Most will look at the three interceptions that Nebraska’s defense grabbed against Fordham and see great plays from safety Deontai Williams and outside linebacker JoJo Domann.
Indeed, they were great plays. Williams snatched two picks in the Huskers’ 52-7 win over the Rams while Domann corralled his first career interception off a tipped pass. But take a closer look at those plays and you’ll see a defensive line that got after Fordham quarterback Tim DeMorat.
While the lone sack of the day came from a corner blitz by Quinton Newsome, the Fordham quarterback felt the presence of Nebraska’s d-line. On all three of DeMorat’s throws that found the hands of Nebraska defenders, he was looking down the barrel of Husker pressure. The havoc coming for him likely played a role in where his passes landed.
DeMorat’s first pick was a high pass off the hands of his receiver and into the mitts of Domann. Why was the throw high? It could have simply been a missed throw—that happens. But zero in on the trenches and you’ll see linebacker Luke Reimer with a clear path to DeMorat. Why was it a clear path? Because the four-man Nebraska d-line—Garrett Nelson, Ty Robinson, Deontre Thomas and Caleb Tannor— occupied the five-man o-line of the Rams. Linebacker Nick Henrich did his job, too, occupying the running back who was in pass protection. Reimer’s presence may have played a part in the inaccuracy.
It was even clearer that Nebraska’s pass rush had a hand in DeMorat’s second and third picks, both to Williams. The Huskers’ front ran stunts, which gave Robinson an open lane to DeMorat. On his third interception, the quarterback was flushed out of the pocket to his right, and made a hurried and inaccurate throw to the sideline, missing his receiver but not Williams.
“If you truly watched the game, you saw we were back there for most of the game,” Robinson said. “We caused three of those interceptions—Deontai had a really great game with two of those and JoJo having that first one. I think we really played well up front.”
Of course, not everyone would have noticed the work that the d-line did last Saturday. Many viewers watch the ball, and rightly so because that’s where the fun is. But inside Tony Tuioti’s room, the d-linemen get their recognition.
“Coach Tuioti does a great job of that, he lets us know,” Robinson said. “Today we went over the film, and he said nobody is going to care that you guys were back there—all they’ll care about is the guy who caught the ball. But to us and to the people who truly think it’s important and matter, and to the people who we think are important, they’re going to know and they’re going to see what we caused. So it’s a big pride thing.”
Robinson and the rest of his d-line mates want a repeat performance this weekend against the Buffalo Bulls. The d-line has already been doing its homework on the Buffalo o-linemen, trying to find any subtleties that can be exploited.
Do they fire off the ball? Do they prefer a high-hand punch or a low-hand punch? Are they quick or passive with their hands? Do they like to cut? Those are the tells Robinson looks for from the o-linemen he goes against.
“We really do dive in deep and we’re each assigned a player every week to study, and we come together on Thursdays for our pass rush, and on Friday mornings the d-line does a little run study as well,” Robinson said. “It’s nothing easy, we really do dive in and try to dissect what kind of offensive linemen we’re going to go against.”
Along with winning the Sunday-through-Friday work, there’s another area of the game that Robinson says is key to win on Saturdays: the end of the first half and the start of the second. Finishing second quarters strong, either with a score from the offense or a stop from the defense, and starting the third with a bang—again, a score or a stop—is important.
To accomplish that goal, Robinson said it’s all about a mentality—there’s really nothing you can do in practice to work on it. You just need to go out in those situations and, “be a dog.” Robinson lines up across from an offensive lineman in third quarters with thoughts like, ‘It’s not over for you,’ and, ‘It’s just getting started,’ and, ‘It’s going to be a long second half for you,’ going through his head.
Nebraska finished Fordham off the right way to begin the third, and winning that end-of-the-second-start-of-the-third battle is the plan against Buffalo.
“I feel like that’s the last big punch you need for that second half, is that first drive where you keep them from scoring or if we’re on offense and we score on that first drive,” Robinson said. “I really feel that’s big, it gives us the momentum we need throughout the game.”