Nebraska’s offense has scored points on two of three game-opening drives this season. Problem is, so have Husker opponents.
Ohio State went 75 yards in 11 plays before finding the end zone. Northwestern then went 80 yards in seven plays to put seven on the board.
Nebraska never trailed against Penn State in part because of the start. Cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt picked off Penn State starter Sean Clifford, halting a drive that had covered 39 yards, and returned the ball 55 yards the other way.
The Blackshirts got a strip-sack on Penn State’s third possession that led to a scoop-and-score touchdown from safety Deontai Williams. With a seven-point margin at the end of the day and an offense that struggled to control the ball in the second half, one could point to Williams’ score and say, “That was the difference.”
But, really, for the defense, the tone-setting start was what aided everything.
“I don’t think there’s anything that brings energy to a team like success on defense and getting big hits and getting stops,” coach Scott Frost said Monday. “That inflates offenses and inflates special teams. It makes everybody want to play harder. There’s some big hits out there when you’re on the sideline and listening to those collisions. If we keep doing that, we’ll get hit on some things, but defensively you’ve got a chance when you’ve got that many guys running to the ball and delivering hits like that.”
In the opener, Ohio State came out expecting to find success on the ground. The Buckeyes had pushed Nebraska all over the field a season ago in Lincoln, and Nebraska was replacing all three starters on the defensive line. There wasn’t much room to be found.
On 14 carries, the Buckeyes averaged only 3.7 yards a run. Since then, though, the Huskers have slipped a little bit. Northwestern averaged nearly 8 yards a carry in the first quarter, and Penn State averaged 5.
Nebraska has done well to produce turnovers recently—four in the last two games—but third down remains a trouble spot.
“We’ve got to be able to cage the passer, cage the quarterback,” said defensive lineman Ty Robinson. “The pass rush has got to be better, obviously. We’ve got to get back there. I just feel like our pressure isn’t as good, but it’s slowly getting there. … I feel like we’re definitely going in the right direction. But, I definitely think the pass rush is what we’re going to have to work on.”
Opponents are 23-for-46 on third. Only Illinois has a worse stop rate in the Big Ten.
Keeping teams off-schedule will help. Nebraska has momentum following game-sealing stops inside its own 15-yard-line against Penn State on back-to-back possessions. A 24-3 kind of lead, the one it had against Penn State, is what the Blackshirts are chasing.
“Definitely think what we wanted to focus on this week was starting off the game hot,” said linebacker Collin Miller. “Being very physical and fast. Over the past two weeks before this game, I think we always let the team run down the field and score on us from the first drive. So, we wanted to make sure that throughout the whole week that we started fast Monday, Tuesday and continued on throughout the whole week.
“Knowing our assignments and our alignments and doing our job and not waiting, attacking them. Not pitter-pattering around and feeling it out and seeing that OK we can play with these guys, just attacking them on the first drive. I think that kind of set the tone (against Penn State).”