McKewon: While offense finds its footing, the Huskers' Big Ten hopes hinge on the Blackshirts

“When it’s our call to put out that fire, we have to put out that fire,” Mohamed Barry said after Nebraska’s 44-8 rout of Northern Illinois. 

LINCOLN — Mohamed Barry has called his shot so many times that he’s not going to stop unless the mathematical chance no longer exists.

He’s a senior and a captain, and Nebraska football has had three losing seasons since Barry stepped on campus, so it’s a nothing-to-lose kind of goal.

“We’re trying to go to Indianapolis,” Barry said. The Big Ten title game.

It’s as hot and humid as a half-mile south of Hades, but yes, league play is here. The Huskers haven’t been to Indianapolis in seven years, and Barry is speaking his goal into existence from a unique position within the team as part of a defense that’s been knocked around more than a bit since joining the beer-and-brats division of the Big Ten West.

This year, the Husker D is the dutiful older brother — figuratively, literally — of the younger, more explosive, more inconsistent offense that has to follow its own north star, lest it pucker like it did late in a loss at Colorado.

Coach and offensive playcaller Scott Frost declared Saturday night he can’t roll like he did Boulder — afraid of interceptions — and won’t roll like that going forward. Frost’s offense will boom and bust but never stop trying to ignite.

Think of it like a three-hour fireworks show where you wait for the next mortar shell to shoot and explode into color and light. At some point, you’ll wonder how many shells are in the tube and whether a few failed to launch.

Barry and the defense?

“When it’s our call to put out that fire, we have to put out that fire,” he said after Nebraska’s 44-8 rout of Northern Illinois.

Outside of the fourth quarter at Colorado, the Blackshirts have had every square inch of the offense’s back through three games. You’ll read no criticism here of the work defensive coordinator Erik Chinander has done while losing Cam Taylor-Britt and Deontai Williams, two of his best defensive backs.

Nebraska is giving up 21 points per game. That’s pretty good. But NU’s defense has faced 238 plays, too. That’s fifth most in the nation — and 83 plays more than Iowa’s defense in three games.

The Husker defense has allowed 1,128 yards. That’s a lot, in a sense — Michigan State has allowed 648 yards — until you consider that it takes an opponent an average of 17.9 yards to score a point on Nebraska.

That means the average touchdown drive against the Huskers lasts longer than, well, the field itself — 125.3 yards. Michigan State’s opponents have averaged 19 yards per point.

Is that a little better than Nebraska? Sure. But NU’s defense, relative to the snaps it faces, is much better than you may imagine if it’s that close to the Spartans.

It’s the defense I thought we might see last season with a seasoned group of safeties and Luke Gifford rushing the passer. But it took time for the Blackshirts to find the conditioning, consistency and maturity to face this many plays. Nebraska’s defensive line wasn’t stout enough, either.

Now, it is.

Graduate transfer Darrion Daniels helps anchor the middle, yes, but the six-man rotation for three spots have been effective. NU’s linemen shed blockers better than last season — perhaps a sign of position coach Tony Tuioti’s tutelage — creating these bust-the-seam moments on early downs where Daniels or one of the Davis twins breaks free, barreling toward the quarterback.

“You see those big monsters up front, man?” said Barry, who had 11 tackles. “No lineman can block them. It makes it easy on us.”

That’s part of how Nebraska is allowing 2.18 yards per carry, 12th nationally. That number won’t last as NU gets deeper into Big Ten play, but it appears headed for something stingier than the 5 yards allowed per carry last season. Northern Illinois’ running back Jordan Nettles’ 22-yard run was the first 20-yard-plus carry the Huskers have allowed this season. Barry and the other inside linebackers, Will Honas and Collin Miller, have been better thus far  of compressing what few holes there are or helping push sweep plays toward the sideline.

Against the pass, Nebraska’s 7.1 yards per attempt allowed is high and inflated by a 96-yard flea flicker in the Colorado game. But only four teams have faced more passes than NU’s secondary (125). Nebraska has allowed four touchdown passes. Iowa has allowed four in 89 attempts.

NU has nine sacks — tied for 23rd nationally — thanks to good front-four pressure and Chinander’s willingness to use twists and stunts and free rushers to create trouble for quarterbacks. Behind the pass rush, Nebraska’s secondary — injury-riddled as it is — generally stuck to NIU receivers like fly paper.

Yes, to look at per-game totals, you’ll see Iowa and Michigan State’s defense consistently rank better than Nebraska and, two years ago, that would have rankled then-Husker defensive coordinator Bob Diaco. A key frustration with his one-year stint here — one root of his infamous “no reasonable reason” comment after a loss to Northwestern — was the offense’s habit of putting Diaco’s defense in bad spots. Nebraska’s offense didn’t protect the defense, and Diaco — a subcontracted coordinator if there ever was one — would gripe in his baffling press conferences.

He had a point. Sort of. Nebraska’s offense and defense were on different pages. They didn’t complement each other.

They do now even if, for the time being, Nebraska’s defense is holding down two jobs while the offense goes to night school in pursuit of an advanced degree.

On Saturday, the Husker offense produced 10 plays of 20 yards or more — some flashy, a few fortunate — and the result was a blowout. Quarterback Adrian Martinez looks more comfortable slinging it downfield than he does in the quarterback run game, but will the pass protection hold up if left tackle Brenden Jaimes is hurt for several games?

Martinez won’t be able to reverse spin away from defenders all season like he did Saturday night. When the Huskers face a defense that doesn’t stack the box or get gimmicky, can they run the ball? NU’s offensive line is young and improving, but if any position was going to take time to build, it’s Greg Austin’s group. Austin has six true freshmen!

Perhaps an offense that averages 423 yards and 36.7 points per game has earned a little more understanding than fans or media are willing to give and, to the credit of Frost and Chinander, there’s a whole defense willing to give it. It’s the formula the head coach and his defensive coordinator set up at Central Florida and transported here, and it’s different — very different from the formulas used by the last three undefeated teams in the Big Ten West: Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota.

The Gophers’ defense is facing an average of 55 plays per game. Iowa’s defense has faced an average of 52. Wisconsin is at 51.

Nebraska? Try 79.

Here comes the Big Ten, and the Huskers might go as far as their defense can stand in the ring, absorbing body blows in the form of football plays.

“I can’t wait to go against those Wisconsins and Iowas and see how we match up against them,” Barry said.

That’s in November, No. 7. Illinois awaits. On with the Rewind.

I see you

Nebraska’s punt block unit: Particularly Isaiah Stalbird, the walk-on from Kearney who gets the most credit for smothering NIU punter Matt Ference. Special teams coordinator Jovan Dewitt made an excellent film read to see that the Huskies were vulnerable to a punt rush.

Defensive end Carlos Davis: Eclipsed 100 tackles for his career in a big way, finishing with six tackles and 1 ½ sacks for the Huskers. He leads Nebraska in sacks this season with 2 ½. Anything over six and he’ll be in All-Big Ten territory.

Cornerback Lamar Jackson: He’s starting to feel his cover game quite a bit with four pass breakups and four celebrations to go along with it. The next two weeks — Illinois and Ohio State — will be tougher tests.

Running back Maurice Washington: The Huskers need him to win games. The extent to which he can accelerate as he rounds the corner of a run around the defense is special stuff. Most teams have fast guys. Washington is fast and fluid as he makes that move.

Nickel JoJo Domann: His two submarine tackles — where he caught NIU ball carriers by the feet — reminded me of a former Husker I always liked but who was held back by injuries: Lance Brandenburgh. He was a canny tackler, too.

Running back Dedrick Mills: A better game from Mills, who’s a freight train when he reaches full speed. He still has room to grow in terms of ball security and varying his pace as he approaches a hole.

Nose tackle Darrion Daniels: Fought his tail off all night in the middle of Nebraska’s defensive line.

Receiver Kanawai Noa: Two games of strong blocking gave way to three catches and a touchdown. Martinez’s postgame answer about Noa’s faithfulness and friendship was notable. Noa has only been on campus for four months, but he seems to have had a strong impression.

Northern Illinois linebacker Jordan Cole: Nine tackles and three tackles for loss, including the safety stop on Washington. A bright spot in an otherwise rough night for NIU.

NIU quarterback/pooch punter Ross Bowers: The dude spotted two pooches inside the Nebraska 20, including a 46-yarder. Nice work.

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Five stats

74.3: Nebraska’s defensive efficiency rating according to ESPN’s Football Power Index, which measures the defense’s contribution to victory or loss, weighted for strength of schedule, on a per-play basis. The 74.3 ranks 28th nationally, by the way — ahead of Michigan, Iowa and Penn State. It gives you a sense of the burden NU’s defense has had to carry in the first three games.

49.2: That’s Nebraska’s offensive efficiency rating, which ranks 66th nationally, just ahead of Michigan State and just behind Purdue. All three offenses have issues — Nebraska is the most likely to solve them — after three games. All three teams have losses, too.

47.8: Martinez’s total QBR, according to ESPN. There are, indisputably, some question marks attached to this rating, but Martinez ranks 11th in the Big Ten — Ohio State’s Justin Fields is first — and is way down the list nationally. A score of 18 against South Alabama is weighing him down, and it makes sense; Memphis racked up 563 yards and 52 points on South Alabama.

48: Penalty yards per game for Nebraska this season, and you almost have to do a double-take. The Huskers? Fairly disciplined in the penalty department? Really?

Nebraska hasn’t finished a season averaging fewer than 50 penalty yards per game since 2007, a drought that’s even more amazing when you consider the Big Ten is not a flag-happy league. Since NU joined the league in 2011, 53 league teams have averaged fewer than 50 penalty yards. Nebraska wasn’t among them. So this is progress. (If it continues.)

5: Interceptions for the Huskers, which leads the Big Ten and is tied for third nationally. Four players have interceptions, as well. Even better, NU leads the Big Ten with 16 pass breakups. The 21 total passes defended ranks third in the nation.

At No. 1: Central Florida. Travis Fisher ought to be proud of that. He built the tradition at UCF, and he’s built it at NU, quickly, as well.

Facebook feedback

Each week on my Facebook page I ask readers for their take on the game, here are some selected and edited responses:

“The defense was the star of the show once again. I love watching those guys get after it like a Blackshirt defense should. The offense on the other hand is worrisome to me. I don’t know if they are intentionally calling (what seems to me) a watered down bland offensive game plan but it just seems to be lacking something.” — Jeff Baker

“Defense playing great. Love seeing them swarm to the ball. Only one penalty and one turnover are major improvements. Good seeing some big plays break. Hopefully injuries to Taylor-Britt and Jaimes aren’t serious. I still have trouble putting too much blame on Armstrong for the blocked kicks.” — David Westfall

“Great win. Martinez still doesn’t look right. Just speaking purely of accuracy and decision making... not right. If it’s true that opposing coaches (in the non-conference) have had a year to go to school on the offense, the question is, does Frost have an adjustment or two?” — Aaron Britton

“The final score not an indicator of the overall performance. A lot of good things, but looking down the road gives one pause . The offense will need to be more consistent. Martinez still looking indecisive at times. Didn’t expect that in 2019.” — Merlyn Klaus

Opponent Watch

» I watched almost every play of Illinois’ 34-31 loss to Eastern Michigan — this I do for you, Husker fans — and having now seen Northern Illinois up close and personal, find the Huskies and the Illini pretty similar. Bowers and Illinois quarterback Brandon Peters are very similar, and the mediocre quality of defensive talent and execution is similar, as well. Where Illinois is different — and better — is at receiver and running back. Reggie Corbin and Dre Brown form a 1-2 running back punch equal to Nebraska. And at receiver, 6-foot-1, 205-pound Rickey Smalling and 6-2, 215-pound Josh Imatorbhebhe are tough covers. Illinois’ offensive and defensive lines remain underdeveloped in year three under Lovie Smith.

» Man, Ohio State is good. Really, really good. Indiana’s defense hadn’t allowed an opponent to rip off 7 yards per carry in a game since the 2015 Pinstripe Bowl. OSU gashed the Hoosiers on the ground — 7.29 per carry clip — in a 51-10 win that signals, well, look out. The Buckeyes’ defense was destined to be terrific with all the talent and returning experience. If OSU is this good on offense? Buckle up.

Forecast

Hot and soupy — that’s my colleague, Evan Bland’s word for this weather — on the practice fields. Looks like the dog days of August dragged into September. Enjoy the bats in your attic — and the spider webs on your porches.