Nebraska football fans have been in pain both this season and last as they have watched the once-vaunted Blackshirts defense get shredded. Ugly losses and gaudy yardage numbers racked up by opponents like Ohio State, Wisconsin, UCLA (twice), Georgia, Wyoming and even South Dakota State have left Nebraska fans wondering what in the heck is going on with the defense.
Unfortunately for Nebraska fans, there are a number of options in terms of finding weaknesses in the Blackshirts. But here are five of the biggest ones we’ve seen this season.
All stats courtesy of cfbstats.com.
I know what you’re thinking. It’s the rushing defense, not the pass defense, that’s been killing Nebraska!
And after Nebraska’s first-quarter performance against South Dakota State, when Jackrabbits running back Zach Zenner gouged the Blackshirts for 123 yards, you could be forgiven for focusing on NU’s rushing defense.
But Nebraska is actually No. 84 nationally in rushing defense, allowing an average of 179.5 yards per game. Sure, that’s not very good.
In contrast, Nebraska is No. 108 nationally in passing defense (right behind New Mexico State!), allowing an average of 284.3 yards per game.
So as bad as you think Nebraska has been at stopping the run in 2013—and make no mistake, Nebraska has been bad—NU has been even worse at stopping the pass.
Just because Nebraska needs to focus on stopping the pass, though, doesn’t mean that Nebraska’s run defense isn’t a weakness.
Taking a deeper look at the numbers reveals some even more alarming trends for Nebraska’s rush defense.
Nebraska is No. 117 nationally in terms of yards allowed rushing on first down, averaging a surrender of 5.97 yards to an opponent on a first-down run. Nebraska is No. 103 nationally in terms of yards allowed rushing in the first half, as opposed to No. 83 nationally in the second half.
And, just for the record, yes, having a defense’s first two biggest weakness be “stopping the pass” and “stopping the run” does not bode well for the future.
Four. And four.
Nebraska has four seniors starting on defense, at least based on the team-released depth chart for South Dakota State. And Nebraska has four underclassmen starting on defense. Nebraska is choosing between a true freshman, a redshirt freshman and a sophomore to play middle linebacker.
Sure, it’s great to see youth be served and get athleticism on the field. And many of those kids have the kind of speed and playmaking ability that Nebraska has sorely lacked on defense recently.
But with youth comes mistakes and a lack of confidence in a complicated defensive scheme.
It also brings nerves, particularly as Nebraska goes into conference play to face Big Ten offenses.
This might be a subset of the “youth” weakness, if not for the fact that there are at least some veterans on the defensive unit.
When asked by Darnell Dickinson of the Lincoln Journal-Star, defensive coordinator John Papuchis said, “I think the biggest thing — and it’s what we knew we had with some of the guys — is when they see anything out of the scope of what we practice, we don’t handle it very well.”
There’s a whole bunch of reasons why this might be the case—everything from an inexperienced defensive unit (particularly with underclassmen at middle linebackers making defensive calls and adjustments) to a complicated defensive scheme making on-the-fly adjustments challenging.
But right now the book is out on the Blackshirts—throw them a curveball, and they can’t handle it.
Again, this is something Nebraska fans would love to chalk up to the “youth” thing, but the problem is bigger than that.
When asked about whether there was a common thread in the defense’s struggles during the first quarter of the season (according to Terry Douglass of the Grand Island Independent), defensive coordinator John Papuchis said, “[S]ometimes it’s hard to evaluate when you don’t tackle anyone and have missed assignments all over the place.”
That answer (which we have heard variants of from most of Nebraska’s defensive coaches this season) is more an indictment of defensive technique than overall scheme. And to the coaches’ defense, there has been some self-reflection and analysis as to whether the scheme itself needs some modification.
Indeed, you can see a number of structural changes (including the increased use of a three-man front) that have been implemented in hopes of stopping the leaks.
So while the schemes can be dissected and debated, one unavoidable fact remains. If Nebraska’s defense is unable to follow assignments and tackle well—and evidence at this stage suggests it is not—then the defense will have a weakness regardless of the scheme.
Or, you could always use the Twitter machine to follow @patrickrunge.