LINCOLN — Spry and quick-witted, Nebraska defensive coordinator Mark Banker tried on Monday night to keep a light mood with reporters as he dove deep into the problems — self-inflicted and injury-imposed — facing his unit after three games.
But the questions keep coming. The answers, NU coaches and players agree, have to soon be found after losses to BYU and Miami, in which the Huskers gave up identical stats — 511 total yards, 379 passing and 132 rushing. Nebraska sits 105th in the nation — and 13th in the Big Ten — in yards allowed per game. Those numbers are a little better — 80th nationally and 10th in the Big Ten, respectively — when it comes to points per game, but this is still a long way from the defense Banker had hoped to have this season and a long way from how dominant this defense appeared to be in spring and training camp.
Never was the gap bigger than in the first 18 plays at Miami. The Hurricanes led 17-0 after one quarter. Banker called those 18 plays “a fiasco.”
“These guys jumped on us,” Banker said. “I don’t think we were up to speed.”
Alignment and assignment mistakes made up most of the problems, Banker said. Nebraska tried moving and stunting its defensive line, and it didn’t work. Safeties “lost their eyes” and didn’t give enough help to cornerbacks. Linebackers, said position coach Trent Bray, guessed too much, bit too hard on run fakes and “didn’t get to some places we needed to get in the pass game” as a result.
Even if the Huskers settled down over the rest of the game — and they did, Banker said — the defense has dialed in even more in preparation for a Southern Mississippi offense that’s averaging 41.3 points and 513.3 yards per game and pretty much does a lot of the things NU’s first three opponents — BYU, South Alabama and Miami — did to exploit the Huskers.
“Gadgets all over the place, fast pace, no huddle — it’s a test for these kids,” Banker said. “We’re not breaking in anyone easy. New scheme, old scheme, new coaches, old coaches, whatever, doesn’t matter. We’ve just got to go out and play.”
Nebraska will have to do so without yet another starter. Linebacker Michael Rose-Ivey — one of the bright spots of the last two games — is out for a month with a groin injury suffered in the Miami game. Banker said Rose-Ivey becomes, essentially, one of the coaches now. He also becomes the fifth starter who has missed one or more games because of injury.
Other injury updates:
» Tackle Vincent Valentine didn’t play against Miami because of an ankle sprain; he’s week-to-week, coach Mike Riley said, and Monday he wore a walking boot as he left practice.
» Linebacker Josh Banderas also had a groin injury that kept him out of the South Alabama game; after being limited to the base defense for most of the Miami game, he’s feeling better.
» Linebacker Dedrick Young missed a game because of a sudden toe infection. He’s back healthy.
» Defensive end Jack Gangwish has missed the last two games — and will miss Saturday’s contest — because of a dislocated elbow.
“It seems like half of our defense is nicked up or playing hurt or injured or whatever,” Gangwish said.
Said defensive tackle Maliek Collins: “It affects chemistry ... but that’s why we practice so many guys. That’s why guys work so hard to get that one shot.”
Banker didn’t dwell much on the injury issue. He was more locked in on fixing execution errors that cropped up against the Hurricanes.
Take, for example, Nebraska’s struggles with aligning correctly after moving before the snap. Banker junked the movements after halftime and defensive linemen “just pounded” their gaps. The movement was designed to generate more pass rush from the front four, but it hurt the Huskers in defending the run.
The proposed solution: Banker plans on introducing and practicing the movement calls earlier in the week so players get used to them.
“Make them think a little bit more on their feet,” Banker said.
At linebacker, Bray wants more read-and-react discipline from his players.
“You can’t just sit on the run, you can’t just drop back in the pass,” Bray said. “You gotta see it, and then react. Where we got in trouble early is guys tried to guess. We’d step downhill, and it’s a pass. Things like that. Once we relaxed and played, we improved a lot.”
The cornerback issue remains one for competition. Riley — who takes a keen interest in corners because he used to be one and he has allowed his defense to be built around the play of them — said Nebraska will have fierce competition throughout the week between Jonathan Rose, Josh Kalu, Chris Jones, Daniel Davie and Trai Mosley to figure out which players fit in various personnel packages.
“Somebody’s going to ask me about starting corners, I’m not ready for that. You’ll get that as we go through the week,” Riley said. “We need to sort it out as the best situation, the variety of coverages we can play, what we might do in nickel and dime, and then go from there.”
And beyond that, there are the big picture things that shape a defense. Energy. Effort. Edge. A willingness to run through contact — Nebraska missed nine tackles against Miami in part because defenders didn’t. All the components that, when a defense is good, look so easy, but, when a defense is struggling, appear so difficult to grasp.
Nebraska lost two games because of those imperfections. Banker said neither BYU nor Miami was more talented than the Huskers.
“We haven’t been outmatched physically at any spot or speed-wise,” Banker said. “I thought we were right on the edge with a team like Miami as far as who and what they have.”
Yet Collins, the defense’s best player — who attracts double teams — said it’s “humbling” to be 1-2.
“Obviously, we thought we were pretty good, but you go back to the drawing board and you fix the things that we messed up on — because we did mess up a lot in that game — and it’s a lot on us,” he said.
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