Friday's 28-6 win against Illinois was Nebraska's second straight game holding an opponent under 200 yards of total offense, and Nebraska's front-seven pressure was a significant part of that. After recording just three sacks through four weeks, Nebraska racked up five against the Illini and finished with 11 total tackles for loss.
The sacks came from five different players and seven different Huskers recorded at least half a tackle behind the line of scrimmage. However, two players stood out in particular. One of them was sophomore defensive end Carlos Davis, who has been a monster all season. The other was redshirt freshman Ben Stille, who had a break-out performance in his second game since moving back from reserve defensive end to rotation outside linebacker.
Let's take a closer look to see how Nebraska created so much pressure in Champaign.
Nebraska's first sack came on the penultimate play of the first half as Illinois was near midfield with 14 seconds left to play. Illinois tried to send its receivers deep, none of them got open and Freedom Akinmoladun eventually separated from his blocker to record a coverage sack.
Second Quarter, Second Drive
A fumble by Devine Ozigbo gave Illinois the ball at the Nebraska 32 wih plenty of time left in a two-score game, and the Blackshirts rose to the challenge.
On first and 10, Nebraska lines up in its base defense with three down linemen and Stille lined up off the edge to the boundary side. Stille becomes the fourth rusher.
Freedom Akinmoladun rushes from the field side, setting the edge. Stille feints an inside with that step this screen cap below shows but plants and blows by the left tackle with an outside speed rush.
The poor tackle never had a chance, and neither does Illinois quarterback Chayce Crouch.
Stille smashes Crouch from the blindside just as the quarterback was winding up to throw, and the ball pops up into the air as Stille sacks Crouch.
Mick Stoltenberg was the first one to the ball, but couldn't secure it. The Illini fall on the ball and live to fight another down, but just barely.
The Illini lost 5 yards on the sack but got 3 of them back because of the fumble, setting up a second and 12. Crouch tried to run on second down, but Stille and inside linebacker Chris Weber teamed up to produce a tackle at the line of scrimmage by Weber.
On third and 12, Nebraska lines up in man free in the secondary with a split four-man front with Weber filling the middle. Nebraska runs a tackle-end stunt with Carlos Davis and Alex Davis. Carlos attacks the inside of the tackle and Alex loops around behind him.
Luke Gifford rushes off the other side, setting the edge. Carlos comes off the tackle with no one between him and the quarterback.
Giving Carlos Davis a free release to the quarterback is never a good idea, especially with Gifford taking away the easy escape to the other side.
Sack No. 3 in the books, and it's a big one for a 12-yard loss.
Illinois started its drive in field goal range and ended up moving backwards 14 yards, resulting in a punt.
Fourth Quarter, First Drive
Carlos Davis made a big play again later in the game, but this time it was his brother Khalil who finished the play for the sack.
On third and 6, Nebraska lines up in nickel with Carlos Davis at nose tackle. The Huskers send four after the quarterback with Dedrick Young blitzing up the middle.
Khalil Davis, the boundary defensive end, gets a strong rush on the outside while Davis man-handles the guard 4 yards into the backfield before dispatching him like a rag doll.
Davis flies by Crouch but gets a hand on his leg, holding him up as Khalil catches up to the play.
Khalil cleaned things up to drop Crouch for a loss of 3.
The twins celebrate accordingly.
Fourth Quarter, Second Drive
The final sack came on the defense's last play of the game. On third and 7, Nebraska lines up with three down linemen and Gifford bluffing blitz. In reality, Gifford is spying the quarterback and Weber is spying the running back. Akinmoladun rushes off the right edge.
Akinmoladun spins back middle into a double-team, but Weber sees the back is settling into pass protection rather than running into the flat and begins his rush. Carlos Davis gets a strong push from the opposite side.
Davis flushes Crouch out of the pocket, but Weber sheds the block by the running back.
Crouch tries to escape but Weber wraps him up for his first career sack.
Illinois punted the ball away and Nebraska ran out the clock to secure the victory.
Tackles for Loss
The quarterback wasn't the only one who felt the pressure. Nebraska got after the running back as well and made it tough on Illinois to move the ball through the air or on the ground.
First Quarter, First Drive
After giving up 20 yards on Illinois' first two carries, the Huskers stiffened up on the third play to shut down the drive. This play was just total domination across the line. On first and 10, Nebraska lines up with a four-man front.
The play is a zone read. Crouch reads Sedrick King standing up off the left tackle unblocked and completes the handoff rather than taking it himself. However, Carlos Davis has already gotten inside his man, Akinmoladun got a strong push off the field side and Mick Stoltenberg is plugging the middle.
Davis blows up the play and Stoltenberg sheds his blocker and arrives just in time for a share of the tackle.
Five guys surrounding the ball behind the line of scrimmage is usually a good sign for a defense.
The play results in a loss of 1 and a second and 11, which turned out to be big as the Illini gained 10 yards between second and third down.
First Quarter, Second Drive
Stille made his presence felt early, making a splash play on the first snap of the second drive.
Nebraska called a corner blitz on this play, but it's not even necessary as Stille (the boundary defensive end) took care of business on his own.
Stille blasts through the A-gap, destroying the right tackle as Crouch looks to hand the ball off to Mike Epstein Meanwhile Deontre Thomas and Khalil Davis got a strong push up the middle and off the right side.
Stille meets the running back two steps after he received the ball and buries him for a loss of 1.
A pass interference kept the drive alive for Illinois and the Illini kept marching right down the field into the Nebraska red zone. On second and goal from the 3-yard line, Illinois calls a zone read. Stille, standing up outside the right tackle, rushes around the edge as No. 13 looks to block him. Antonio Reed fills a gap in behind Stille.
Crouch sees Reed in the hole and that No. 13 was engaged with Stille, so he decides to keep the ball himself rather than handing it off to Epstein.
Crouch tries to get to the edge, but Stille sheds his block.
Stille showed his speed and caught Crouch well behind the line of scrimmage, pulling him down for a loss of 5.
Illinois picks up 1 yard on third down and has to settle for a field goal. The Illini would not get a better chance to reach the end zone the rest of the night, and they couldn't capitalize due in large part to a spectacular play by Stille.
Second Quarter, First Drive
Down 14-3 with the ball at the Nebraska 33-yard line, the Illini faced a third and 8. Nebraska shows a split four-man front with a middle linebacker filling the gap once again. Weber looks like he is going to rush up the middle here.
However, he quickly diagnoses the play and reads where the ball carrier is going – outside.
Weber takes off running as Crouch hands off to Epstein, knowing where the play is going before it even began.
Weber chases the back down and tackles him for a loss of 5, knocking the Illini out of field goal range and forcing a punt.
Plays like this showcase the instincts and tackling ability that allowed Weber to rise from walk-on to Blackshirt.
Fourth Quarter, Second Drive
This play led to the Chris Weber sack that I already broke down above.
After a solid 6-yard run on first down, the Illini had a second and 4 from their 41-yard line. Nebraska lines up with three linemen but has Gifford standing up near the line between the nose and boundary end. Gifford attacks the tackle and B-gap while Akinmoladun stunts around through the right A-gap. Carlos Davis attacks the other A-gap.
Crouch hands the ball off to Epstein, but he's surrounded by bodies as Nebraska pushed the issue while the play was developing.
Gifford separates and makes the tackle for a 3-yard loss.
Tying it All Together
Each week, I think Bob Diaco has thrown a little bit more at his defense, and the Huskers have several different formations out of which they can attack the backfield and put some pressure on the opposing quarterbacks. The scheme certainly helps and puts the players in good positions, but more often than not, it's simply the player beating his man.
Carlos Davis continues to prove that he is one of the most important players not only on the defense, but on the team as a whole. His ability to destroy blocks (one of Bob Diaco's favorite phrases) is incredible.
However, Ben Stille flashed big-time in this game as well and he did it after getting less than two weeks of practice time at the position.
“Through the time that we’ve had him here, we’ve seen really, really good, hard, consistent work that has, basically, paid off for him by taking advantage of an opportunity that was presented to him a few weeks ago where he got a chance to play in the game, and it was just a week ago, really, at a new position that he had had a little experience with," Coach mike Riley saidat his Monday press conference. "He had bounced from a defensive end to a boundary linebacker, and, with the injuries we’ve had, he slides in, takes advantage of it and physically, has done a very good job. He’s very conscientious. He has always been an extremely hard worker, and that’s what’s happened. It’s pretty simple.”
I think the Huskers found a hidden gem with Stille, and he needs to be on the field more as he continues to develop.
With each passing week Diaco's defense grows and the players' confidence within the system grows as well. The result is three straight games of limiting opponents to 250 yards or less. Nebraska will need to prove it can get this kind of pressure against a perennial offensive line power, because the Badgers are going to be coming in hot after quarterback Tanner Lee and whoever carries the load at running back on Saturday.
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.