you’ll see. If one of those solo tackles doesn’t happen, how many more yards would it have meant? Now multiply that by five or 10 or even 20. Nebraska entered the game with a solo-tackle percentage of 53.5, meaning 33 solo tackles would’ve been normal for a 62-tackle game.
“Well, then we tackled pretty damn good, you know,” defensive coordinator Mark Banker said when informed of the number.
Tackling was an issue for the Huskers in their first two conference games. Banker said the Huskers spent most of last week working on it and it showed when Nebraska needed it most.
The Blackshirts did the other little things, too. The Hoosiers made six trips inside Nebraska’s 40-yard line but only came away with two touchdowns. Indiana was averaging five passing plays of 20-plus yards per game coming in. Nebraska held it to three. Both of those developments are part of season-long trends, which, when combined with really good tackling and a couple of takeaways makes for a pretty strong brand of defense.
It’s not flashy. It’s not rip-out-your-throat. It’s nothing that’s going to get a talking head talking on a Saturday morning.
Workmanlike is more like it.
“We may not have the 4.4s, we might not have the 6-8, 270s or whatever, but as a team we’re going to come out fighting and give you everything we’ve got until the end of the game,” said safety Kieron Williams, who made 10 tackles on Saturday, all of them solo.
Nebraska’s defense wasn’t perfect of course. Hoosiers’ running back Devine Redding pulled Indiana within two in the fourth quarter on a 33-yard, fake-reverse touchdown run.
“That damn fake reverse,” Banker said. “Our guys, you know what’s funny, ran that a number of times in practice because they never gave it off on the reverse, the kid kept it all the time.”
Redding kept it this time, too. When a defense plays well enough, the few plays that got away tend to stand out.
“It’s just frustrating not to be able to get away from those things because these guys are playing better and they’re playing with more confidence,” Banker said. “I guess when we get rid of those, you’ll know that the Blackshirts are back, maybe.”
Maybe then Nebraska would even merit a serious conversation about its contender status.
Maybe that should start now.
Not because Nebraska was perfect. Not because it was dominant.
But because it found a way to win when the things that have typically worked this season didn’t.
That’s what good teams do.
“We’re 6-0, man,” cornerback Josh Kalu said to one in particular as he walked off the field on Saturday. He had seven tackles, all of them solo, but he didn’t walk off alone.
Mike Riley caught Kalu right before the turf turned to pavement and the pair walked off together, arms around each other’s shoulders.