LINCOLN — Defensive backs coach Brian Stewart has seen enough progress from the secondary to declare that he’s not concerned about his unit getting attacked downfield.

“I’m not scared of defending the deep ball,” Stewart said.

The defensive backs had their best statistical performance of the season against Northwestern — the Wildcats produced 177 passing yards, but only 41 by receivers. The Huskers had two interceptions at Minnesota, and Stewart said they played with an attacking mentality. NU finished with 12 pass breakups against Wisconsin the week earlier.

Stewart sees the improvement, and said the players do, too. Their confidence is growing.

“They’re fine. Should be good,” Stewart said. “We’re excited for the challenge.”

NU eyes RBs in passing game

The Purdue running backs, who have an important role in the passing attack, will be a focal point for Nebraska’s defense Saturday.

Northwestern completed two critical passes to its running back last week. Justin Jackson had gains of 27 and 28 yards, finding open space within NU’s underneath coverage.

But the Boilermakers probably will be missing running back D.J. Knox. The sophomore, who is second on the team with 20 catches, has an ankle injury. That would mean more reps for freshman Markell Jones, who has caught 13 passes.

Some schematic concepts will carry over from last week for the Huskers, which assistant Trent Bray said will be helpful for his linebackers.

“They want to learn and they want to be successful, so they work very hard at it,” Bray said.

The unit is slowly getting healthier, too. Sophomore Chris Weber (stinger) was back on the field wearing a green no-contact practice jersey Tuesday. Junior Michael Rose-Ivey played about 10 snaps against Northwestern, though he aggravated his groin injury late in the game.

Boilers speeding things up?

Purdue coach Darrell Hazell said he and his staff have made a few tweaks during the bye week, like trying a faster pace on offense.

It’s something the Boilermakers discussed in the offseason. They slowed the tempo against Wisconsin two weeks ago and played much more conservatively because of the Badgers’ pass-rush ability.

But Saturday could be an opportunity to spread the field, operate without a huddle and see if they can get Nebraska’s defense back on its heels.

“I think going forward, we have to,” Hazell said. “I think it reduces the amount of defense that you can call if you’re in tempo offense.”

Pick-sixes pay off

In back-to-back weeks, Nebraska football has experienced the highs and lows of an interception return for a touchdown.

Against Minnesota, NU cornerback Josh Kalu squelched a late Gopher rally with a pick-six. Against Northwestern, Wildcat cornerback Nick VanHoose stepped in front of a late pass from Tommy Armstrong for a pick-six, giving his team a 14-5 lead en route to a 30-28 win.

In recent Husker history, pick-sixes have been a decent indicator of Husker success.

Since 2004 — when the Huskers transitioned to more of a passing offense — Nebraska quarterbacks have thrown pick-sixes in 13 games. The Huskers finished 4-9 in those games. The list is as follows: a 30-28 loss to Northwestern in 2015, a 31-24 win over McNeese State in 2014, a 37-34 win at Iowa in 2014, a 70-31 loss in the Big Ten Championship to Wisconsin in 2012, a 63-38 loss at Ohio State in 2012, a 20-10 win at Baylor in 2009, a 62-28 loss at Oklahoma in 2008, a 52-17 loss to Missouri in 2008, a 65-51 loss at Colorado in 2007, a 52-10 win over Nevada in 2007, a 40-15 loss at Kansas in 2005, a 31-24 loss to Oklahoma in 2005 and a 21-17 loss to Southern Mississippi in 2004.

In that same time frame, Nebraska has had pick-sixes in 18 games — and finished 17-1. The list is as follows: a 48-25 win at Minnesota in 2015, a 27-24 win over Northwestern in 2013, a 59-20 win over South Dakota State in 2013, a 56-13 win over Southern Mississippi in 2013 that included two interceptions for touchdowns, a 45-31 loss in the 2013 Capital One Bowl to Georgia, a 38-14 win over Minnesota in 2012, a 73-7 win over Idaho State in 2012, a 31-30 win at Iowa State in 2010, a 56-21 win at Washington in 2010, a 38-17 win over Idaho that included two interception returns for touchdowns in 2010, a 28-20 win at Colorado in 2009, a 55-0 win over Louisiana-Lafayette in 2009, a 35-12 win over San Jose State in 2008, a 40-31 win over Colorado in 2008, a 35-17 win over Iowa State in 2007, a 41-40 win over Ball State in 2007, a 31-3 win over Wake Forest that included two interception returns for touchdowns in 2005 and a 25-7 win over Maine in 2005.

So, in 31 Nebraska games featuring a pick-six, the team that grabbed the pick-six won 26 of them. That’s 83.9 percent.

Smile and say catch

Act as if you’re taking a photo with your phone. That’s the advice wide receivers coach Keith Williams gives his wideouts when it comes to looking balls into their hands. Don’t look away until you’ve taken the photo; that is, caught the ball.

“A lot can change in the last six inches of that ball coming into your hands,” receiver Brandon Reilly said. “We have to watch them all the way in. A lot of guys, when we have a drop, that’s the problem.”

Reilly pointed to his own drops this season, plus one by Taariq Allen in the loss to Northwestern. Allen had the ball in his hands before dropping it as he turned upfield.

“He got a little too excited,” Reilly said.

Reilly’s own drop of a touchdown pass against Northwestern was a result of the sun getting in his eyes. In morning/afternoon games, the sun at Memorial Stadium makes it hard when receivers are looking to the south to always track the ball.

“I couldn’t see anything,” Reilly said. “I saw a shadow (of the ball) up top and I said, ‘Well, I’m just going to hope.’ It hit my forearm. It’s the worst feeling in the world, when you know a deep ball is coming to you for a touchdown and you can’t locate it. Pretty frustrating. You have to find a way.”

Reilly said Minnesota was the best game for Nebraska’s receivers, and Illinois was the worst.

Be the first to know when news happens. Get the latest breaking headlines sent straight to your inbox.

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Commenting is limited to Omaha World-Herald subscribers. To sign up, click here.

If you're already a subscriber and need to activate your access or log in, click here.

Load comments

You must be a full digital subscriber to read this article You must be a digital subscriber to view this article.