With four games in the books, Nebraska football fans have seen enough to make some preliminary judgments. So as the calendar flips to October and conference play looms, it’s time to take a step back and consider what we’ve learned. Let’s look at the defense, area by area, and see what we’ve seen this September.
All stats courtesy of cfbstats.com unless otherwise indicated.
Given the shocking display Nebraska’s defense put on in the first quarter against South Dakota State, you would be forgiven for thinking that rushing defense would be the biggest problem for the Blackshirts. But Nebraska ranks No. 87 nationally in rush defense, allowing an average of 179 yards per game.
That’s not great, to be certain. And going into Big Ten conference play where teams (in general) focus on the run, Nebraska’s rushing defense needs to get better in a hurry.
But as we will see momentarily, rushing defense is not top on the list of problems for Bo Pelini to fix on defense.
There’s really no way to sugar coat it. Nebraska’s pass defense this year has been terrible. The Blackshirts are ranked No. 107 in the country in pass defense, giving up 284.3 yards per game through the air.
In the first week of the season, Wyoming gave teams a blueprint on how to move the ball on this squad of Cornhuskers. Put four or five wide receivers on the field, spread Nebraska’s defense out and throw quick strikes against poor matchups. Combine that attack with a rushing attack against a six-man front with wide defensive end splits, and you have a recipe for disaster.
Nebraska coaches certainly know the problem. Defensive coordinator John Papuchis, when discussing adjustments needed against Illinois on Saturday, said (from the Lincoln Journal-Star):
I'm sure they're going to have something for us, and we're going to have to be able to adjust to it, and take the adjustments and be able to apply them quickly, and not let too much time get away before we make our corrections.
On Saturday, Nebraska fans will get a good look at whether the bye week and the renewed focus on defense will bear fruit.
On the surface, Nebraska’s pass rush looks like it has gotten a little better. Nebraska is rated No. 42 nationally in sacks, with nine over the first four games.
Not bad, right? Well, let’s take a little deeper look at the numbers. Five of those nine sacks came against FCS opponent South Dakota State, a game that Nebraska was able to take control of after a shaky first quarter. Take that game out, and Nebraska is only averaging 1.33 sacks per game, behind its 2012 pace of 2.33 sacks per game.
Pelini has tinkered with his defensive schemes, spreading his defensive ends wide and going with more three-man front looks in an attempt to create more of a pass rush without needing to blitz. And Nebraska does have some promising players coming through, such as defensive end Randy Gregory.
But the quarterback pressure that makes everything else on defense work isn’t forthcoming, at least not yet.
If there is a silver lining to Nebraska’s defensive performance in 2013, it is in the creation of turnovers. Nebraska is No. 22 nationally in turnover margin at plus-one. Nebraska is No. 5 nationally in interceptions with nine in four games.
And the guy who is No. 1 in the nation in picks? That would be Nebraska’s Stanley Jean-Baptiste, with four interceptions for 134 yards and a touchdown.
That’s great news for Nebraska that at least turnover generation is working. But it also should be a little terrifying for Nebraska fans to think about what the defensive performances would look like if those turnovers dry up.
For defensive purposes, I think there are really four statistics to consider: touchback percentage on kickoffs, punting average, and defense of punt and kickoff returns.
Nebraska is No. 8 nationally in kickoff touchback percentage at 68.97 percent. Being able to consistently get a kickoff into (or out of) the end zone is critically important to preserve field position and protect against a momentum-shifting return. Just ask Adi Kunalic in the Big 12 title game how important a touchback from a kickoff can be.
Defending punt returns and kick returns have also been a source of strength for Nebraska in 2013. Nebraska is No. 59 nationally in punt returns, allowing just one return over 20 yards. Kick returns have been even better for Nebraska, tied for first nationally with no returns over 20 yards.
Nebraska has also gotten help from its punter, freshman converted wide receiver Sam Foltz. He is No. 39 nationally in punting, averaging 42.3 yards per kick. (Punting stats from NCAA.com)
So for an area that could have been a real source of weakness for Nebraska given all the new players being broken in, NU’s success in defensive special teams should be viewed as a pleasant and welcome surprise.
Or, you could always use the Twitter machine to follow @patrickrunge.