Nebraska football’s defense continues to shut down teams and is one of the unexpected strengths of the team. Outside of the fourth quarter of the Colorado game, where the Blackshirts let up 24 points, the defense has been strong. Against Northern Illinois, the Blackshirts bounced back from that dreadful fourth quarter and held the Huskies to just six points on two field goals.
Defensive coordinator Erik Chinander is happy with the performance, but is still pushing the defense to do more as Nebraska enters conference play.
“I think anytime you don’t let the other team in the endzone that’s a good thing,” he said. “Once again, we played good in some areas, not as good in some, we got a lot of improvement to do but I like where the guys are at, I like how they’re working and they’re not afraid to take criticism right now even though they won.”
The stats back up Nebraska’s defensive prowess so far. The Huskers have emphasized forcing turnovers since Scott Frost’s arrival, and the team has seen results this year. Through three games, Nebraska has forced nine turnovers, which is tied for the fifth-most in the country. The Blackshirts have scored two touchdowns as well, which is tied for the best in FBS.
“I think the guys are embracing the fact that that’s important to our staff, it’s important to the defensive staff, also important to the offensive staff,” Chinander said. “Coach Frost talks about taking care of the football and getting turnovers, we talk about getting turnovers a lot, we drill it, and I think the guys are embracing that.”
Along with the players embracing the defensive philosophy, the style of the defense has also helped the Blackshirts force turnovers. Nebraska’s defense plays fast, and the players have to be able to handle that to succeed.
“It all starts with being able to play fast,” inside linebackers coach Barrett Ruud said. “Turnovers are a mindset, but if you don’t know what you’re doing, you’re a little bit hesitant, you’re a step slower and you’re not in position to make some of those big plays and plays on the ball.”
The run defense has also been a strength for the Blackshirts. Nebraska ranks No. 20 in rushing defense, giving up just 82 yards per game. The Huskers also allow just 2.2 yards per carry, a mark that ranks No. 12 in the country.
That run defense will have to be stout this weekend as they face their biggest test yet in Illinois senior running back Reggie Corbin. Corbin rushed for over 1,000 yards in 2018 and is coming off of a 144-yard performance against Eastern Michigan.
“He’s a really good player,” Ruud said. “He’s the best back that we’ve played this year, and he may end up being the best back that we play all year. He’s got a great ability to test your leverage, he can bounce the ball outside, and he blocks for guys too, he’s a complete running back.”
Even after facing Corbin, the Huskers will need to keep the defensive momentum going to stop other Big Ten running backs.
“In this conference you’ve got to be able to stop the run,” defensive line coach Tony Tuioti said. “There’s a lot of good running backs, there’s a lot of good offensive linemen, so now that we’re in conference play everything’s amped up just a little bit more for us now.”
Nebraska’s secondary has been strong this season as well. The Huskers saw plenty of contributors play big roles in the secondary against Northern Illinois, including a few that don’t typically see a lot of action. Freshman cornerback Braxton Clark had the Huskers’ lone interception, while junior safety Eli Sullivan broke up a pass on fourth and goal to stop the Huskies from scoring.
Chinander said plays like Sullivan’s are important for the team as they continue to grow and gain confidence.
“Not only is it big scheme-wise, is it big for our confidence but also those guys see some players that are not quote unquote starters out there making big time plays,” he said. “So just the trust in those guys, the confidence in those guys, the confidence that we can be put in any situation and get the job done, it was huge for our team.”
Part of the team’s depth in the secondary is a result of Nebraska’s philosophy in practice. No matter where a player is on the depth chart, they get just as many reps as a typical starter would.
“There’s no backups, if you’re on the field you’re a starter,” defensive backs coach Travis Fisher said. “So in the approach there’s no backups. Those kids don’t feel like they’re backups, they get put in the game just like the rest of them do.”
“Everybody on the team is getting equal reps, it’s not 75/25, it’s 50/50, so those guys are getting as many reps as the other guys,” Chinander said. “That develops our team, the way we rotate players, just because of the nature of our offense we’re in there for 90 plus plays, when we keep rotating players that grows those kids up too.”
Overall, the key to the defense’s success and constant improvement is that all players are ready to play and have bought into the system.
“It’s good to see that they’re totally bought into it because when we play all together, all 11, then we can have the results like that,” Tuioti said. “But at the end of the day the most important thing is to get a W.”