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Pre-Quadrangle Review: The Rise Of the Defense

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The Quadrangle of Hate is all that stands between the Huskers and a trip to Indy. Before the team runs the gauntlet we took a look at where the Big Red ranks.

Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

A few weeks back, we did a non-conference review examining the statistical rankings of the Huskers in all sorts of categories. The bye week and upcoming West games with Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa (the Quadrangle of Hate) seemed like a good time to take another look. Short version: the offense is hanging on for dear life, the defense is rising, and special teams are still a mixed bag.

The first column is the metric being reported. The second column is where the Huskers currently rank in all of FBS and the B1G. The 3rd column is where they ranked in the earlier article--after the non-conference portion of the schedule. My comments are at the bottom, below the table.

After 9 games After 4 games

The Good

Pass Efficiency Defense 2nd FBS - 91.91 - 1st B1G 17th FBS - 104.03 - B1G 2nd
3rd Down Conversion Defense 2nd FBS - .266 - 1st B1G 18th FBS - .292 - 3rd B1G
Scoring Offense 9th FBS - 40.4 pgm - 3rd B1G 10th FBS - 45.5 ppg - 2nd B1G
Rushing Offense 9th FBS - 281 ypg - 2nd B1G 6th FBS - 329 ypg - 2nd B1G
Passing Yards per Completion 10th FBS - 14.8 ypc - 3rd B1G 6th FBS - 17 yards per completion - B1G N/A
Sacks Allowed t12th FBS - 1.0/game - 3rd B1G t4th FBS - .25 per game - 1st B1G
Tackles for Loss Allowed 13th FBS - 4.33 /game - 3rd B1G 3rd FBS - 2.50 per game - 1st B1G
Yards Per Play 16th FBS - 6.58 ypp - 4th B1G 1st FBS - 8.0 yards per play - 1st B1G
Punt Returns 16th FBS - 13.6 /punt 2nd B1G 30th FBS - 13.1 yards/punt - 4th B1G
Scoring Defense t16th FBS - 19.7 ppg - 3rd B1G did not list
Total Offense 17th FBS - 491 ypg - 3rd B1G 8th FBS - 559.8 ypg - 1st B1G
Rush Defense 20th FBS - 124 ypg - 5th B1G t33rd FBS - 116 yds/game allowed - 6th B1G
Total Defense 25th FBS - 339.8 ypg - 8th B1G did not list
3rd Down Conversion Pct Offense 27th FBS - .451 - 3rd B1G t19th FBS - .500 - 2nd B1G

The OK

Red Zone Defense 40th FBS - .792 - 6th B1G t66th FBS - .846 - 7th B1G

The Bad

Team Pass Efficiency 52nd FBS - 132.3 - 5th B1G did not list
Kickoff Return Defense 52nd FBS - 20.24 - B1G N/A 95th FBS - 22.38 - B1G N/A
Penalties per Game t55th FBS - 5.89 - t9th B1G t55th FBS - 6.0 penalties per game - B1G N/A
Net Punting 59th FBS - 37.6 net - 4th B1G 4th FBS - 45 net yards per punt - 1st B1G
Fewest Penalty Yards Per Game 63rd FBS - 53.44 ypg - 11th B1G t71st FBS - 57.50 yards per game - 12th B1G
Punt Return Defense 63rd FBS - 8.1 - B1G N/A 60th - 6.80 - B1G N/A
Turnovers Gained 70th FBS - 14 - 8th B1G 84th FBS - 4 total - 12th B1G
Turnover Margin 70th FBS - (-1) - 7th B1G t66th FBS  +/-0   t5th B1G
Kickoff Returns 81st FBS - 19.92 - 11th B1G 75th - 19.92 - 12th B1G

The Ugly

Completion Percentage 110th FBS - .529 - 13th B1G 101st - .544 - 13th B1G

Offense

It feels a little unfair to say one of the better offenses in the country is "hanging on for dear life". You typically expect some regression moving from non-con to conference play, but these struggles feel like more than just normal attrition with a step up in competition.  Perhaps it is as simple as being judged against their own talent and having Husker fans as judges. We are a tough crowd. Either way, let's hope the line has been putting in overtime in the film room--and I don't mean watching Jake Cotton gifs. If you look around the B1G, there are generally two teams that show up consistently ahead of the Huskers in offensive categories and they are probably not hard to guess--OSU and MSU.

The Huskers are among the best in football at rushing the ball and scoring points. Tommy also ranks among statistical leaders in yards per carry, so he is making some good decisions in the zone read and option game. The low completion rate and high yards per completion reinforces what our eyes already tell us--when Tommy has time, our wideouts can take the top off any defense. Unfortunately, the long ball is not a high-percentage play and he does not always have time. It doesn't help that the short and intermediate passing game has been miserable at times. I think the absence of Cethan Carter is being felt pretty keenly here. Yes, I know he does not catch many passes but he is a tremendous blocker and his presence changes how the defense reacts to a play.

Want a terrifying stat? Sorry, I am giving it to you anyway. All three of our quadrangle opponents rank in the top 25 for total defense. The offense will need to be efficient, healthy (uh-oh), and regain some of their early season nastiness to carry their weight through the rest of the schedule. If they do, another top 25 defense will await in Indy. Our 'mad scientist' offensive coordinator has taken some heat--let's hope he has cooked up a plan to keep his young group focused and prepared.

Defense

The defense is really rounding into Pelini form--giving up a big play here and there but mostly very stingy with completions and points. Normally, you expect some regression as teams move from the non-con to conference play, but Pelini defenses have seemed to buck that trend every year and get stronger as the season wears on (at least statistically). Did you know that of the top 25 defenses (as ranked by total defense--yards) eight are in the B1G? If the SEC ranked that highly, we would be hearing ad nauseum about how great that makes them. When the B1G does it? The company line will be "it's just because the B1G is bad at offense". On second thought, last weekend might have proved that point. Did you see that Michigan - Northwestern game? I am so sorry.

It is probably no coincidence that the rise of the defense tracks with improvements in the line (take note offense). The rush defense has especially rounded into form, but their stiffest challenge is yet to come in the Gordon/Clement duo, followed by Minnesota's Cobb. The linebackers seem to have settled into a system where they try not to all suck at the same time, and appear to have put some time in with the tackling dummy. I am especially impressed with (to my eyes anyway) more swarming to the ball than I have seen in the past couple years.

The secondary has been fun to watch, especially Nate Gerry. Giving up the occasional big play causes some gray hairs but Pelini seems to design his defense around taking away the easy passes and gambling that most college quarterbacks are not good enough to consistently complete difficult ones. I would still like to see the defense get more aggressive and force more turnovers. I recognize that  can only come after tackling and other fundamentals are so sound that the second guy on the scene can try to force the TO instead of cleaning up a whiff. We are soooo close.

Special teams

The punt team has really been a tale of two personalities. Early on, we didn't get much for returns, but now De'Mornay Pierson-El is making opposing coaches think long and hard about the third phase. Every minute they devote to DPE is one less minute they can prepare for Ameer Abdullah, Randy Gregory, Kenny Bell, or Jordan Westerkamp. However, Sam Foltz seems to have regressed after a sizzling start to the season. I think he will get back on track, but it is definitely something to watch. Two, TWO, blocked punts against Purdue were a very welcome result of a coaching staff that has taken this part of the game more seriously.

Of course, Husker fans are worried about the kicking game. We have two kickers that would probably be an upgrade for most SEC teams (LOL!) but Kicker U has higher standards than that. It will be interesting to see if Mauro Bondi gets another chance now that his collarbone is healed. Drew Brown is a true freshman and has been through 3 or 4 long snappers this year. He has performed fairly well, just not up to usual Husker standards.

Bottom Line

The overall talent on this team is the highest level we have had under Pelini, The defense has been getting stronger and improved special teams appear to be for real and not a blip on the radar.  All we need from the offense at this point  is "solid". In some ways, it feels like they are responding to struggles by trying to win the game on every play. Maybe the bye week will have given them a chance to settle down, study film and focus on their role. Do your job, trust your teammates to do theirs, and good things will happen. Who knows, maybe even Ameer-icles.