Previously: Offense (image via Huskers.com)
The film: Last year Nebraska's defense was kind of a mess. S&P+ had them ranked 110th (out of 130 teams), 116th in rushing, 102nd in passing. Some of that was a rejection of Bob Diaco's switch to a 3-4. Most of it was a rejection of Diaco himself.
A thing about college football however is it's not that hard, with an injection of competence, to get a group of 4- and 3-stars from the 100s to the 50s. You all remember Hoke and Mattison doing that with Michigan's defense in 2011. You see what skills you have on hand, choose a system you know how to teach that uses those skills, and make this an identity. Voila: something approximating competence.
Through two games it appears Frost's fellow UCF import Erik Chinander has built just this sort of jalopy. They're not a GREAT defense, but they might be good? Two games against questionable competition (Colorado might be bad, Troy is a good Sun Belt team) and high-tempo throw off the counting stats but they're giving up 4.2 YPC rushing, and 4.9 YPA passing (counting sacks with the latter).
Their strength is at safety, where some experienced starters returned from injury and are joined by a former UCF star, and a seven-man deep defensive line. Whether both units are a B+ or A+ is hard to tell—they do have three guys starting over the one bona fide GOOD player they had last year, and given his job was taken by last year's late breakout player that might not even be a Godin/Give-the-2nd-Unit-a-Hurst kind of way. Colorado made this doubly difficult on me by not blocking the guys I was trying to assess:
You may note all of those links show the same two offensive players. One of those guys is a grayshirt redshirt freshman, but the other is a third-year starter and former freshman All-American. Are Colorado's center and left guard two of the worst collegiate players I've ever watched on film, or was Nebraska's line so dominant they just made it look that way?
Nebraska's defense so we are using black shirts instead of stars. Like Michigan's opponent last week Nebraska's defense was still in find-out-who-can-play mode and was thus rotating a lot of players, especially up front. Also note the "Key Player" from my HTTV preview is now on the bench. My entire section on the front seven needs to be rewritten.
Base Set: 3-4, and considering they mostly kept the same personnel on the field against a modern spread offense all day that's unlikely to change now.
[Hit THE JUMP for the rest of the breakdown]
Now, the things they can do with that 3-4 are pretty neat. Much of the day they converted it to a nickel by having the Weakside OLB come down as a standup DE and playing the SAM over the slot receiver like so:
This of course exposed the SAM to a lot of space, and bodes well for Michigan's tight ends and slots. Completing the 2011 trip they've also got an Okie package that can come out with two high, or one, or none:
They even moved the NT off the line like Bob Devaney would with the 5-2 Eagle, the base formation of Woody Hayes's defenses, and the Australopithecus of the 4-3 evolutionary tree:
And the 5-3 itself:
Colorado ran into that. Somewhere in the afterlife, Dana X. Bible nodded solemnly (please nobody tell him this was a non-conference game).
Man or zone coverage: It's man, man, though their Man 2 coverage can look a lot like Quarters. Cover 2 and Cover 3 are in the playbook but they tended to struggle with it:
The pure man on the outside is the best use of those two corners, but it does open up comeback routes and the flats, which the linebacker-flavored linebackers can't get out on when concentrating on the run as much as they do. Colorado tried to test the deep safeties by running a lot of bubble to a trips side, and Nebraska was more or less ready for them though not great at tackling them:
By my accounting they were 40% Man-2, 29% Man-1, 14% Man Zero, and then a spattering of Cov2 and Cov3. Since I couldn't always see the screen some of these very well could have been mixed coverages, where they run man on Jackson's side and zone the field side. I saw that a few times when they zoomed out:
Pressure: GERG or GREG: They lean GREG, bringing an average 4.56 guys per play in my charting. I labeled a lot of those as "4.5" because they'd often have a linebacker who converts to blitz if the tight end or back stays in. Often they'd show a lot of guys on the line (see the play above) but back two linebackers out. I don't think I charted any DL backing off so that was mostly for show in this game.
The guy I didn't see coming—or even mention in my HTTV preview—was Mohamed Barry, and I'm not alone. The playmaker missed most of the Troy game for targeting but was +13.5/-3=+10.5 in my unofficial UFRing of the Colorado game, and PFF agreed. In my defense I'm not the only preseason mag who'd never heard of him until the Colorado game. The blips previously were regarding his stance during the national anthem. Then there were some practice notes in late August that had him in a dead heat with the JuCo. Now Husker fans blame the targeting call for losing to Troy.
What I saw is a knife. The play above Barry is sucked out with a running back to the edge, and he fought his way back outside. Most of his day however was stuff like this:
#7 top linebacker
It was the first quarter so some jawing at your left tackle for letting some dude you've barely scouted jet past was maybe appropriate. After this kind of thing became routine the jawing was replaced by simple resignation:
He was also clearly the most dangerous of the many, many, many, many, many many many manymany defenders to come through Colorado's right-side A-gap.
However Barry's not the first official Blackshirt (great defensive players by Cornhusker tradition get to wear a black shirt in practice) on this defense. That honor went to strong safety Aaron Williams, who didn't actually start this game—Reed was the leader in snaps by a good margin. Williams has played a ton over his career. He is never boring.
#24 the high safety on the 39 yard line
That tackle doesn't always work out so well. Reed was more likely to cede 5 yards and call it a day. Also Carlos Davis and the guy who knocked him to the bench, Ben Stille, split doubles for pressures and sacks galore, though again, note whose doubles are being split here:
The reason Nebraska looks like a 7- or 8-win team this year (that's got a horrific schedule and already lost two tossup games and got hit with an injury in its most sensitive spot) instead of the doormat they were last year is more defense than offense. This was supposed to be the much larger reclamation project, but with depth up front and a back seven that's grown 10 sizes in competence over the offseason just by not being asked to do things they're bad at, the Husker defense is out of the dumpster and an eleventh of the way to being the Blackshirts again.
The line already goes at least seven deep. Last year they had DT Carlos Davis (weakside DE in a 3-4 is basically a 3-tech) and trouble wherever they didn't have Carlos Davis. This year Davis isn't even starting (he's an "OR"), thanks to the emergence of RS sophomore DT Ben Stille at that position. Stille was a 255-pound OLB last year, leading the team with 9.5 TFLs in 9 games. He's up 35 pounds and can play anywhere on the line. NG Mick Stoltenberg got pushed around last year and is probably alright now given how well his two backups played (or Colorado's interior is infuriatingly terrible). Onetime edge rusher SDE Freedom(!!!) Akinmaladun is still the 5-tech-like DE and nearing 300 pounds—the speed is all gone. His backup is Carlos's identical twin SDE Khalil Davis, a very DT (325 pounds)-shaped end who also feasted on the unprecedentedly awful RG play. Backup NG Peyton Newell didn't chart except one play where Colorado just didn't block him, and RS freshman NG Damion Daniels made me clip him twice for ripping through the SEC Compliance Officers.
I was completely wrong about the linebackers. My HTTV preview noted they'd brought in a JuCo MLB to cover one of last year's disaster zones, and were hoping a young 'un could replace MLB Dedrick Young. Chinander managed to remove most of Young's hesitancy by having him attack, though old habits reappeared at some of the worst times:
#5 linebacker getting shoved to the B
They're still futzing with the calibration; Nebraska was doing a lot of scrape exchanges in this one to put Young on the edge, and he overran half of those. The result is a lot of good plays and equal bad, with a lot of volume. The afore mentioned JuCo is ILB Will Honas, a massive downgrade from the starters both in speed and athleticism.
Chinander also surprised me by going with senior OLB Luke Gifford as weakside/rush OLB, and using redshirt junior OLB Tyrin Ferguson, another pure LB, as his SAM. Both struggle in coverage, which is a bigger issue for Ferguson who gets exploited for not having hybrid safety qualities at a position that requires them these days.
Safety wasn't an issue except for injuries, and Chinander also brought along a safety (ha!) blanket in grad transfer FS Tre Neal to rotate equally with SS Aaron Williams and SS Antonio Reed. The former is a Kinnel-type player: beloved by coaches (he's the first guy to earn a blackshirt under Frost) and highlight reels for his willingness to be not-boring. Reed plays it safer, except for the one time he committed a silly penalty on a crucial 3rd and 26.
Cornerback is the other Michigan 2011-like reclamation project, and so far it's going well. RS sophomore field CB Dicaprio Bootle was beat just twice in this game, both on inch-perfect throws to Colorado's one star player. Bootle is also an asset in the run game. Classmate and boundary CB Lamar Jackson is 6-3 and was a top-100 player as a recruit. His athleticism is apparent in tight man but he still gets lost in any kind of zone. Tackling remains a sore spot. Depth does as well—Nebraska never took the starters off the field, and when #3 corner/true freshman CB Cam Taylor came on the field late he was immediately dusted on a slant that went for big YAC.
Chinander is making all of this work with a lot of Rock, Paper, Scissors, a game he won more often than not:
That's nothing new to Michigan coming off two blitzball opponents. Once again the running game is going to have to hit some secondary gaps, like the backside of power:
These aren't SMU safeties, however. Practice time's over: Nebraska intends to give us a game.
Quickly, Special Teams:
They'll go for the blocks. Will Hart has taken his time getting punts off in the past and I recommend he not do so in this one:
Everybody's kicker missed a bazillion attempts in this game. The punt returner is Tyjon Linsey, the backup slot/Top 50 athlete. He's just fair catching them so far. The starting slot receiver, JD Spielman, is the kick returner and got a touchdown last year.