Defense 11.23.19

A bizarre exchange in Scott Frost’s Monday press conference stuck with me throughout the rest of the week.

It started with a simple question about the possibility of Frost playing some freshmen that didn’t arrive on campus until late in the summer, which he responded by talking about the challenges freshmen face with adjusting to college, including forcing yourself to get a good amount of sleep.

That remark led to a question a few minutes later about the impact sleep has on performance, to which Frost responded by joking “we can’t tuck them into bed at night.”

“Guys have to care enough about their product on the field and their team to make decisions," he added. 

This exchange struck a chord with me, even though I am nearing my final semester of college. Whether it’s getting enough sleep, making smart eating decisions or allocating the right amount of time to the priorities that matter, developing habits that you can stick to are challenging for a lot of college students.

Even with the extra resources that football players receive, it requires a lot of discipline and effort for college football players to form smart habits on and off the field. 

I can’t speak much about the off-field habits of Nebraska’s players, as I also don’t tuck any of them in at night, but over the course of this season, plenty of positive habits have been formed on the field by the Huskers.

In the midst of a much-needed 54-7 drubbing of Maryland, all three phases of Nebraska football showed it can sustain and build positive habits that have quietly been developing over the course of this season.

One of those trends that has started to appear in recent weeks is a decrease in penalties. Despite losing four consecutive games, the most penalties Nebraska committed in any of those games was six, and the Huskers only committed three in each of the past two games.

Against the Terrapins, Nebraska tied its season low with just one penalty while Maryland committed a costly penalty on fourth down that allowed the Huskers to break the game open early. 

Turnover issues have also been scrutinized over the course of the season as well, yet for the fifth time in the last six games, the Huskers had one or fewer turnovers. After committing 14 turnovers over the first five games of the season, Nebraska has turned it over five times since. 

Special teams play has been maddeningly inconsistent throughout the season, but the group responded impressively after one of their worst performances of the season a week ago. Two walk-on kickers combined to make all 10 attempts, and sophomore punter Isaac Armstrong had both of his punts on the day get downed inside the 10-yard line. 

The same kickoff team that allowed a costly kickoff return touchdown last week forced a momentum-shifting fumble early on as well. Facing an elite returner, the unit executed its gameplan of short kicks away from Javon Leake well, and kept all 11 kickoffs in bounds. 

Those are habits from practice that carried over into the game at long last.

There have been countless times over the past two seasons where Nebraska’s failed to jump on loose balls, despite that being something the coaching staff emphasizes every week in practice. On Saturday, the Huskers jumped on all four of Maryland’s fumbles, including a smart play by senior linebacker Mohamed Barry to grab a loose ball even after the whistle blew the play dead.

His quick and immediate recovery was rewarded after replay showed the ball was jarred loose before the runner was down. 

The defense as a whole played one of its most fundamentally sound games of the season. The Huskers have struggled against mobile quarterbacks in recent years, regardless of the talent surrounding them. 

Maryland had three dual-threat quarterbacks and two proven running backs, but senior defensive lineman Khalil Davis and senior linebacker Alex Davis made a series of shoestring tackles on Maryland’s weapons throughout the game to keep them behind the chains and out of striking distance.

Saturday provided a much-needed boost of confidence ahead of arguably the most important game for Nebraska football since 2016. After the win, Frost praised many of his players for their toughness and for playing hard despite being sick. 

Against a fundamentally sound Iowa team with a bowl berth at stake, on a short week’s rest no less, we’re going to learn a lot about how tough Frost’s team actually is after two years. 

Lucky for them, they are starting to have plenty of good habits to fall back on, and that’s a real sign of toughness.