Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Tagging Off For Four Years: Huskers To Tackle The Issue

September 18, 2022

During his introductory press conference on Tuesday, Nebraska interim head coach Mickey Joseph identified gap integrity. That was one of the first things he wanted to fix. At the conclusion of Saturday’s 49-14 loss to Oklahoma, Joseph said it didn’t improve enough.

“I didn’t do enough last week to get them ready,” Joseph said. “We’ve got to do more individual work. More drill work next week, less team work and get some fundamentals straightened out.

“We’ve got to continue to tackle. We didn’t do enough tackling, I’ve got to do more. I’ve got to get them better in that part.”

That’s been a persistent problem for the Husker defense that’s become a major concern this year. Sophomore defensive back Myles Farmer acknowledged as much after Saturday’s game.

“We’ve got to make the tackle,” Farmer said. “That’s it. I’m not going to tell you what we’ve got to do in house, for real, but at the end of the day, we’ve got to tackle.”

That may take longer than five days to fix. Because, as Farmer alluded to, issues like that have been brewing for years.

“It’s not going to happen overnight,” Farmer said. “We’ve been tagging off for four years.”

That means it starts in practice. It starts at the bottom, at the fundamental level. There were more live periods in practice. There were more 1-on-1 periods. And yet, for the second game in a row Nebraska allowed 580 yards or more. Five of the seven touchdown drives the Sooners engineered took less than 2 minutes. Another took just 2:17. Oklahoma averaged 6.9 yards per play.

Linebacker and team captain Nick Henrich took responsibility. He admitted it had been a challenging week but the team believes in Joseph the rest of the way.

“We got to watch film and see,” Henrich said. “It was tough out there today but we’ve got to use this bye week and get better and work on things that coach Joseph is preaching and buy in and believe.”

While the defense struggled to finish plays, the offense struggled to consistently string them together.

Oklahoma only brought three. It was a simple stunt between the nose tackle and defensive end. A whiff and a seal later, Nebraska quarterback Casey Thompson was on the ground for a 4-yard loss.

Thompson dropped back the next play, felt pressure once again. Oklahoma’s Jonah Laulu got to him for a loss of 7. At least the punting unit came on after that.

No. 6 Oklahoma sacked Thompson four times in the 49-14 win over Nebraska on Saturday in Memorial Stadium. All four of those came in the first half.

Offensive line play was one of the questions forming through the first few games. Then the head coach was fired. In five days of interim head coach Mickey Joseph’s tenure those questions persisted. Except this time they were accompanied by other blocking questions. Teddy Prochazka, one of the starting linemen, did not play Saturday. Joseph announced after the game he’ll take a medical redshirt and miss the rest of the season.

Standout Anthony Grant, who eclipsed 100 yards in all three previous games, ran for just 36 yards on 13 carries Saturday. Ajay Allen once again took the second-most carries and managed 49 yards on 11 carries.

The Huskers combined for a season-low 163 rushing yards. That includes negative-30 yards rushing from Thompson.

This leaves a lot of room for growth going into the upcoming bye week.

“Technique and working drills, really hammering home on footwork,” senior tight end Travis Vokolek said. “Just running drills to help us on Saturdays. I think we move the ball well, I really do, and I think we’ll continue to move the ball well. We just have to put them together.”

Thompson finished 14 of 20 for 129 yards and a touchdown but, much like the first half against North Dakota, the offense wasn’t on the field long enough to find a rhythm or make a difference.

Following Thompson’s touchdown pass to Trey Palmer on the opening drive, Nebraska attempted seven drives in the first half. Five ended in punts. Six of those seven were six plays or less. The same six drives went for 18 yards or less. That one outlier was an 11-play, 57-yard drive into the red zone but the Huskers went for it on fourth down and fell a yard short.

“We’ve got to work on some fundamentals,” Joseph said. “We’ve got to clean up some fundamentals.”

Vokolek, like fellow team captain Henrich, was back on the field Saturday after missing time with injuries. He acknowledged the team’s uphill climb. At least, there’s a spare week to focus solely on fixing those things.

So the Huskers and their interim head coach approach a bye week with a lot to work on. Immediately they changed the practice schedule and wiped the slate clean. Any amount of change could do little to adequately prepare for the sixth-ranked team in the country. Now, the Huskers get the gift of a bye before the meat of the Big Ten schedule with a focus to fix all three phases of themselves.

“Today stunk, obviously,” Vokolek said. “We’re just super excited for this bye week to get back out there, have another opportunity to get back out there with the guys is something that I’m looking forward to.”

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