Nebraska has a problem, and I’m not sure if there’s anything other than time and recruiting that can fix it.
The Nebraska defense can’t seem to get off the field, particularly when it needs to the most. The Huskers are 13th in the Big Ten in defensive third down conversion percentage, allowing opponents to move the chains on 41.8 percent of their third downs. Foes are also 6-of-9 on fourth down against the Huskers, tied for 10th in the Big Ten by percentage and better than only two others.
So what’s the problem? Is it the pass rush, or is it the coverage? Unfortunately, the answer is both.
“We need guys to be better at pass rushing,” Coach Scott Frost said on Monday during his weekly press conference. “We need to hit blitzes a little crisper. There’s a few technique things that aren’t quite there and that’s what, watching the game with Coach [Erik] Chinander, that I saw more than anything. We didn’t have a lot of busts Saturday … Some of the technique isn’t where we want it. We’re not breaking on enough balls in zone coverage. We’re not down in a good stance, when the quarterback throws one way to drive on it and get three hats to the ball.”
Against the Wildcats, Nebraska allowed conversions on 8-of-18 third downs, slightly higher than what Nebraska has been allowing by percentage this season. Of those 18 third downs, 11 of them were third and long with 7-plus yards to gain. Nebraska allowed conversions on four of them (36.3 percent) but gave up the first down on fourth-and-10 following two of them.
I went back and watched all 13 of these third- or fourth-and-long situations to see what the problem has been.
First of all, two of Nebraska’s stops were on screen plays which Nebraska did a great job of sniffing out and stopping. Credit to them for that. The rest of the plays didn’t go quite as well.
Focusing on the pass rush, Nebraska did not record any sacks on third down, but it did get a few pressures. Nebraska’s pass rush really impacted three of Clayton Thorson’s passes.
The first one was a combination of nice scheme and a great individual play. On third-and-9 in the second quarter, Nebraska showed plus pressure but backed off and only sent three. Luke Gifford was one of those three and he made his blocker look silly with a slick spin move (he used that same move to get his sack against Wisconsin the previous week) and although he didn’t get Thorson down, he did flush the quarterback out of the pocket and forced an errant throw.
Gifford was also involved in the other two pressures, one with Khalil Davis and the other with Freedom Akinmoladun. On both plays, Thorson was forced to leave the pocket. On the first one, Thorson made an unbelievable throw and Nebraska’s freshman cornerback Cam Taylor wasn’t able to get slot receiver Flynn Nagel to the ground after the catch, allowing him to take off and move the chains. On the second, Thorson threw an incompletion.
One one play in the second quarter, Chinander really dialed up the pressure, sending six rushers including a stunt involving Gifford looping around behind a defensive end. The problem was another of the rushers, one of the inside linebackers, rushed right into Gifford’s path and ran into him, slowing down both of them. Northwestern had its receivers to the right of the field cross and Aaron Williams wasn’t able to stick with Nagel. The result of the play was a quick, easy pass and a touchdown for Northwestern.
Rushers running into each other was not an isolated incident; it’s a problem this team has had and perhaps part of the reason Nebraska hasn’t been quite as a aggressive in terms of exotic blitz schemes as some might have expected from Chinander. That’s part of the lack of crispness Frost was talking about.
“Maybe our pass rushing technique, and honestly it — I don’t want to sound like an excuse — that’s kind of first year stuff that you don’t get to dial in the basics and the techniques quite as much as you’re in a hurry to get everything in," Frost said. "We’re improving big-time on offense with our techniques and with some of the basics as we go through it. So is the defense. But some of that stuff is just not quite there, and when the margin is that much, being in exactly the right spot with the exactly right technique makes a difference. We’re going to go back to some of those fundamentals as much as we can afford to as we’re trying to get game plans into week-by-week adjustment for other teams.”
As for the coverage, well, that was an issue too. On a lot of the plays I watched, the pass rush never even had a chance because of how quickly Thorson was able to get the ball out to open receivers who did well with the ball after they caught it. Four different times, Thorson got the ball out in about 2.5 seconds to receivers who were either given too much of a cushion or just flat out beat their man. Nebraska didn’t get many chances for a coverage sack on third down against the Wildcats.
Simply put, Nebraska needs more talent in the secondary. Dicaprio Bootle has had a strong season overall and is certainly the team’s top cover guy, but he struggled somewhat against the Wildcats with a pair of pass interference penalties. Lamar Jackson had arguably the best game of his Nebraska career in coverage against Northwestern after a tumultuous start to the year.
But the real problem is in the slot. Nebraska has opted to go with a safety at that spot this season, namely Aaron Williams, and the senior had what was probably the worst game of his career. Nebraska needs an upgrade in coverage ability in the slot for when the Huskers face players like Colorado’s Lavish Shenault and Northwestern’s Flynn Nagel, but the coaches don’t seem to have enough trust in any of the cornerbacks on the team to step in for Williams when he’s struggling.
Bootle is getting better, perhaps the light has come on for Jackson and Nebraska still has a handful of underclassmen developing in the secondary, but it doesn’t seem like coverage is something the Huskers are going to be able to get fixed in the short term.
I see a little more promise and hope for short-term progress in the pass rush department. Gifford has picked up where he left off prior to getting hurt last season and has emerged as the team’s best pass-rush threat by far. He leads the team with 4.5 sacks and 9.5 tackles for loss (it’s worth noting that Gifford cramped up on the first play of Northwestern’s 99-yard game-tying job at the end of regulation and wasn’t able to return).
Mohamed Barry has shown to be a dynamic rusher from his spot at inside linebacker with 5.5 tackles for loss (second behind Gifford) plus a sack. Tyrin Ferguson getting healthy could make a difference as well as he had five tackles for loss and a sack in the first four games before getting banged up and missing time.
The defensive line has been anything but consistent, but the Huskers have shown plenty of flashes up front with four linemen who have recorded at least a sack (Ben Stille, Freedom Akinmoladun, Khalil Davis and Carlos Davis).
Nebraska doesn’t have the talent to be one of the better pass-rushing teams in the Big Ten at this stage, but it does have enough to get the job done against a lot of the teams on the schedule.
If Nebraska can get healthy at outside linebacker, continue to become more comfortable in the system and clean up some of the silly miscues (like running into each other or hitting the quarterback on the head), the Huskers can start to look more like the team that racked up seven sacks against Colorado and less like the one that recorded three total against Michigan, Purdue and Wisconsin. Gifford can be a real weapon for Chinander during the second half of the season if he develops enough confidence in his team to start opening up the playbook and getting more creative.
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.