This season began with promise that the Huskers’ run defense, often times a significant impediment to winning games over the last few seasons, was instead going to be something to lean on in 2019. No one ran for 100 yards in the first three weeks, but more than that, Nebraska was only giving up 2.18 yards per run on the ground.
Then Illinois ran for 6.5 yards per carry, adjusted for sacks, in Week 4. Then Ohio State ran for 7.8, again adjusted for sacks, in Week 5. Minnesota hit for 6.6 two Saturdays ago. A defense that gave up just nine explosive run plays over the first three games has given up 35 in the four since. The Gophers exacerbated the issue with a 322-yard day that featured 10 runs of 10 yards or longer.
Immediately after, Frost’s impression was that his team was physically handled. After a few days to painstakingly pour over the film, he was thinking something different.
“Guys were expecting somebody to be in the gap from the secondary, or from a linebacker, and four or five or six times they weren't there and they turned into big plays,” Frost said. “We can do well a lot of the time, but not consistently enough.”
Which is worse at this point, seven games into the second year for this staff and system, being pushed around or not being assignment sound? One of them can get fixed pretty easily.
“I think that sometimes people were just thinking too much, being too smart,” said inside linebacker Mohamed Barry. “Sometimes you've just got to play your gap and the other person plays his gap and y’all collide. It’s that simple sometimes. I guess sometimes people were thinking run-pass or stuff like that. That’s good that we try to take that next step and be an extremely smart team, but at the end of the day, defense is just a read-and-react, and that is what we should have done that game.”
“Sometimes being simple is not easy,” said defensive line coach Tony Tuioti. “The Patriots have been saying that forever, ‘Just do your job,’ but they do it better than everyone else. That’s not an easy thing to do.”
Most of the post-Minnesota analysis has done well to, at the least, absolve some of the blame laid at the feet of the defensive line. But this is still a group that has gone the other way in terms of production this season.
“It was definitely not what we wanted,” said Tuioti. “I think we all own up to making sure we fit the run correctly. There’s a lot of times where if we’re not coming off the ball or not getting enough knock-back, or they’re trying to stretch us east and west and not being in our gaps, then it makes the next person suffer in terms of what they’ve got to get done.
“We’ve just been going back to the basics since the bye week and over the last couple days and trying to clean some of that stuff up, but for the most part I think our guys were productive in terms of what we wanted to get done from a statistics standpoint, but not to the point of being able to stop the run the way we wanted to.”
Tuioti likes what he’s seen from his group since last Tuesday when practices resumed. And running inside zone so much can have just as strong an impact on the defense as it can for the offense. While Frost’s side of the ball has to recapture and identity and find some (any) concept it can lean on, the defense would be served well by a week’s worth of physically-demanding run-stopping. The Big Ten offers no reprieves for a run defense.
“It’s hard to look at a Big Ten team and say that they didn’t have a very good running back,” Barry said. “I think there’s a lot of running backs that you could see playing on Sundays.”
This week, Nebraska will be tested by Stevie Scott III, a guy averaging 5.22 yards per tote and a guy who has run the ball more than all but three other Big Ten backs. Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor looms. Iowa’s ground game has been below typical Iowa standards but the Hawkeyes will still, undoubtedly, look to establish the run against Nebraska early.
A tweak for Minnesota was a four-man front we’ve heard about throughout weeks leading up to Saturdays this season but hadn’t seen much of on Saturdays themselves. “We felt like if they go big then we can, too,” Tuioti said. “We’re going to face big teams coming down the road, too, so we’ve got to have different packages to be able to match those up. We kinda have that in our back pocket as well.”
However it happens, the defensive line needs to do some recapturing of its own.
Probably a good time for a bye week. One of the biggest things this semi-off week helped the d-line room with was health. Older guys got a chance to get right. The starting rotation Tuioti has leaned on, maybe a little more than he would like to over the previous two games, got some recovery time.
“It also gave me an opportunity to take a look at some of the young guys,” Tuioti said.
Two that come to mind immediately for the Husker assistant: true freshman Ty Robinson and redshirt freshman Casey Rogers. In going against the scout team defense, Tuioti keeps hearing from Frost and other offensive assistants that duo is getting close.
Expect to see more of Robinson, who has yet to play in a game this season, in the final five for Nebraska. “He’s closed the gap a lot.” It sounds like he and Rogers are No. 7 and 8 in that defensive line rotation, with both primarily working out on the edge.
“I put [Robinson] in just as many reps as I did the ones,” Tuioti said. “He did a good job. Ran to the ball, he’s not making a lot of mistakes in terms of executing the defense, and his fundamental technique’s gotten a lot better as well. Between Ty and Casey Rogers, they’ve been getting a lot of reps, and they’ve earned the right to do that.
It’s hard to find a way to naturally get a seventh or eighth defensive lineman out there enough to make an impact, Tuioti admitted. The Huskers have two three-man units that have both produced this season. The flow of the game will dictate just how much Robinson or Rogers might play. If Nebraska comes out rejuvenated up front and can put the clamps down on the Hoosier ground game, we might not see a lot of Robinson. If struggles persist, it may be time for next man up.
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.