LINCOLN — Nebraska’s 2-4 season has hit a midlife crisis, where everything seems wrong and every decision — offense, defense, special teams, play-calling or time management — is judged by short-term results. It’s a mindset that, if repeated enough times to every aspect of a team, generally leaves the trophy room filled with mid-level bowl tchotchkes.
You’ve been there, and if the prevailing message this week is that coach Mike Riley is somehow in jeopardy of anything — other than falling into a win one of these weeks — you’ll be going there again soon enough.
But one side of the ball could stand to do a lot better.
Though we tend to hold off on the numbers until their proper section of the column, here’s one that aptly summarizes where the Huskers sit: 13-43.
There are 16 Power Five conference defenses giving up more than 400 yards per game this season.
Their record against all the other Power Five teams is 13-43.
Nebraska is giving up 443.8 yards per game. Nebraska is 0-3 against Power Five teams.
Arizona is 1-2. Tennessee is 1-3. South Carolina is 1-4. Auburn is 1-2. Of those 16 teams, just one — Washington State — has a winning record against Power Five teams. The Cougars are 2-1, and they have beaten Oregon and Rutgers, who are also two of the 16 teams on the list. Wazzu also has a loss to Portland State.
This is not a foolproof stat every year. Oregon, for example, gave up more than 400 yards per game last year and played for the national title.
But you’d better hope you have a great offense to offset those defensive deficiencies.
And it was frankly too much to ask Nebraska’s new staff to have a great offense in 2015. Good? You hoped for that. Great? No.
You had coaches — used to running a pro-style scheme — merging with a spread-run attack that had four new starters on the offensive line and lost all-conference skill players — Ameer Abdullah and Kenny Bell — to the NFL. Even with the remaining talent — and on offense, there is healthy talent — you still couldn’t presume with all those changes that it would be completely smooth, game in and game out.
Still, NU is averaging 449.2 yards and 29.8 points per game. Pick away at the particulars — Nebraska fans have picked at their offensive play-caller for 50 years — but the basic numbers, even the 6.21 yards per play, are pretty good, and the result of some good play-calling, too.
The defense? That’s a different story. That’s the story of 2-4.
Nebraska’s defense — celebrated by players before the season as simpler and more user-friendly — is ranked last nationally in passing yards allowed per game. NU is better when you break it down into yards per attempt — 7.7 yards, tied for 94th — but no offense, not even Wisconsin’s, respects Nebraska’s pass defense. And I’m not sure why you would, when so many routes are left unchallenged until receivers are 10 yards downfield.
Watching Saturday’s game again, I thought of that 2002 game against Texas, when NU’s defense was so outmatched by Texas’ offensive firepower that the Huskers essentially gave away 10-yard passes for free, hoping to make stops in the red zone. But 2002 Texas and 2015 Wisconsin aren’t the same beasts.
Why Nebraska’s secondary didn’t get up in the faces of Badger wideouts — and make Joel Stave throw into much tighter windows — is a question that hangs over several Husker games this year.
It hung over the first quarter of the Miami game, when the Hurricanes got two easy touchdowns on pitch-and-catch slant patterns. It hung over the fourth quarter of the Illinois game, when Illini receivers twice got behind defensive backs for back-breaking plays. And it hung over Saturday’s game. Wisconsin converted a third-and-15 on its first touchdown drive. Nebraska was flagged for pass interference on the Badgers’ second touchdown drive. You have NU defensive backs grabbing downfield in part because they were off the ball at the snap.
Maybe this defense is simpler. But against the pass, it’s not working yet. Maybe, in the next three weeks against bad passing teams, it will. It frankly must for defensive coordinator Mark Banker, who’s choosing to keep it positive.
“You know what’s great? We got things to work on,” Banker said. “We’re going to go out there — we wish we were doing it in another vein — and there are no moral victories. We’ve got to go back to work.”
Banker is a good quote and thoughtful guy. His unit has been stung by injuries.
But Nebraska’s secondary appears to lack confidence, tackling prowess and consistent ball skills. And if you’re going to put this much responsibility on the secondary — as Banker has chosen to — that unit has to respond in the fourth quarters of games when the front seven will naturally be tired by the wear and tear of a game.
While Nebraska’s secondary was far from perfect in recent years — you’ll remember the first game against Georgia, and two games against UCLA — it didn’t give up three bills to mediocre quarterbacks and receivers. It didn’t give a guy like Stave — who struggles with confidence — lots of rhythm throws.
Riley is not one for sharp criticism, but in a press conference two days after the Southern Mississippi win, Riley had a pointed comment when describing his pass defense.
“I won’t say this went all the way that way, but it looks like it’s falling apart,” Riley said. “I watch the film and go ‘what are we doing here?’ We’ve got to coach to a point where the confidence, no matter what’s going on, we’ll play within the principles of what we’re doing and those things that when it’s hard, you can rely on some foundational things that we should know inside and out and call it and play.”
After the loss to Wisconsin, Riley was more positive.
“I know it doesn’t necessarily look like it,” he said, “but we are in better shape.”
Watch the fourth quarters of the Illinois and Wisconsin games, and you’ll realize Riley’s right — when he says it doesn’t look like it.
On with the Rewind.
I see you
» Fullback Andy Janovich: The Janosaur — my preferred name for him — showed off some wheels outrunning Wisconsin’s defense to the end zone.
» Defensive tackles Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine: Collins is putting in work, and he’s played two strong Big Ten games. Valentine wasn’t anywhere near 100 percent with variety of leg-foot maladies he’s dealing with, but he played through it.
» Linebackers Marcus Newby, Chris Weber and Dedrick Young: Nebraska’s best position group Saturday, they combined for 20 tackles and five pass breakups. Position coach Trent Bray has coached up three guys who’d never started a game before this season into a pretty good unit.
» Wide receiver Alonzo Moore: His 41-yard catch for a touchdown is the play former and current coaches have been waiting years for him to make. He’s had a good year.
» Punter Sam Foltz: Averaged 43.8 yards per punt and had two downed inside the 20.
» Running back Terrell Newby: Ran with purpose and decisiveness, even if he gained just 59 yards.
» Wisconsin wide receiver Alex Erickson: Catching seven passes for 113 yards, he was better than any NU defensive backs throughout the game. With a more accurate quarterback, Erickson goes for more than 200 yards.
» Stave: He made a lot of average throws, and he should have been picked off at least once. But the Badger QB’s 23-yard pass on the final drive to tight end Troy Fumagalli was a gutsy throw between three defenders. Stave threw it before Fumagalli cleared one linebacker, and he threw a perfect pass. It was a heck of play, and it won Wisconsin the game.
» Power outage in the return games: Nebraska’s kick coverage units are good. Foltz and kicker Drew Brown are having decent seasons. But special teams coordinator Bruce Read is trying just about any option on kickoff returns, and now Jordan Stevenson is in the mix. Stevenson’s lone return wasn’t very good — he didn’t really follow his blocking — and, since dropping that punt at Illinois, De’Mornay Pierson-El hasn’t been allowed to return one yet.
» Third-down struggles: Nebraska’s offense is a little out of sync on the money down. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong is pressing a little, and it’s not because the protection stunk; he never got sacked by Wisconsin’s dynamic pass rush. He just has to stick in the pocket a little longer and deliver passes with a little more accuracy. NU’s closer there than it looks, I think.
» Again with the penalties: Including two personal fouls — one of which was called on Riley. At least Riley appeared to get a makeup call on the following play. The pass interference calls against the Huskers were tough, but I didn’t like seeing NU’s receivers showing up referees with their on-field pleading after flags weren’t thrown against Wisconsin. That rarely works in college.
» Four: The number of times Nebraska has gained at least 300 yards against Wisconsin since joining the Big Ten. Since the Badgers have given up 300 yards or more only 14 times in 34 games, that’s a pretty good rate. But in those four games, NU’s defense gave up 42 points and 472.5 yards per game to Wisconsin. That might be why Nebraska is 1-3 in those four games and 1-4 overall against Wisconsin since joining the league.
» 5.38: Yards per carry for Nebraska’s offense. That’s No. 19 in the nation. Ahead of Michigan, Stanford, Iowa, Clemson, Wisconsin, Michigan State and a bunch of teams that you wish Nebraska might be. Does it point to the Huskers needing to run more? Maybe it does. But Nebraska also ran the ball on 10 of its first 16 plays Saturday. You know what that got the Huskers? Four punts.
» 3.72: Yards per carry allowed by Nebraska’s defense in the second halves of games. In the first half, it’s 2.9 yards per carry. That’s the subtle effect of wearing down over four quarters. It mattered against Wisconsin.
» 176.5: Passing yards per game from Minnesota. Since 2010, the Gophers have thrown for 300 yards or more twice. Surely Nebraska’s defense must like this matchup. Surely. And surely NU must like that Northwestern’s offense averages 140.2 passing yards per game. Surely.
» 2-0: The Big Ten East’s record in cross-divisional games against the Big Ten West. That accounts for Michigan State’s narrow win over Purdue and Michigan’s rout of Northwestern.
After each game, I ask Husker fans for their take on my Facebook page. Selected and edited responses are below:
» Scarlett Miller: “Nebraska’s heart worked. Nebraska’s pride worked. Nebraska’s fans worked. What didn’t work: costly penalties.
» Bob Loshbaugh: “Did all of the “don’t throw the ball” clock management second guessing from the media last week influence the play calling on our final offensive series this week?
» Peter Strnad: “Tom Osborne was basically “moneyball” before Moneyball. Running a pass first pro offense in a rough weather, windy environment is not smart. TO tailored the program to the available talent and local environment, he basically created the perfect model to win in Lincoln. Deviate from that model at your own risk.”
» Kris Johnson: “This season reminds me of 2012 Michigan State. Just couldn’t quit shooting itself in the foot long enough to close out a game.”
» Daniel Fiester: “Husker fans are getting what we deserve. There have been so many close losses that I’m actually starting to miss the occasional blowout. Now we have no option but to be patient. We might have to wait three or four years til we get another 9 win season.”
» Northwestern’s poor passing game finally caught up with the Wildcats. Michigan stuffed Northwestern’s running game, and the Wildcats completed 15 of 33 passes in a 38-0 loss.
» Minnesota freshman Shannon Brooks ran for 176 yards in a romp over Purdue. Brooks ran for 2,223 yards and 9.9 yards per carry as a senior in a rural north Georgia high school; he had two Power Five offers and picked the Golden Gophers.
The heat is on. How many Husker fans turn out in Minneapolis? There are always open seats at TCF Bank Stadium.
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