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)
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:
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)
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.
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."
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The Huskers run onto the field following the nephews of late Husker punter Sam Foltz before the start of their game against Fresno State. The moment began a season-long effort to honor Foltz, who was tragically lost in a car accident.
The sun shines on the student section breaking up the rain clouds in the first quarter of Nebraska's game against Fresno State.
Nebraska's Sam Hahn raises his finger to the sky to honor Sam Foltz after the Huskers lined up without a punter during their game against Fresno State. The move became one of the most emotional tributes to Foltz that took place during the season.
Nebraska's Stanley Morgan, left, and Tommy Armstrong celebrate a touchdown in the third quarter of their game against Fresno State. The Huskers would blow it open in the second half for a 43-10 win over the Bulldogs.
Things got chippy between the Huskers and Cowboys as a flag was thrown on both Wyoming's Antonio Hull and Nebraska's Alonzo Moore.
Nebraska's Nate Gerry, No. 25, breaks up a pass intended for Wyoming's Jacob Hollister in the second quarter of the Huskers' 52-17 win.
Nebraska safety Kieron Williams runs in for a touchdown after making a third-quarter interception against Wyoming. That would begin a theme of Williams harassing opponents' passing attacks throughout the season.
Nebraska's Nate Gerry enters the field for one of the most anticipated games of the season against Oregon.
Nebraska receiver Jordan Westerkamp makes a touchdown catch over Oregon's Reggie Daniels during the second quarter against the Ducks.
Nebraska's Tommy Armstrong dives in for the game-winning touchdown against Oregon's Khalil Oliver during the fourth quarter. The win would propel the Huskers into the national rankings.
Nebraska wide receiver Stanley Morgan celebrates with fans after the win over Oregon. Husker nation was jubilant after a 3-0 nonconference campaign.
Nebraska tight end Cethan Carter catches a huge touchdown against Northwestern. The Huskers would win their first road test 24-13.
Nebraska's Joshua Kalu, right, celebrates after intercepting a pass in the fourth quarter against Northwestern. One of the many times the Huskers' defense would come up big during the season.
Nebraska wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp scores a touchdown in the third quarter against Northwestern. The Chicago-area native experienced another marquee moment in front of family and friends.
Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong attempts to run away from a horse collar tackle delivered by Illinois defensive lineman Chunky Clements during the third quarter of their game. The Huskers would overcome a slow start to move to 5-0 on the year.
Lincoln native Trey Foster caught a big touchdown pass against Illinois to help the Huskers move to 5-0 on the season.
Nebraska running back Terrell Newby scores a 63-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter against Illinois. The senior running back shut the door on Illinois with 140 yards rushing and two touchdowns.
Nebraska's Chris Jones spins into the end zone for a touchdown after his interception against Indiana.
Indiana quarterback Zander Diamont is tackled by Nebraska's Aaron Williams, left, and Nate Gerry in the third quarter of their game.
Nebraska's Stanley Morgan looks back at defenders as he runs for a touchdown in the fourth quarter against Indiana. The 72-yard touchdown would prove to be the difference as the Huskers moved to 6-0.
Nebraska's Joshua Kalu leaps up with the help of Aaron Williams after Williams grabbed an interception near the end of the fourth quarter to seal the 27-22 win against Indiana.
Nebraska's De'Mornay Pierson-El, No. 15, celebrates scoring a third-quarter touchdown with Stanley Morgan against Purdue.
Nebraska's Alonzo Moore scores in the fourth quarter to close out a win against Purdue. The Huskers recovered from a 14-10 halftime deficit to remain unbeaten on the season.
Nebraska's Kieron Williams, No. 26, grabbed another interception against Purdue.
Nebraska and Wisconsin endured a physical battle in front of a national audience. Tommy Armstrong and the Huskers would fall in overtime 23-17.
Nebraska's Nathan Gerry, No. 25, celebrates intercepting a pass in the fourth quarter with Josh Banderas. Gerry gave the Huskers a chance to win with two key interceptions.
Wisconsin's D'Cota Dixon breaks up a pass intended for Nebraska's Stanley Morgan to win the game in overtime.
Ohio State's Mike Weber carries the ball after a missed tackle by Josh Banderas during a brutal 62-3 loss in Columbus for the Huskers.
Nebraska's Tommy Armstrong returns to the field at Ohio Stadium after being taken to the hospital in an ambulance with a concussion. Armstrong returned to action the next week against Minnesota.
Nebraska coach Mike Riley and Ohio State coach Urban Meyer shake hands after the Buckeyes drilled the Huskers 62-3 in Columbus.
Nebraska's Terrell Newby gets airborne after being tackled by Minnesota's Antoine Winfield Jr. The Huskers overcame a 17-10 halftime deficit to down the Gophers and move to 8-2 on the season.
Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong flips into the end zone to score the winning touchdown in the fourth quarter. He was injured on the play and didn't return to the game.
Nebraska linemen Jerald Foster, left, and Tanner Farmer carry off quarterback Tommy Armstrong after Armstrong was injured scoring the winning touchdown against Minnesota.
Nebraska's Kieron Williams intercepts a pass to clinch the win as Aaron Williams, No. 24, celebrates.
Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. gets tackled by Ohio State's Malik Hooker during the second quarter at Ohio Stadium on Saturday, November 05, 2016. Armstrong would leave the field in an ambulance after the play. CHRIS MACHIAN/THE WORLD-HERALD
Nebraska's Stanley Morgan Jr. can't catch this third quarter pass as Ohio State's Denzel Ward defends at Ohio Stadium on Saturday, November 05, 2016. CHRIS MACHIAN/THE WORLD-HERALD
Nebraska's Tommy Armstrong Jr. touches a Sam Foltz sign while walking onto the field before their game with Ohio State at Ohio Stadium on Saturday, November 05, 2016. CHRIS MACHIAN/THE WORLD-HERALD
Ohio State's Parris Campbell eludes a tackle by Nebraska's Luke McNitt while returning a Nebraska kick after a field goal in the first quarter by at Ohio Stadium on Saturday, November 05, 2016. CHRIS MACHIAN/THE WORLD-HERALD
Nebraska's Jordan Westerkamp can't catch this second quarter pass as Ohio State's Gareon Conley at Ohio Stadium on Saturday, November 05, 2016. CHRIS MACHIAN/THE WORLD-HERALD
Nebraska's Terrell Newby gets tackled by Maryland's Jermaine Carter Jr. at 8:46 in the fourth quarter for an 11-yard receptopn at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, November 19, 2016. CHRIS MACHIAN/THE WORLD-HERALD
Nebraska's Jordan Westerkamp makes a catch at 11:52 in the first quarter as he is tackled by Maryland's RaVon Davis at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, November 19, 2016. CHRIS MACHIAN/THE WORLD-HERALD
Nebraska's Nick Gates (68) lifts Nebraska's Jordan Westerkamp (1) into the air after Westerkamp scored a touchdown in the second quarter. The Nebraska Cornhuskers played the Maryland Terrapins in a football game at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Nebraska, on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016. RYAN SODERLIN/THE WORLD-HERALD
Nebraska's Jordan Westerkamp catches a pass for a touchdown as Maryland's JC Jackson defends.
Nebraska's Ryker Fyfe (17) can't escape Shane Cockerille (2) in the second quarter. The Nebraska Cornhuskers played the Maryland Terrapins in a football game at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Nebraska, on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016. RYAN SODERLIN/THE WORLD-HERALD
Nebraska's Tommy Armstrong Jr. (4) knees as he lays flowers on the 27 yard line in memory of Sam Foltz. The Nebraska Cornhuskers played the Maryland Terrapins in a football game at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Nebraska, on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016. RYAN SODERLIN/THE WORLD-HERALD
Nebraska's wide receivers coach Keith Williams high fives Nebraska's Stanley Morgan Jr. (8) after he made a third quarter reception. The Nebraska Cornhuskers played the Iowa Hawkeyes in a football game at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City, Iowa, on Friday, Nov. 25, 2016. RYAN SODERLIN/THE WORLD-HERALD
Nebraska's Tre Bryant (18) breaks free from Iowa tackler Josey Jewell (43) in the first quarter. The Nebraska Cornhuskers played the Iowa Hawkeyes in a football game at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City, Iowa, on Friday, Nov. 25, 2016. RYAN SODERLIN/THE WORLD-HERALD
Nebraska's Tommy Armstrong Jr. (4) waits to take the field at the start of the Iowa football game. The Nebraska Cornhuskers played the Iowa Hawkeyes in a football game at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City, Iowa, on Friday, Nov. 25, 2016. RYAN SODERLIN/THE WORLD-HERALD
Nebraska's Nathan Gerry (25) warms up for the Iowa football game. The Nebraska Cornhuskers played the Iowa Hawkeyes in a football game at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City, Iowa, on Friday, Nov. 25, 2016. RYAN SODERLIN/THE WORLD-HERALD
De'Mornay Pierson-El and the rest of the Nebraska special teams have struggled recently, which resulted in the firing of coordinator Bruce Read.
Iowa special teamer Jack Hockaday puts his hands to the face of Nebraska defensive end Ross Dzuris in the third quarter.
Nebraska’s Jordan Westerkamp had four catches for 50 yards against Iowa. Westerkamp has at least one catch in 36 straight games, one behind the school record held by Johnny Rodgers.
Nebraska tight end Cethan Carter, No. 11, and linebacker Josh Banderas walk off the field together following the Huskers' 40-10 loss to Iowa.
Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong limps off the field following the Huskers' 40-10 loss to Iowa.