Husker defense

Though a fast, high-flying offense is a nice idea to focus on, the old adage remains true. Stopping the run leads to the Big Ten West title. Which is why Nebraska hasn’t been close in years.

LINCOLN — Maybe it’s historical precedent clouding confidence. Maybe it’s the big bodies that look like they belong in the Big Ten.

But time and again, opposing coaches see Nebraska step off the bus and wonder if they can run the ball on them.

“They’re strong, they’ve got transfers from everywhere. I mean, they’re a good looking D-line,” Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck said. “It was one of the things you saw that scared you. It’s another thing to game plan and you hoped it would work.”

Of course, it worked. The Gophers, in a 34-7 rout, ran for 322 yards and four touchdowns against little resistance.

Because despite looking the part in uniform, Nebraska continues to fall behind its Big Ten West foes in stopping the run. They’ve been bad since they joined the conference and have not improved. That has resulted in a 12-19 record since 2017 and another soul-searching season.

“We need to be more physical on defense,” coach Scott Frost said.

Because though a fast, high-flying offense is a nice idea to focus on, the old adage remains true. Stopping the run leads to the Big Ten West title. Which is why Nebraska hasn’t been close in years.

Among Wisconsin, Iowa, Nebraska, Minnesota and Northwestern, only five times since 2011 has one of the five given up an average more than 175 yards per game.

Four belong to Nebraska. Three NU defensive coordinators are responsible.

John Papuchis and Bo Pelini’s 2012 team gave up 192.5 per game, then 177.8 in 2014. Teams ran for 214.75 on Bob Diaco’s 3-4. Erik Chinander’s defense gave up 195.75 a contest last year.

Through seven games this year, NU gives up 187.71 per game, worst among the group by nearly 50 yards.

“I feel like we’re out of position a lot of times,” defensive tackle Darrion Daniels told the media in Minneapolis on Saturday. “Just gotta run our fits and get it fixed.”

The nine-year average is 171.2 yards per game for Nebraska. Second worst is Minnesota at 160, followed by Northwestern, Iowa and Wisconsin.

There’s a connection between run stoppage and trips to the Big Ten title game in Indianapolis.

The Badgers have had a stranglehold on the division the past few years (three Big Ten West titles since 2014) and have the best run defense by far. They’re at it again this year, giving up 1.75 yards per carry and 44.67 yards per contest. Since 2011, Wisconsin’s given up 111.3 yards per game.

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A team has run for more than 200 yards on the Badgers 13 times since 2011. That’s happened 35 times to Nebraska, including Saturday night — in the first half alone.

Iowa and Northwestern both have recent trips to Indianapolis, and both have kept teams to 3.8 yards per carry or fewer since 2011. Nebraska has giving up 4.5 a touch in the same span.

The fix isn’t simple. NU’s front seven is as close to a Big Ten bruiser as ever. Darrion Daniels and brother Damion weigh 325 and 340 pounds. The Davis twins are seniors and 315 and 320 pounds.

This was supposed to be the year the trend shifted. The year the Big Ten was supposed to adjust to the offense, and the Husker defense was supposed to be beefy enough to compete.

Instead, it’s the same. A different coordinator, different scheme, different running backs, different defensive linemen, the same story on a loop since 2011.

“When we come back, the basics of what we do have to be better,” Frost said. “I don’t like coaching a team that’s not the most physical team, and we weren’t.”

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