This team is a couple plays away from being 4-0 and is also a play or two away from being 1-3. This pass defense has me absolutely flummoxed. After what we saw and heard in fall camp, it seems unfathomable that they rank dead last in FBS in giving up yards per game. When it comes to red zone defense however, this has become the ultimate example of bend-don’t-break in that Nebraska has only given up 5 passing TD’s and currently ranks 31st in red zone defense. They also post some pretty respectable 3rd down defensive rankings and the #7 rush defense (which may or may not be a mirage given the fact that opponents have not needed to establish the run to move the ball). Last week, I asked some questions about this game. Today, we look for answers.
Will there be a let-down by this team or coaches?
This is a hard one for me to call. Both sides of the ball came out firing in the first half and the defense pitched a shutout in that time. The offense stalled in the red zone and failed to put away Southern Miss when they had their chances to be dominant. Some early miscues in the third quarter started that ugly downward spiral we have grown all too used to seeing. How much Coach Riley and Co. can prop up these kids and help them trust their abilities when things start to go south will go a long way in determining how serious a run Nebraska makes at the B1G West.
Will we see some more of Mikale Wilbon?
The answer here is a resounding "NO". I must not have been the only one wondering about this as Husker media specifically asked about Wilbon after the game. Here is some of what we learned:
.@RealMikeWelch I asked Danny if reasons Wilbon isn't out there are about what goes on inside #Huskers walls & at practice. Yes was answer.— John Gaskins (@937JohnGaskins) September 26, 2015
Riley used word "liability" in discussing pass protection in play action with Wilbon.— Brian Rosenthal (@HuskerExtraBR) September 28, 2015
Who will bounce back more - the O-line or the secondary?
Yikes. In the first half I might have called this a push as the defense was pitching a shutout and the offense was moving the ball at will. The second half…..yeah. That part of the game was definitely not a "bounce back" and probably even a step backward in terms of confidence for this secondary.
While this pass defense currently ranks last in terms of yards given up, I think most of us agree we do not have the worst talent in the country in our secondary. So, we start looking around and point to coaching, scheme, and injuries (Rose-Ivey is our best coverage LB) as the culprits. The truth is that it has all probably come together in a nasty little stew in which we threw a bunch of ingredients that we know don’t go together but we still hoped it would somehow still taste good.
This scheme is fairly similar to what Michigan State runs. FWIW the Spartans rank 107th in terms of pass defense (yards per game) in 2015 after several stellar years at or near the top. (Granted, they are giving up 100 less yards per game than Nebraska right now.) The major difference for the Spartans is that they do not have elite cornerbacks right now compared to past years (and sent their ace defensive coordinator to be Pitt's head coach). Outside of Nate Gerry, most of us in Nebraska went into the season thinking our secondary talent was "good enough" but not great.
Combine an unforgiving scheme with the fact that these kids have had a new position coach each of the past 3 years, and you can begin to see where small technique or mental breakdowns lead to big problems.
On the down side, we have been down this road where it took elite talent at certain positions to make a defensive scheme work. It makes me shudder to hear some analysts suggesting that about our new scheme.
On the bright side, these coaches presumably ran this scheme at Oregon State without elite talent and figured it out most of the time. The recruiting acumen of this staff so far seems to also be a reason for hope. I was also heartened to hear Coach Riley’s Monday presser discuss some schematic things they were experimenting with (even pointing to plays in the game where they used those). He also gave some specific examples of situations and what they are going to ask the defender to read and do differently.
I have resigned myself to the fact it might be Year 3 before we might see it come together. In the meantime, these coaches are going to have to coach their tails off to bring these kids along the learning curve for this scheme (one that they were not recruited to play) and restore their confidence.
A couple of bonus answers…
How soon will we see DPE?
As of Monday’s (September 28) practice, he is back to getting some work. It seems possible he could play against Illinois. However, barring any setbacks, it seems most likely he will be available for Wisconsin.
How about those backup LB’s?
With both Banderas and Rose-Ivey out with groin injuries, the three starting LBs for this game were Young, M. Newby, and Weber. Newby went down with a groin injury (What else? Sigh). This gave Gifford and/or Ferguson some snaps (Both were on the participation report but I was in a location where I could only get game audio and was not able to watch who was in the game and when). The defensive stats list two passes broken up and both were by LBs (Weber and Young). Weber also led the team with 12 tackles including two for loss. He and M. Newby also each recorded a QB hurry with the other 4 going to the d-line. Brad Simpson was also on the participation report, but I am fairly certain he was only in for special teams - recording one tackle there.
I am not campaigning that we forget all our worries at this position, and there are definitely some issues (especially in pass defense), but I am glad to see these guys play better than expected. I suppose if the secondary was playing up to snuff we probably would be groaning more about this group, but for now, I think Coach Bray deserves a pat on the back for bringing them this far in their first significant game action.
On a side note, what is it with our LB’s and groin injuries this season? In Monday’s presser, Riley indicated that he has been quizzing the strength and conditioning staff on this and planned to back off in some practices to try and prevent more injuries.
What are your thoughts? Did I miss something? Did you have different answers? Tell me in the comments!