Nebraska defensive line coach Tony Tuioti has been rotating his front three all season long, getting plenty of reps for all of his top six guys. In addition to keeping the starters fresh, that strategy has also gotten the second-string guys plenty of experience, which paid dividends on Saturday against Northwestern when the team’s most productive defensive lineman, Khalil Davis, was suspended for the game by the Big Ten.
Junior Ben Stille started in Davis’ place and responded with his best game of the season, finishing with five tackles, half a sack and a quarterback hurry.
“I think Ben did an excellent job,” Tuioti said. “He was actually player of the game for us this past week. He played about 70 snaps, which is a lot, and I talked to him beforehand earlier in the week that he was going to do that for us, so I thought he did a great job.”
The Huskers might have been down a key piece (Khalil Dvais is leading the team with three sacks and is second with six tackles for loss), but there aren’t many teams who have the luxury of bringing a guy like Stille off the bench who led the defensive line with five sacks a season ago.
“I look at all our guys really in our rotation as starters for us, and Ben’s a starter,” Tuioti said. “He did a great job. Northwestern, their run game was a big stretch zone team, trying to get to the perimeter, and having a big guy like that out in space, he did a great job containing them, forcing them to fight us in a phone booth and that’s what we want to do in the run game. I thought he did a great job.”
Stille has seen his role change and his playing time fluctuate throughout his career in Lincoln, but he was ready when Tuioti called on him.
“I was definitely a lot more involved in the game plan,” Stille said. “I knew going in I was going to have a heavier role. Obviously I relish just being able to get more snaps, more reps; anybody I think would take that opportunity.”
The sack, which he shared with Caleb Tannor, was his first of the season.
“It was definitely good to get that off my chest,” Stille said. “I’ve been struggling a little bit pass rush-wise, just moving around a little bit. It was good to get one finally.”
At one point, defensive coordinator Erik Chinander even had Stille, who played outside linebacker 40 or 50 pounds ago, stand up behind the line and rush from the second level.
“My whole goal for that down was to hear that 95 is the MIKE, so that’s always fun to stand up,” Stille said. “Chins is always drawing up different things, just giving different looks and whatnot.”
The rotation that kept a player like Stille ready to go went on the shelf against the Wildcats. Still went from spelling Davis for a few series each game to playing all but one drive against Northwestern. The other starters, Darrion Daniels and Carlos Davis, saw heavy snap counts as well. Sophomore defensive end Deontre Thomas was the only lineman off the bench who saw more than 10 snaps.
“This is probably the highest rep count I’ve put on our guys so far this year,” Tuioti said. “Stille played 70 snaps, Darrion Daniels was sitting anywhere between 60 snaps, Carlos Davis was about at 56 snaps, s that’s the most that they’ve put out the whole season. I know they can put more, but I try to put them on a pitch count a little bit to try to keep them healthy throughout the season and throughout the game. But I know if I need it, they’re definitely able to step up and do that and they were able to do that for us with Khalil being down.”
Despite the increased workload, Tuioti said he didn’t see any real drop-off in play as the game wore on.
“The great thing about it is during the breaks that they got they were able to recover really fast, and that’s a testament to Coach Duval and the strength program for them to put out as many reps as they did on the football field, to come back and recover and go back out,” Tuioti said. “They did a great job of doing that.”
Stille said he felt it a bit late in the first half, but he caught his second wind and finished strong.
“The first half I could tell,” Stille aid. “The second half I think the sun went down a little bit, it was a little better, the temperature cooled off. I was fine for the second half for sure. But the next day I could definitely tell.”
Nebraska should get Khalil Davis back in the mix for its trip to Minnesota, and the Huskers will need all hands on deck in the front seven against a large and powerful Golden Gopher squad.
Led by 6-foot-9, 400-pound tackle Daniel Faalele and a pair of 270-pound tight ends, Minnesota loves to pound the ball. The Golden Gophers are third in the Big Ten in rushing attempts, averaging nearly 46 carries per game. Rodney Smith is the workhorse back, averaging 107.2 yards per game on 5.4 yards per carry.
“It’s a big challenge,” Tuioti said. “It’s been a challenge for everybody. They line up these big tight ends that are like defensive ends, really, and they’re a big, downhill run team. When you have outside linebackers or smaller guys lined up in front of them, that’s a big advantage to them. We’ve got a big challenge ahead of us in making sure that we be as stout as we can against those big tight ends.
“Last week against Illinois, it was 16-10 at halftime and they ran the ball I think 30 out of the 35 plays that they had. It’s going to be a big challenge for us to make sure that we win first and second down, put them in situations that they don’t want to be in in terms of throwing the football. That’s going to be the big emphasis for us this week.”
Minnesota definitely prefers to run the ball, but the Gophers have been incredibly efficient through the air as well. Quarterback Tanner Morgan is completing just over 70% of his passes and is averaging 11.3 yards per attempt with 13 touchdowns and three interceptions. Minnesota’s explosive play rate on runs is only 9.4%, about five percentage points below the national average. However, its explosive play rate on passes is 26.8%, much higher than the national average of 16.4%.
The weather might provide an assist, but Nebraska is still going to have to generate some pass rush as Minnesota’s wide receivers, especially Tyler Johnson, are tough match-ups for any corner.
A one-two punch of Khalil Davis and Stille off the edge is a good place to start.
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.