Spring football: Here's the one stat Bob Diaco was hired to fix — and proof that he can

If new defensive coordinator Bob Diaco can replicate Nebraska's 2010 defense, the Huskers will find more success against the physical Big Ten West.

Let's rewind the clock to 2010, Nebraska's final year in the Big 12. Heck of a year, wasn't it? NU having all the players to win every game it played and still losing four games because of drama and program mismanagement? We need to write more about that sometime. 

Anyway, the Huskers' defense that year played some pretty good offenses — and several NFL quarterbacks. Oklahoma State (quarterback Brandon Weeden), Oklahoma (Landry Jones), Texas A&M (Ryan Tannehill) and Missouri (Blaine Gabbert) all had offenses that could punch you in the mouth. And although Iowa State averaged an awful 317.4 yards per game, greatest-playcaller-of-all-time-plus-a-Mensa Tom Herman was coordinating the Cyclones, so, you know, dangerous times over there in Jack Trice. 

So, yeah, pretty salty stuff, the Blackshirts back then. The villains of the Big 12! The rock in Dan Beebe's shoe! People around here loved it. Heady times, save those four losses. 

So Nebraska's defense gave up just 15 plays of 30 or more yards that year. Now, I'll admit: They came at inopportune times, like against Texas when Rickey Thenarse's flying couch tackle didn't work. But 15 is really good. Tied for 11th nationally.

Since big plays tend to lead to points, it's hardly surprising that Nebraska was a top-10 national scoring defense in 2010 — tied for ninth at 17.4 points per game.

After that, Nebraska joined the Big Ten. And the prevailing notion was, well, NU's defense would only get better, since the Big Ten — land of three yards, clouds of dust and plodding bowl failures — was nothing like the high-flying Big 12. It's easy to forget now — with the Big 12 stumbling around in the sport, an organizational mess — that the Big 12 was simply awesome in the 2000s. Dominant. The place to be. The most fun offenses. The first hour of Wolf of Wall Street. (Or, as long as that movie is, the first two hours.)

So, with good reason, fans assumed Nebraska would do just fine in the Big Ten, and its defense would do even better than that.

Nebraska has been awful at preventing the big play since joining the Big Ten. NU wasn't bad in 2011, when it gave up 21. That was ninth in the Big Ten and tied for 44th nationally. But the year after that, yeah, it got pretty ugly. Since 2012, here's how many plays of 30 yards or more the Blackshirts have given up:

2012: 29 (12th in the Big Ten/T-94th nationally)

2013: 26 (9th/T-75th)

2014: 27 (9th/T-68th)

2015: 37 (13th/T-111th)

2016: 26 (9th/T-49th)

That's Bo Pelini's last three defenses and Mark Banker's two defenses. NU gave up an average, in that stretch, of 29 plays per season of 30 yards or more.

Now let's compare that to some of the other key teams in the Big Ten over that same stretch. Here are those per-season averages: 

Michigan: 18.2

Penn State: 18.2

Iowa: 19.8

Wisconsin 20.2

Ohio State: 22

Michigan State: 26 

Only MSU is close to Nebraska's average. (Which is kind of interesting, right, since the Spartans had a terrific run of football from 2013 to 2015 before falling flat on their face in 2016. I'm predicting more struggles in 2017 and 2018 for Mark Dantonio.) But NU's two key West Division rivals — Iowa and Wisconsin — are far better, year after year after year, at preventing the big play. 

And that style, contrasted with Nebraska's habit of trying to make up for bad defense with explosive offenses, is part of why Iowa and Wisconsin have had so much success against the Huskers since 2013. NU's boom-or-bust attack tends to spin its wheels a bit against the Hawkeyes and Badgers — and produce turnovers. But those offenses — often methodical and willing to grind clock — have gutted NU's defense. 

The two teams Nebraska has to beat most in the West have been a bad stylistic matchup for years. 

And new defensive coordinator Bob Diaco is here to change that. Because if there's one thing Diaco will do, it's install a defense that prevents big plays. His track record is excellent here. 

Here are the last six Diaco defenses — three at Notre Dame and three at Connecticut — when it comes to preventing plays of 30 yards or more: 

2011: 12 (T-6th nationally)

2012: 10 (T-2nd)

2013: 16 (T-6th)

2014: 18 (T-18th)

2015: 19 (T-14th)

2016: 27 (T-57th)

Average: 17

So Diaco's average, more or less, is what NU's 2010 defense pulled off. 

I think NU's 2010 defense could win a lot of football games in 2017, if that's what Diaco can bring to the party. 

It'd be reasonable to worry about that last number (27 big plays) at UConn if the Huskies' offense weren't so bad — just 320 yards per game and a nation-worst 14.6 points per game. It would be fair to question Diaco's skill as a head coach when his team's offenses at UConn were consistently terrible. 

But his skill as a defensive coordinator — which is what he's been hired to do at Nebraska — is pretty clear. He's really good at preventing the big play. Banker, his predecessor, was bad at it. Nebraska, since joining the Big Ten, has been bad at it. 

Why? Having watched every one of those games, I have a few theories. Diaco probably has his own, and when he emerges from his fortress of solitude, we'll ask (though he may not tell).

Nebraska's never really fully matched the physicality of the Big Ten's most physical teams: When I watch NU play Wisconsin, Iowa and even Minnesota, I think, "If I had to pick one team to win a shoving match in my backyard, which would I pick?"

And only sometimes, the answer is Nebraska. Frankly, since 2012, the answer has never been Nebraska when Wisconsin is on the field at the same time. 

When Banker paid Iowa a compliment with his "bloodbath" comment, he indirectly indicted his own team. Based on the response I got from fans on Twitter and in emails, readers knew it, too. 

Is physicality mostly a physical reality? Is it a mentality? Is it weights? Is it numbness to pain? Is it better conditioning? My hunch is "yes to all," but we'll be asking that question for the next several months and trying to get a good, informed answer from guys who'd know. 

Average play — and often average speed — at linebacker: Lavonte David left the building in 2011. Will Compton — a smart, instinctive guy — left in 2012. Even in Compton's year, linebacker play was hot and cold, but it's stayed that way for years. Good running teams can often run around NU's linebackers if they don't run through them. I don't put this issue on current linebackers coach Trent Bray, per se. It's not his fault it got to this point. But it's his thing to fix now, and Diaco, himself a former Big Ten linebacker, will have his own perspective. 

Nebraska's current regime wants its defensive backs to look like and play like Ohio State's defensive backs, and that's a work in progress: That's also why Donte Williams is here. To recruit those guys. Long. Athletic. Fast. Aggressive. OSU's defensive backs. Or, if you prefer, Nebraska's defensive backs in the 1990s and early 2000s. 

Nobody's going to say "Ohio State corners" out loud around reporters — well, maybe they will — but when you've read or heard coaches or Billy Devaney discuss a talent disparity, they're looking at those DBs, in part. OSU will have three DBs picked in the first two rounds of the 2017 NFL draft unless some character flag comes up, which should give you a sense of the talent at play. And that's after having two defensive backs selected in the first two rounds last season. Michigan is no slouch in this category itself.

Nebraska has two corners — Chris Jones and Joshua Kalu — who will get a good crack at the NFL. Especially Jones. But NU has to find a way to get more from some of the top-shelf recruits on the roster now, and Williams will be responsible for getting the guys in the future. 

Coach Mike Riley calls corners "gold" for a reason. OSU has the best in the Big Ten. Riley wants something close to that, and certainly the best in the West. 

You hear stories about Diaco around North Stadium, and, once we can chat with players and Diaco himself, we'll have a better flavor for who the guy is. But he's here to address the leaks in Nebraska's defense that lead to big plays. Everyone in North Stadium knows it.

As one person said: "That's why we hired him. To fix it."

Reporter - Nebraska athletics

Sam covers Nebraska football, recruiting, women's basketball and more for The World-Herald. Follow him on Twitter @swmckewonOWH. Email: SMcKewon@owh.com

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