Photo by John S. Peterson
Nebraska Football

Hot Reads: Through 6 Games, Huskers Defense Is Executing the Plan

October 10, 2019
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Let's go back to the early months of the offseason. Nebraska is already earning some buzz despite the fact that it has to replace a little more than 40% of its 2018 production on offense and defense. That's not a small number. The total production returning––per Bill Connelly's calculations: 59% on offense, 55% on defense and 57% overall––put the Huskers in sort of a gray area. It wasn't high enough to say the Huskers were poised for a breakout based almost on experience alone (see this week's opponent for an example of that), nor was it low enough to project choppy waters ahead (hey, Georgia Tech).

But it was nearly equal between the offense and defense. On offense Nebraska needed to replace its top receiver, top rusher and a chunk of offensive line starts. On defense, five of the top six tacklers were gone. Which side was poised for the sort of improvement that could drive a Year 2 leap?

Almost everyone chose the offense, of course. The offense was the better of the two in 2018. The offense is Scott Frost's side. The offense is Adrian Martinez's side. It's the side I chose, too.

Through six games in 2019, however, it has been the defense that's shown gains. Using the same midseason review categories I did on Wednesday for the offense, here's how the defense has performed compared to this same point––six games––last year. The Blackshirts have improved (green) in every category but one:

STAT 2018 2019
Rush Yards Per Play 5.57 (108) 4.81 (72)
>Exp. Rush % 14.49% (78) 14.85% (90)
Pass Yards Per Play 6.13 (61) 5.47 (36)
>Exp. Pass % 17.34% (96) 12.33% (25)
Total Yards Per Play 5.88 (91) 5.13 (50)
>Exp. Play % 16.04% (97) 13.62% (56)
Success Rate 42.0% 39.7%
>Standard Downs Success Rate 45.7% 45.3%
>Pass Downs Success Rate 35.5% 30.7%
Takeaway Opportunities % 7.25% 10.27%
Havoc Rate 15.38% 20.76%
Points Per Play .505 .355

"Have improved" comes with an asterisk. The Huskers' defense had a lot of room to get better based on last year's numbers, and the jumps to this point, while nearly across the board, haven't been huge in most cases. But the defense has held up its end of the deal. When you look at the overall blueprint for Frost's Nebraska, it probably includes a top-15 offense paired with a top-50 defense that produces a high rate of negative plays.

And that's what the Blackshirts are right now. While the rushing yards per play allowed has come down a little bit, the explosive run rate is up a tiny bit. Those are the two numbers that give a moment's pause here. Everything else represents solid progress in Year 2.

Credit a deep and experienced defensive line for that? That's part of it, for sure, but the six-games blue ribbon, for me, goes to the secondary. The Huskers rank 36th in passing yards per play and 25th in explosive pass rate. We maybe could've seen this coming, though I won't claim that I did. While the Huskers were relatively low on the returning tackles front, they were solid when it came to returning passes defended even with the loss of three safeties. As a team Nebraska returned 62.3% of its passes defended and it was 67.3% among defensive backs.

Credit Lamar Jackson and Dicaprio Bootle for a lot of that. Last year was a year of growth for both corners and this year they're playing like they grew a lot. Safety Marquel Dismuke is playing at a high level and ranks second on the team in tackles. Cam Taylor-Britt occasionally looks like Nebraska's best player and has a bright future ahead.

In addition to the yardage and explosive-play numbers, an active secondary is also helping drive the Blackshirts' uptick in takeaway opportunities and havoc rate. The Huskers rank 12th nationally in passes defended per game. That's one-third of what makes up havoc rate (along with tackles for loss and forced fumbles) and one-half of takeaway opportunities. Nebraska's tackles for loss is also up--47 this year against 36 after six games in 2019--and you can credit the front seven for much of that. But Nebraska's ability to cover through the first six games influences everything. It is the Blackshirts sharpest knife to this point.

If we could expect a clear, 54-degree October night in Minneapolis this Saturday, that would set up a delightful matchup against Minnesota and its explosive passing game. Snow and wind could dull that strength-on-strength battle unfortunately, but Nebraska has shown so far that its defense can keep the Huskers in game.

While you'd always take more if you're Chinander and the rest of his assistants, the defense is right where it should reasonably be. The Huskers are 4-2 to this point because of it.

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