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Stopping the Run: Nebraska Improved in 2019, Still Yards to Go

December 29, 2019

As part of our Year in Review series we're taking a close look at why the 2019 Nebraska football season went the way it did. The series originally appeared in the December issue of Hail Varsity. Make sure you don’t miss more stories like this by subscribing today.

Previous stories in the series included a look at Nebraska’s leadership, the in-season recruiting strategy and missed tackles.


Strategy. Execution. No frills. No ephemeral themes or concepts. As OG as it gets.

Defense is where amateurs start—craft a strong defense and you can hold your own against even the more skilled of opponents—but this game is where everything starts.

Even the most high-flying of offenses nowadays are built off a handful of pet-run plays. Scott Frost’s Nebraska offense, the high-octane one everyone is still anxiously waiting to see, is built off the inside zone. The rest of the Big Ten might dress it a different way, but the bones are the same. Success defensively in the Big Ten means success at stopping the run.

The conference houses nine teams that fall inside the country’s top half of college football in terms of attempts per game. The stereotype is there for a reason; Big Ten sides run to set up everything else, and if there’s a group that can’t stop the set-up, they’re going to struggle. 

For three years now, Nebraska hasn’t been able to stop the set-up. And, so, for three years now, Nebraska has struggled. This year was an extension of that trend. All that extra stuff—weapons on offense, a pass-rush, regression at quarterback— played its own role in a 5-7 season, and it’s not fair to point a finger at a defense that actually did more carrying of the offense than the other way around, but the Nebraska run defense continues to be an Achilles heel. The foundation upon which a pile of struggle-bussing is built.

In 2017, Nebraska gave up 72 explosive run plays (10 yards or more) and 5.57 yards per carry on the ground. Only six programs were worse at stopping the run on a play-to-play basis. 

In 2018, Nebraska gave up 65 explosive runs and exactly 5 yards a carry. Improvement, sure, but we’re talking about going from 124th nationally to 107th. 

In 2019, Nebraska gave up 77 explosive-run plays (113th) and 4.82 yards per carry (102nd). Again, improvement, but no Big Ten team gave up more chunk runs and only Rutgers had a worse yards-per-carry clip allowed, and that was by 0.06 yards

Thus, 13 wins in the last 36 games.

Strategy: the stretch zone was used early and often once conference play began. Get the line of scrimmage moving laterally and holes are going to open up because all it takes is one linebacker not fitting his gap properly. 

“When everyone gets running sideways, (as) defenders it is easier to get a little pushed upfield and if there is any crease that opens up as everything is getting stretched to the sideline, then it opens up a seam for a running back,” Frost said of the play that hurt Nebraska over and over, from Ohio State to Minnesota to Wisconsin to Iowa. 

Quentin Lueninghoener
This story originally appeared in the Dec. 2019 issue of Hail Varsity

Execution: You have to be assignment sound. Which Nebraska wasn’t. Inside linebacker Mohamed Barry said the Huskers struggled against the Gophers with fitting at the second level. Minnesota ran for 322 yards and four scores in that game, at 6.57 yards a carry.

Five times in nine conference games did Nebraska give up 200 rushing yards or more. 

Talent is an issue, as you’ve already read. Tackling is (still) an issue, as you’ve already read. Scheme might not be quite the issue it was perceived to be, though. With a legitimate 300-pound nose guard to eat up blocks at the line of scrimmage in Oklahoma State graduate transfer Darrion Daniels, opposing linemen weren’t able to climb to the second level as freely as they were able to last year and the Huskers’ linebackers were freed up to make plays at or behind the line of scrimmage. 

They just didn’t. Barry, Collin Miller and Will Honas combined to produce 13.5 tackles for loss from the two inside linebacker spots. The regular-rotation outside linebackers produced another 15.5.

Neither number is good enough. The 3-4-utilizing Wisconsin defense got 45.5 tackles for loss from its four starting linebackers. It fueled a defense that ranked 17th in stuff rate. Nebraska sat way down the table at 75th. 

Everything builds from this as a defense. Can’t effectively stop the run and the play-pass game becomes lethal, third downs become 1 or 2-yard efforts (if you can even get there at all), the game becomes shorter, offensive opportunities grow scarcer, bodies physically wear down. 

Badger running Jonathan Taylor going for 204 yards in a game where his quarterback isn’t relied on to do much of anything is beating your opponent with knights and bishops before you even have to consider bringing royalty into play. 

Nebraska isn’t at a point as an offense where it can do that and, for the last few years, it hasn’t been a defense that can prevent that.

“To win in this league (you’ve got) to be big and strong and physical,” Frost said ahead of the Wisconsin game. “That’s obvious to anybody inside the league or outside the league. Wisconsin and Iowa have certainly been two of the biggest and most physical teams in this league. That’s the reason they’ve had success. Our guys are stronger and I think more capable of playing in these types of games this year than last year, but we’ve got to keep working and make sure we’re a bigger team and stronger team and more physical team, too. We’ll continue to do that as well as we can through strength and conditioning and through recruiting. I think our guys are more suited to it this year than we were 12 months ago.”

That amounted to the most incremental of improvements in the final box scores and the most incremental of improvements to the win-loss record. The offense was a problem. Special teams were a problem. And the defense wasn’t the liability it has been. But it’s still failing at the most basic game in football.

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