Nebraska's Defense Getting Better with Experience and Health
There is one image that has stuck out above all others for the Nebraska Cornhuskers season thus far and that's that of Nebraska's defense giving up 31 points in the second half on the way to losing to UCLA.
Something was seriously wrong with the Huskers defense, especially given the performances preceding that fateful Saturday afternoon in Lincoln—or so the narrative went.
Nebraska's troubles defensively started on opening weekend, where it let Wyoming stick with them and score 34 points. The Cowboys racked up over 600 yards of total offense and allowed four passing touchdowns.
That was supposed to be the strength of a defensive group full of young players up front.
However, a little distance from that performance shows that the Huskers weren't the only team to have that happen to them as the Cowboys are averaging 37.6 points a game (35th nationally). In fact, Wyoming has scored more than the 34 points it scored on Nebraska in all but one other game this season.
The Cowboys are also averaging 322 yards a game passing and nearly 200 yards a game rushing for the season so far—Nebraska is far from alone in giving up big time numbers to Wyoming.
So, perhaps the reaction to giving up that kind of point total on opening weekend was a bit of an overreaction.
What happened against UCLA in the second half was a disaster, no two ways about it, but it was the first experience against a Top 25 opponent for a defense featuring no less than 10 underclassmen.
Could it have been a defense just trying to find it's stride with a group of very young players being thrown into the deep end and trying to figure out how to swim?
At least one young Husker, Michael Rose, admits this team wasn't on early and that things are changing for the better (h/t TheIndependent.com):
I know last year we were all on the scout team and we were like, ‘Oh man, I can’t wait until next year.' We’re kind of catching our stride right now. We’re kind of finding ourselves. It’s fun being out there with those guys because we went through all the freshmen stuff together. Just to be out there on the field with them is fun and exciting. We can definitely build upon each other’s success and be the backbone of the defense.
The guys Rose spoke of are fellow linebackers Nathan Gerry, Jared Afalava and Josh Banderas. Along with the chemistry cleaning up at linebacker, young sophomore defensive end Randy Gregory has been a stalwart for this team too.
Gregory has 25 tackles, 6 tackles for loss and 0.5 sacks on the season. He has been one of the most consistent players in the front seven for Nebraska, as well as being part of the solution to the problem from week to week.
The good news is that over the last few weeks the numbers and results bare out that things are picking up for this young group.
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Take last week against Illinois, for example. The Huskers allowed Nathan Scheelhaase to throw for just 177 yards and no touchdowns—not bad at all considering Scheelhaase averages 259 yards passing and the Huskers average 262.8 given up through the air.
Now, that's not to say things are perfect right now—you know, since Nebraska gave up over 200 yards on the ground the week before the Illinois game to South Dakota State of the FCS.
It didn't help that some of those young guys were also banged up to begin the season and the depth at the key linebacker spots was hit hard early on, but the group is back to near full-health and that's an added reason for the change in defensive results over the past few weeks as well.
Things aren't perfect, but ignoring the improvements over the past few weeks wouldn't be prudent either.
What has turned things around is a combination of youth getting better and healthier. This week, a first-time starting quarterback stares them in the face and has many pointing to Nebraska's blackshirt defense becoming closer to reality—something unthinkable just a few weeks ago.
*Andy Coppens is the Big Ten Lead Writer. You can follow him on Twitter: @andycoppens.
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