Defensively, for Nebraska this season, two categories exist in surrendering chunks of yardage: There are simply big plays, and there are big plays with catastrophic results.
In the Huskers’ Big Ten opener last week against Illinois, a 39-19 Nebraska victory, the Blackshirts progressed little in limiting the big play. But, the frequency of disastrous plays diminished significantly.
Nebraska continues to rank in the bottom 8 percent among FBS schools in allowing gains of 10 yards or more. Illinois accumulated 17 -- just two fewer than the Huskers’ defensive average through four games -- to bring the total for the season to 96. That’s 114th nationally.
What you didn’t see last week at Memorial Stadium, though, was the domino effect so prevalent in non-conference play, in particular on Sept. 14 against UCLA, when the Huskers collapsed in allowing the final 38 points of the game. Against Wyoming and South Dakota State, too, problems snowballed for the defense.
“It’s small, baby steps to give these guys some confidence,” defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski said.
Coaches asked their players in the two weeks that followed the Huskers’ 59-20 win over South Dakota State to let go of the bad thoughts.
If you make a mistake on the field, forget about it. If the offense makes a mistake, let it go.
“Don’t look at the JumboTron,” Kaczenski said. “Don’t worry about it. We can’t ride the highs and lows of the offense. We’ve got to concentrate on what we’re doing.
“We signed up for this gig, too. Go put the fire out.”
The Huskers did just that on defense against the Illini, which averaged 478.5 yards before the trip to Lincoln. Nebraska held it to 372.
But it’s not necessarily the yardage that matters; it’s how the Illini got its yards. And when.
Notably, Nebraska held Illinois when it needed stops. Here are three examples from the first half:
The Illini drove inside the Huskers’ 25 late in the first quarter after Nebraska jumped on top 14-0. On third-and-7, defensive end Jason Ankrah sacked Nathan Scheelhaase for a 4-yard loss. Next play, Scheelhaase fired a strike to Steve Hull, who was met over the middle by Stanley Jean-Baptiste, whose hit jarred the ball loose to end a scoring threat.
Early in the second quarter after the Huskers made it 17-0, Illinois marched from its 8 to the Nebraska 6. It faced just one third down, on which Scheelhaase needed 12 yards and scrambled for 17. But on first-and-goal, cornerback Ciante Evans hit Donovonn Young for a 3-yard loss. Evans sacked the quarterback for an 11-yard loss on third down to force a field goal.
Leading 23-3, Nebraska endured a brain cramp in the shadow of its goal line, utilizing Imani Cross on a wide run. Illinois linebacker Houston Bates nailed Cross for a safety, and suddenly Illinois had momentum with less than two minutes to play before halftime. The Illini started near midfield but went nowhere as Nebraska linebacker David Santos made an open-field tackle of Josh Ferguson then pressured Scheelhaase into a third-down incompletion.
“Sometimes, in the course of a game, plays get lost in the shuffle,” Nebraska defensive coordinator John Papuchis said. “I thought we did a nice job kind of standing up when they got in the red zone, not breaking at that point.”
The defensive stops prevented Illinois from chopping into Nebraska’s lead. Once the Huskers drove 75 yards in four plays to score on the opening possession of the third quarter, the game was out of reach.
“I think we played a lot more confident, a lot more loose out there on defense,” linebacker Michael Rose said. “We gave up a lot of plays to (South Dakota State) that were head scratchers. There comes a time when enough is enough. Someone’s got to step up and make a play. That’s the attitude we took.”
Coach Bo Pelini said he credits some of the improvement at key moments to better communication.
“We got to the point where we, as a staff, got fed up with it,” Pelini said. “We demanded that we expect to see 11 guys talking on every single play. Eleven guys. And if you’re not talking, you’re coming out. I said, ‘Try it for a day.’ I think they found out what a difference it makes.”
Still, the Huskers rank 98th nationally in total defense (445.4 yards per game), 102nd in yards allowed per play (6.15), 118th in first down per game (25.4) and 90th in yards per pass attempt (7.92).
But they were looking for some sign of improvement. Against Illinois, they got it by avoiding disasters. As Pelini said on Monday, “it shouldn’t get to that point” where the Huskers sit on the brink. That’s a challenge for this week as Nebraska prepares for its trip to Purdue.
“When it was time to bow up, they did,” Kaczenski said. “That’s good. That’s the stuff you preach. You’ve got to walk the walk. These are steppingstones, and you take small strides.”