Secondary Growth a Primary Goal for Huskers Early in 2017
Photo Credit: Aaron Babcock

Secondary Growth a Primary Goal for Huskers Early in 2017

September 10, 2017

EUGENE, Ore. – On Friday, I wrote about the “baptism by fire” Nebraska’s young secondary was going to experience against the high-flying Ducks in Eugene. 

Nine chunk plays and 365 yards through the air later and the Nebraska defense is still smoldering.

Oregon raced out to a 42-14 lead at halftime behind 409 yards of offense. Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert connected on 21 of his 25 passes for 313 yards in the first half. 

“Experience playing the games is an invaluable piece,” defensive coordinator Bob Diaco said. “We didn’t start well, obviously. Too many explosive plays in the first half. A lot of strain and stress on a developing defense.”

Linebackers, cornerbacks, safeties — Herbert exploited all of them in coverage.

Oregon’s first two touchdowns probably brought back some bad memories of 2015 for Huskers fans. 

On third and 8 on Oregon’s first drive, Brenden Schooler got deep on Dicaprio Bootle in the corner of the end zone. Bootle, the redshirt freshman corner known for his speed, was right with Schooler but never got his head turned to find the football. Touchdown Ducks.

Oregon’s second touchdown also came on third down, this time from the 8-yard line with goal to go. Charles Nelson hesitated for a moment, then ran a corner route. Safety Joshua Kalu was a step slow to react and ended up in chase mode as Herbert made a perfect throw, dropping the ball over Kalu’s head. Once again, Nebraska was more or less in position but failed to make a play on the ball.

For young corners especially, the margin for error on those plays is “really small,” according to Bootle.

“You just have to be on your toes at all times, read all of your keys, do what you’ve got to do and not put yourself in bad positions,” Bootle said. “It’s a very fine line that you have to walk.”

Failing to make a play on the ball in coverage haunted the Huskers all throughout the 2015 season, Mike Riley’s first in Lincoln. That year, the Huskers went 6-7 and were 122th in the country in passing yards allowed and 101st in passing touchdowns allowed. The difference then was that the main culprits — Daniel Davie and Jonathan Rose — were seniors.

This year, Nebraska’s cornerback group consists of two sophomores and a redshirt freshman. Couple that with the fact that even Nebraska’s most experienced players are adjusting to new roles, and there will be growing pains.

“You have an expectation that it’s going to look a certain way and go a certain way, and then young players, a new defense, a developing defense, a process,” Diaco said. “You have this process that’s happening day-to-day. There’s been some spectacular moments, so great, great moments. A lot of winning, a lot of success, a lot of development. For 15 minutes in the process, it was really poor.”

Nebraska allowed completions of 32, 42, 16, 22, 51, 21, 32, 17 and 38 yards during the game against a handful of different Nebraska defenders. Nebraska was credited with just two pass break-ups — one by linebacker Luke Gifford and the other by Lee — while Oregon recorded nine including a pair by freshman (and former Nebraska target) Thomas Graham Jr.

The 51-yard play — a catch by Oregon receiver Johnny Jones III on second and 8 from Oregon’s 29-yard line — stuck with true sophomore Lamar Jackson. 

The struggles against the pass are not entirely on the secondary as the Blackshirts couldn’t muster a single sack. The front seven needs to make significant improvement as well.

However, none of Nebraska’s linebackers are suddenly going to turn into All-Big Ten pass rushers and Diaco can only do so much from a schematic standpoint. The corners have to make fewer mistakes — and that is the key word according to Lee: mistakes.

“The big thing was that all the mistakes that were out there on the field were on us, just easy mistakes; they weren’t really beating us, we were kind of beating ourselves,” Lee said. “Those are the kind of corrections we made [in the second half].”

For the second straight game, Nebraska did show improvement in the secondary as the game went on. Nebraska only allowed 52 yards on 4-of-8 passing with an interception in the second half, and 38 of those yards came on one pass. 

Oregon brought a highly-touted rushing attack into Saturday’s showdown and star running back Royce Freeman was the biggest name in the game. A look at the box score does show that the Ducks ran for 201 yards at 4.6 yards per pop.

However, it wasn’t the run game that beat Nebraska. The Huskers did well enough, and Nebraska’s sophomore workhorse back more than held his own in the run game as compared to the more veteran Freeman. Bryant racked up 107 yards on 20 carries before suffering a knee injury that forced him out of the game. Freeman finished with 153 yards on 29 carries for the Ducks. Both backs averaged 5.3 yards per carry.

In fact, after building that 42-14 halftime lead primarily through the air, the Ducks kept the ball on the ground in the second half in an effort keep the clock ticking. The result? Zero points. Oregon nearly let the Huskers back into the game by trying to close them out with the run.

“It’s a developmental process and this is part of it,” Diaco said. “Listen, it is what it is: a very challenging, very talented offense, very challenging system, a lot of pressure in the areas we’re most developmental.”

Arkansas State and now Oregon have taken advantage of Nebraska’s inexperience in the secondary, and they won’t be the only ones to do so. With one non-conference game remaining before Big Ten play begins, the Huskers are going to have to fast-forward that developmental process if they have any hope of keeping up in the race for the Big Ten West title.

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