Brick by brick.
That’s the phrase Nebraska defensive coordinator Bob Diaco used multiple times after Saturday’s 56-14 loss to No. 9 Ohio State.
“Coach [Mike] Riley talked about pulling together, talked about leading in the bye week, talked about staying together, talked about working, talked about building brick by brick,” Diaco said. “We’re building a team; it takes time.”
The Buckeyes ran right through that wall Nebraska has been trying to build up, leaving a pile of rubble in their wake. Ohio State scored a touchdown on each of its first eight drives, picking apart every level of the Nebraska defense. What the heck happened?
“We’ve got guys that are not participating, so we’ve got young players doing jobs that are very hard to do against great players and a great team hitting on all cylinders … a real test for players that are new and playing for the first time,” Diaco said when asked about the team’s preparation. “They’re going to be fine. They gained a lot of experience tonight playing in this game and they’ll be better for it and better the next time they play.”
Eight of the 11 starters for Nebraska against the Buckeyes were upperclassmen, but seven of the nine players who came off the bench were underclassmen, creating a 50-50 split between experience and youth.
The Huskers certainly were banged up, especially in the secondary. Senior cornerback Chris Jones, perhaps the best player on the defense, participated in his second game of the season after returning from an offseason surgery. Nebraska was down three of its top four safeties (Aaron Williams, Antonio Reed, JoJo Domann) and lost its fourth, senior Joshua Kalu, during the game as he re-injured his hamstring (after playing practically on one leg throughout the first half).
Diaco extolled the value of safeties to his defense prior to the season, and having to rely on the team’s fifth and sixth safeties agains the best team on the schedule is a tough situation for any coach to be in.
However, Diaco seems to be citing youth and injury as the primary reason for the defensive struggles. As a result of those injuries and a lack of development by some upperclassmen, players are learning on the fly.
“That doesn’t feel good,” Diaco said. “It might not make everybody happy; I’m sure it doesn’t. But it doesn’t make it any less real; that’s real. These players, in a lot of instances, are learning how to play on the job as young players, and they’re doing a good job and they’re definitely trying as hard as they possibly can … In game, there are some moments of very youthful inexperienced play, and when you play against great teams, it looks that it’s like always at the point of attack because they’re going to find the vulnerability there.”
However, that claim only holds so much water when breakdowns happen throughout the defense, from freshmen to seniors. The young players are not the only ones missing tackles, failing to cover receivers or creating breakdowns in communication.
“As a coach, the silver lining of this dark, miserable cloud is that the players are improving through experience and then overall, the unit, brick by brick, building, the unit building … We are just getting started. We’re just getting started. I just got here, these players are playing, a lot of new players are playing, and we’re just getting started with our unit, we’re getting started with our culture, which has been under a spectacular amount of strain and attack, but we’re just getting started, and some of these players are just getting started, these young guys, and they’re going to be really good, and we’re going to be really good.”
In the span of 20 seconds, Diaco said that they’re “just getting started” six times, and it’s true. Switching to an entirely new scheme for a new coach must be incredibly difficult for players. But the problem is that as much as the coaches are pointing to progress, it just isn’t showing itself in the overall results.
“The actual goal is to win all the games, but as you go, you would like to think you’re getting better through the year, playing your best ball as you go,” Riley said. “I know this didn’t look like that but I do think there are parts and individuals that are. So, I think that’s what we always have to do … They’re going to expect me and the coaches to have something for them Monday that they can use to have some real confidence going forward that we’re going to go win. This is what I like about our profession, this is where all the teaching part comes in.”
Riley is absolutely right. There have been bright spots by individual players and in certain areas of the game. However, when individual improvement doesn’t lead to improvement by the unit as a whole, something is wrong.
It seems clear that Nebraska does not yet have the kind of players at every spot that Diaco needs to make his brand of defense successful against upper-echelon teams, or if it does, the coaches have not deemed them ready to see the field.
The defensive line has not quite lived up to what it needs to do, but coverage busts and missed tackles by the linebackers and defensive backs are near the very top of things plaguing this defense. All night long, Ohio State receivers caught balls without a single defender within 5 yards of them. Those units had seniors, juniors, sophomores and freshmen all see the field to essentially the same result.
Entering this game, Nebraska was 91st in the country in third-down defense, allowing a conversion 41.3 percent of the time. On Saturday, that number was 76.9 percent (and on two of their three stops, the Buckeyes converted on fourth down anyway). The Huskers could not get off the field on defense.
Nebraska showed defensive improvement against the likes of Northern Illinois, Rutgers and Illinois, but 94 points the last two weeks proves that improvement was not nearly enough to hang with the best in the Big Ten.
Diaco is making due with what he has in terms of personnel, and he seems dead set on establishing the foundation of his defense long-term versus compromising in the short-term for a better chance at wins. The problem with that is while Diaco is in year one in Lincoln, Riley is in year three and is now 18-15 overall and staring down the potential for a second losing season in three years.
This points back to what ultimately might be Mike Riley’s biggest mistake as Nebraska’s head coach: his initial staff. Riley deserves credit for the changes he has made, but it’s difficult to create any sort of continuity or build towards something when new assistants take over each year and even more so when that change is a new coordinator.
As Diaco and Riley said, it takes time to build a defense brick by brick, and after a 3-4 start to the season, whether or not they’ll get enough time seems to be very much in doubt.