In a lot of ways, the Indiana game was truly the first one of the Mickey Joseph era, and I liked a lot of what I saw.
Nebraska’s interim coach was thrust into a no-win situation with one week of prep before facing a top-10 team in Oklahoma, and he determined he needed to make another staff change based on how that game went. With a bye week for Bill Busch to work with the defense and and for Joseph to polish up some things while continuing to Hamer home his message, Nebraska looked like a different team on Saturday — one that was able to earn a Power Five win for the first time in nearly a full calendar year.
Offensively, things didn’t look too much different. It was far from a flawless performance, but the Huskers did enough on that end to give themselves a shot, as they have most of this season. Anthony Grant and Trey Palmer continue to look like serious weapons while Casey Thompson turned in another solid, efficient performance.
However, the offensive line still leaves much to be desired as Indiana recorded four sacks and eight total tackles for loss (one more than Nebraska in each category). That leads me to the first change I noticed: accountability.
Bryce Benhart started his 10th straight game at right tackle on Saturday, and 23rd overall at Nebraska. However, after Benhart found himself in the middle of some rough snaps in pass protection, the staff made a change, inserting Hunter Anthony to play the bulk of the remaining snaps.
Benhart has caught the ire of the fan base, and with good reason considering some of the lowlights he’s put on tape. However, he isn’t the only lineman that has struggled and replacing him won’t instantly fix the unit’s problems.
In fact, though I have a healthy amount of skepticism for Pro Football Focus’ grading, Benhart had the second-best score of any of Nebraska’s linemen behind only Ethan Piper, and he graded out significantly higher than his replacement. In situations like this, the bad often tends to stick in our memories more than the good. As bad as Benhart’s worst plays have looked, I’m not 100% sold he’s been Nebraska’s worst lineman.
In any regard, Joseph said we’ll likely see a rotation again between Benhart and Anthony on Friday against Rutgers. Benhart struggled and the staff made a change, which hasn’t always happened the last few years.
Benhart wasn’t even the first starter to see the bench. We saw true freshman Malcolm Hartzog take Tommi Hill’s starting cornerback spot opposite Quinton Newsome, and we saw the starting quarterback replaced for a drive after taking a bad sack.
Jospeh clearly has a different philosophy when it comes to sitting quarterbacks than his predecessor. I didn’t necessarily agree with the decision to insert Chubba Purdy when they did, backed up inside their own 15 with a line struggling in protection, and the results were disastrous. However, I think it was part of Joseph and his staff’s attempt to institute a new level of accountability within the program.
“Casey was OK with that,” Joseph said on Monday. “He came in yesterday and we sat down. One thing that kids can do with me is we can talk, and they can tell me how they feel. And he didn’t want to be taken out of the game. He expressed that. He let me know he didn’t want that. But then I explained to him why we did it. Because I’m always going to explain to him why, because this is a why generation. He wanted to know why, so I told him why. And he said ‘I don’t want to do that again’. I said I don’t want to do it either. If I have to I will, because I’m going to be consistent with him. I’m not going to be wishy-washy with him. I’m going to be consistent with what I’m saying.
“He’s no different than anybody else. If we think he’s struggling, he’s coming out. That’s anybody. That’s the way you have to run your football team. You can’t treat him any differently. He doesn’t want to be treated any differently. He expressed how he felt, and I appreciated that, but at the end of the day, he understands who’s the coach.”
Growth is impossible without accountability, and Jospeh is looking to hold his players accountable.
All that being said, it was the other side of the ball that looked the most different. Busch wasn’t going to install an entirely new defense in less than two weeks, and Hartzog was the only newcomer to the starting lineup, but the Huskers held Indiana to just 4.3 yards per play and 2-of-15 on third down.
The coaches promised simplicity and more aggression coming out of the bye, and that’s what we saw on Saturday.
“We said what we were going to do,” Joseph said. “We were going to get them lined up. That’s the big thing on defense. Just get them lined up. My brother Vance yesterday got his team to line up. When you can get them lined up, now they can recognized what’s going on and recognize formations. That’s the big key. I thought they lined up and then they played with their hair on fire.”
Busch echoed Joseph’s thoughts on Tuesday, saying the defense’s two main goals were to get lined up correctly and play fast, and the Huskers did just that.
Watching the game back with a closer eye, I saw more aggressive press coverage rather than the consistent cushions we saw so often on the perimeter. I saw more creativity in terms of blitzes from the second level. I saw the nickel mixing it up between lining up in the slot and playing close to the line of scrimmage instead of dropping back in coverage nearly every play.
The Huskers certainly weren’t perfect, and the increased aggression led to a lot of penalties and some explosive plays from the Hoosiers, but I think the tradeoff was worth it. This team as currently constructed isn’t equipped to win with a bend-but-don’t-break style, because the Huskers have shown they’re probably going to make the key mistake before most of their opponents.
Nebraska’s best chance at improving on defense is increasing the variance. Introduce more chances for havoc plays. Give the players a chance to think less and attack more. Take some chances. We saw more production from Nebraska’s key defenders — Luke Reimer, Ty Robinson and Garrett Nelson among others — and the Huskers will need more of that moving forward.
Nebraska needed a win, and the Huskers got it. Nebraska really benefitted from Indiana’s top two wide receivers not suiting up and the Huskers won’t face a worse defense the rest of the way.
The level of execution we saw on Saturday likely won’t be enough to win more than maybe one more game, but I did like the changes we saw, and if the Huskers can build on them they’ll have a chance to continue improving over the second half of the season.