LINCOLN — It was Thursday, well after the Nebraska defense’s heart-to-heart about replicating the inspired performance against Michigan State, and after the players had recommitted to making every practice rep count, and after a couple of productive full-speed game-plan installation sessions.
In about 48 hours the Huskers would be taking the field at Rutgers, trying to carry over momentum and maintain their edge.
The Thursday walk-through, centered on NU’s pass rush tactics, should have been sharp and smooth.
But it wasn’t.
And Nebraska’s defensive coordinator was irate.
Play with effort and attitude — that was the theme of the week. But it was missing Thursday.
“We had talked earlier in the week: That was the difference between all of the games we played this year and the Michigan State game,” Mark Banker said. “You’ve got to play with an attitude. One of conviction, one of purpose. Whatever attitude means. We kind of define it. And then we get out here (Thursday) and we’re just kind of slapping it around.”
He pointed that out to the guys. He noticed a few of the defense’s leaders doing the same.
Then, two days later, the Huskers delivered the season’s best pass rush. It resulted in six sacks, contributed to Chris Laviano’s 48.1 completion percentage and helped lead to his two interceptions.
After the 31-14 win, junior safety Nate Gerry couldn’t stop complimenting the defensive line, even as reporters sought to praise the secondary for its shutdown afternoon.
“I thought the D-line had a hell of a game,” he said.
Defensive tackle Maliek Collins recorded a sack. So did tackle Vincent Valentine. End Greg McMullen had two. End Ross Dzuris got one as well.
Those guys had help, though.
The same pressure concepts that NU had stumbled through Thursday were the ones that created havoc Saturday. Banker said he made a point to revisit the plan in Friday’s brief practice and again at the team hotel in New Jersey.
The most effective blitzes seemed to come when Nebraska put six defensive backs on the field and lined up with a three-man front. The Huskers crowded five to seven players at the line of scrimmage. Each time, a couple bluffed and dropped into coverage. The rest sprinted into the backfield.
The Huskers blitzed on eight of Rutgers’ first 11 third-down attempts. They got three sacks and forced an incompletion. The other four plays totaled 24 yards.
“They got after it,” Banker said.
Now they have to replicate it.
So often this season, opposing quarterbacks have been able to comfortably dissect the vulnerable NU secondary without concern of rushers collapsing the pocket. Even after Saturday’s impressive game, Nebraska is averaging a sack every 18.7 pass attempts, a rate that is 92nd nationally and 12th in the Big Ten.
But the Huskers haven’t been this confident before, Valentine said. Or this healthy.
He and backup defensive tackle Kevin Maurice were on the sideline during Saturday’s first quarter talking about the benefits of added depth. They felt fresh then — and still felt fresh at the end.
Valentine’s sack came on the Scarlet Knights’ second-to-last possession. He’d just entered the game on that play after watching from the sideline for the drive’s previous three snaps.
The eight-man rotation made a difference at Rutgers, and it might have altered some outcomes in September and October, Valentine said.
“I wish we had the whole Big Ten Conference left, the whole season left,” Valentine said. “But we’ve just got to play with what we’ve got and be ready to work.”
that includes the seemingly monotonous Thursday walk-throughs.
Banker will be watching closely next week as the unit prepares for undefeated Iowa. He may even re-create a tirade just to spark renewed focus.
“If that’s what it takes,” he said, “we’ll make sure we do it again.”
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