Offense surges, defense scrambles

Nate Gerry and his fellow Blackshirts found “tough sledding” against Michigan State’s Connor Cook and elite receivers such as Macgarrett Kings, said Mike Riley. But they made some big stops.

LINCOLN — About 45 minutes after Nebraska had finished celebrating Saturday night, defensive coordinator Mark Banker was wrapping up the last of the questions posed to him.

NU beat Michigan State 39-38, but the quotable Banker didn’t get as many queries as usual. It was, after all, a night for Nebraska’s offense, which racked up 499 yards — the most on MSU’s defense all season — and finished a wild comeback.

The Husker defense? Well, it survived. That’d be the way to put it.

The unit gave up 491 yards and 6.73 yards per play. Yes, Michigan State has one of the Big Ten’s best offenses — certainly the best combination of quarterback and wide receivers — and those Spartans made some plays in the second half that made you tip a cap. NU’s defense, more a boxed wine than a vintage bottle, shuffled along.

Out of his own defense, Banker saw grit.

“What I’m hoping that we see is that our coverage was tighter, we were in better position and the fact that they can do it,” Banker said.

But this isn’t what Banker envisions as the finished product. When I asked him about the state of his defense, he gave a revealing answer, and we’ll get there in a minute.

First, let’s put into perspective, again, this season and Nebraska’s big win.

The Huskers couldn’t have hoped for a perfect transition on offense. I know it’s a frequent, weekly lament — that somehow coach Mike Riley and offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf messed up and threw off the identity of the team with a few too many pass plays. Langsdorf called a few strange ones Saturday, but, in the course of any game, every offensive coordinator will.

Despite those imperfections, NU rates second in the Big Ten in yards per offensive play behind Ohio State. At 6.18 yards, the Huskers are in line with the 2014 NU offense (6.2), the 2012 offense (6.22), the 2010 offense (6.09) and just behind the 2008 offense (6.38). For new coaches blending their schemes to a read-option team that lost one of the best running backs (Ameer Abdullah) and wideouts (Kenny Bell) in school history, this is good work. Nebraska finished the comeback against Michigan State that it couldn’t in 2013 and 2014, and this is also good work.

That offense is fighting. That offense believes. And you saw it late in the game with a 91-yard, 38-second drive that took advantage of Michigan State’s coverage and also reflected the growing confidence of the bunch. Heck, even at Purdue, that offense didn’t sulk. Not once. And it turned the ball over five times. I saw offensive linemen busting tail to tackle Purdue defenders with the ball. You can quibble with some of the calls, but Nebraska’s offense, led by Tommy Armstrong, still has a punch to it.

The defense is holding on and the coaches are zeroing in better, I think. After that awful loss to Purdue — in which the Boilermakers did just about everything they wanted on offense and NU’s effort looked shoddy — you heard a subtle shift in Riley’s tone about the unit. He had been hopeful about a turnaround, about growth in certain areas, but it flipped last Monday. And Riley didn’t exactly shift from that tone Saturday.

“Tough sledding,” Riley said of the unit. He commended a late stop — which Nebraska got mostly because Michigan State, as in the 2012 and 2014 games, was far too conservative to throw the ball — but added that NU “blew” opportunities to make plays on the ball in the second half. And then he praised Michigan State’s offense. Perhaps it was the nicest thing he could say.

Over the second, third and fourth quarters, Michigan State had four straight touchdown drives of 75, 84, 83 and 75 yards.

Banker knows this, and if you’re into all the political intrigue surrounding Nebraska’s program last week then it just may be Banker — his ability to recruit, develop and mold his scheme accordingly — who determines whether Riley gets Nebraska back where fans want it.

Fans keep asking me on social media and in email, what the difference is between Nebraska, Michigan, Florida and Iowa. It’s those three teams, over and over. I get it. They’re good this year.

Here’s my answer:

Michigan, Florida and Iowa all rank among the top 10 in yards per play allowed. Nebraska ranks 100th.

Michigan, Florida and Iowa all rank in the top 16 in limiting opponent plays of 30 yards or more. Nebraska ranks 123rd.

Michigan, Florida and Iowa all rank in the top 12 in pass efficiency defense. Nebraska ranks 85th.

Only one of four beat Michigan State, and that’s to Nebraska’s credit. But NU is 4-6 because of the above numbers. Michigan, Florida and Iowa are in the hunt for conference titles because of the above numbers.

Yes, it’s a downer to read after such a big win, but the reality is the margin of error for Nebraska is thin as a thimble because the defense can’t get enough stops and make enough plays. A win against Michigan State could have been a loss. Losses to BYU and Northwestern could have been wins. Throw all but the lousy Purdue game and the wins over Minnesota and South Alabama in a stock pot and you could ladle up any record from 9-1 to 2-8.

You reduce games to a handful of minutes in the fourth quarter, and you get craziness. If “clutch hitting” is largely a myth in baseball, so is the “perfect coach is in the final 10 minutes.” Nebraska has to play better in the first 50 minutes. Specifically, the defense.

Again, Banker knows this. And here’s his answer when I asked how close his defense is to being where he wants it.

“Not close,” Banker said. “Not close. I just think the guys we have, have to learn exactly what our expectations are, whether it be technique or just the way to execute the things we’re trying to do. And we’re always trying to upgrade players. There’s no doubt about that. That’s what competition is. That’s what’ll keep these guys going. They’ll compete to remain on the field.”

In other words, watch this recruiting cycle. Nebraska will be aggressive and try to hit some home runs with top talent.

And watch Nebraska’s “want-to” factor on defense. I liked what I saw from the Huskers on Saturday night, but it was a marquee opponent and a live crowd. What about Rutgers? Will NU show up, or will it send a postcard like it did at Purdue?

What will Nebraska’s defense look like when Banker has it where he wants it?

“What will it look like? Oh (expletive), it’ll be toughness, speed, tacklers. When people finish playing you, they know they’ve been in a game whether you win or lose. Physicality. Just dogs in coverage ... you just want guys up in people’s grills and playing tight coverage. Just battling. I guess the word is: more gritty. Just totally getting after people. You don’t need all these magical calls and all this other stuff. It’s you and him and take him out.”

On with the Rewind.

I see you

» Armstrong: You’ll get everything he’s got. Riley knows it and respects it. Though there is growth to be made, don’t think for a minute that he’s giving up the starting job to some true freshman. And I’ll bet he can’t wait to square off against Iowa’s C.J. Beathard.

» Defensive linemen Maliek Collins and Freedom Akinmoladun: Got key pressure on the game’s final play, forcing Cook to hold up for a second. That second really mattered, too.

» Running back Imani Cross: The best game he’s played. Cross looked like a feature back who knows he has a few games left in his career.

» Michigan State wide receivers: They’re terrific, especially Aaron Burbridge and Macgarrett Kings. The Spartans’ pass-catchers have accounted for more wins in the last five years than MSU might like to admit. Nebraska needs five or six guys like Michigan State has. In other words, just a few more.

» Wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp: He’s tied for second in the Big Ten in catches (58), third in yards (801) and tied for third in touchdowns (6). And he probably leads Nebraska in fans who adore his toughness.

» Wide receiver Brandon Reilly: Maurice Purify averaged 18.5 yards per catch in 2006. In 2009, Niles Paul averaged 19.9 yards per catch. Kenny Bell averaged 17.26 in 2012. Reilly is at 20.3 yards per grab. It’s not quite Tracey Wistrom in 1999 (26.8!) or Matt Herian in 2002 (43.0!) or 2003 (22.0!), but it’s pretty good.

» Cornerback Josh Kalu: I think he’ll get there eventually and be a special corner. He covered well at times and had a few good sticks on tackles.

» Tight end Cethan Carter: His career as a pass-catcher has been up and down, but Carter has often been a ferocious edge blocker. His play against Michigan State deserves mention.

» Right tackle Nick Gates: His return helped the running game. He’s arguably NU’s best lineman even as a redshirt freshman.

» Center Jessica Shepard: Yes, a women’s basketball player makes the football Rewind. Shepard scored 42 points in an exhibition Sunday in 25 minutes. She’s been full go for all of two weeks after rehabbing her knee. It will be fun to see how special Shepard can be. It’s going to be good for Nebraska’s attendance, too. Really good.

Three concerns

» More hits to the Huskers’ health: Sometimes, when these receivers go down, you wonder if they’ll get up again. Nebraska’s linebackers are getting healthier, but I still don’t feel like they’re 100 percent, and a bye week that NU needed several weeks ago won’t come until after the Rutgers game.

» The office politics surrounding a football team: Last week felt like a renewed debate about old grudges. You sometimes wonder if having the last word in this debate means more to some than the overall health of the program.

» The coaching staff’s overreach on running back Jordan Stevenson, who left the team: In recruiting, you’d rather not miss for any reason, but Nebraska did here, and it should have done better homework on the kind of physical shape Stevenson would be in when he arrived and the kind of frustration he’d have when he clearly needed to redshirt. When a player says, two months into his time at a school, that he initially didn’t see “eye to eye” with his position coach, that’s a red flag. He wasn’t a good kick returner. Stanley Morgan is.

Five stats

» 20: FBS teams that have played 10 games this season, like Nebraska. Seven of them — Arizona, Colorado, Texas Tech, Penn State, Wisconsin, Mississippi and Nebraska — play in Power Five conferences. Two of them — NU and Wisconsin — won this week, and the Badgers were outgained by Maryland.

» 1.20: Sacks allowed per game by Nebraska, best in the Big Ten. Michigan State had 26 sacks coming into Saturday’s game and 26 coming out.

» 18.58: Yards per kickoff return for Nebraska’s opponents. That’s 21st nationally, and that number suggests that NU should have taken the risk and used a normal kickoff instead of having Drew Brown try to squib kick at game’s end.

» 148.96: Armstrong’s quarterback rating in the fourth quarters this season, which ranks second in the Big Ten — behind Beathard — among regular league quarterbacks. Armstrong has thrown six touchdowns in the fourth quarter — zero interceptions — and run for four touchdowns in that quarter, as well. You might say that’s when the man shines.

» 44.57 percent: Nebraska’s third-down conversion rate in conference games. That ranks second in the Big Ten. Opponents are converting 41.05 percent of their third downs — which ranks 11th.

Opponent watch

Rutgers is downtrodden after three straight weeks of playing Ohio State, Wisconsin and Michigan. Scarlet Knights coach Kyle Flood is almost certainly on the hot seat as the season comes to a close, and only wideout Leonte Carroo — who has been hurt but may play against Nebraska — can probably help Rutgers beat the Huskers. If Carroo — who has 24 catches for 527 yards and nine touchdowns in five games — plays against the Huskers, it’ll be quite close.

Forecast

Brighter.

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