Kirk Cousins, Matt McGloin, James Vandenberg, Joel Stave. Ask those quarterbacks about Nebraska's defense and you'll get grimaces. They might even scratch their heads.
Braxton Miller, Brett Hundley, Connor Shaw, Denard Robinson. Ask those quarterbacks about Nebraska's defense and, well, linebackers coach Ross Els put it like this:
The Huskers' defensive personality these days is no secret. They feast on pro-style quarterbacks who sit in the pocket. They fail against dual-threat quarterbacks who make plays on the move. Why?
“It's the No. 1 thing that I'm most focused on,” NU defensive coordinator John Papuchis told me. “I wish I had a better answer at this point.”
The defense needs to figure it out fast.
Saturday Nebraska meets Kain Colter. Last year in Lincoln, Colter had 115 passing yards (on just six attempts) and 57 yards on the ground. He scored three touchdowns in Northwestern's 28-25 upset.
Next week it's Robinson, who put up four touchdowns and 263 total yards in Michigan's 45-17 win last year.
“This is a league of mobile quarterbacks,” Els said. “And it has us scared to death.
“But we can run different types of defenses. What we ran against Ohio State — even though it didn't work against Ohio State — we're not necessarily going to run from here on out.”
There's no perfect definition for a dual-threat quarterback. But let's use these benchmarks to demonstrate NU's performance gap.
Ľ 40 yards.
In all six of NU's losses the past 13 months, the opposing quarterback rushed for 40-plus yards (excluding sacks). In the same span, the Huskers are 3-6 when a quarterback gains 40-plus. Here are those nine quarterback rushing outputs:
Ohio State (2012), 194 yards
Southern Mississippi, 104 yards
Northwestern, 99 yards
Michigan, 96 yards
Ohio State (2011), 91 yards
South Carolina, 73 yards
Minnesota, 67 yards
UCLA, 66 yards
Wisconsin (2011), 47 yards
Ľ 10 carries.
Starting in 2011, seven opponents have rushed their QB 10 times or more (excluding sacks). Nebraska is 3-4 against those teams.
Southern Mississippi, 23 carries
South Carolina, 15
Ohio State (2012), 14
Ohio State (2011), 10
But it's not just quarterback carries that hurt Nebraska. The Huskers have given up big passing plays against dual threats. Worse, they've yielded big days to running backs.
UCLA's Johnathan Franklin lit up the Blackshirts for 217 yards. Ohio State's Carlos Hyde ran for 140. Michigan's Fitz Toussaint had 138.
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The numbers are hard to fathom considering where the Blackshirts were in 2009-10.
Nebraska tangled with some of the nation's best mobile quarterbacks: Colt McCoy. Jake Locker. Tyrod Taylor. Blaine Gabbert. Bo Pelini's defense contained them — and often stymied them.
Defenses that stop dual-threat quarterbacks have one thing in common, Els said.
“Athletes. Athletes. Athletes,” he said. “Guys that can play in space.”
Prince Amukamara, Eric Hagg and DeJon Gomes were exceptional open-field tacklers. And Ndamukong Suh and Jared Crick chewed up blockers. The Huskers haven't replaced those pieces.
Against pocket passers, they've managed just fine. They're more aggressive. And there's a larger margin for error.
“When you screw up in a pro-style offense and you miss your execution, it's a lot easier for someone to make up for it,” Pelini said. “When that happens in a quarterback offense where you're spread out, those mistakes become magnified big-time.”
Bo is right, but if everyone defended like Nebraska, there wouldn't be a coach in the country crazy enough to run a pro-style offense. Remember, Cousins beat out Robinson last year on the coaches' all-Big Ten ballots.
Cousins had his worst game of the 2011 season — by far — against the Huskers. Robinson had one of his best.
Bridging the gap comes down to scheme and personnel, Els said. “And it's probably half and half.”
Ľ First, he said, is choosing the correct strategy.
Do you move a safety down and assign an extra guy to the quarterback? Or do you rely on someone in the front seven to fight off a block and make a play? Both options have their drawbacks.
Moving a safety into the box makes Nebraska vulnerable to big plays in the passing game. But leaving the assignment to the front seven hasn't worked for the Huskers.
Ľ Second is recruiting, Els said.
“We have to recruit the right type of player that can play in the open field, yet when that ball's run down their throat, they still are powerful enough to make a tackle there, too.”
For now, the Huskers must compete with the players they have.
They want to go 6-0. They want to advance to the Big Ten championship game. They want to get to the Rose Bowl.
But if they don't break this slump against dual-threat quarterbacks, those goals will be gone by Halloween. It's a scary thought.
Contact the writer:
402-649-1461, email@example.com; twitter.com/dirkchatelain
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