Nebraska Football: New Defense Should Help Huskers Against Big Ten Rivals

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Nebraska football fans are well aware – painfully aware – of NU’s struggles against its division rivals since entering the B1G. When you look at the statistics from that era, though, the reason for those struggles becomes apparent.

Specifically, we’re going to be looking at Nebraska’s rushing defense against the three teams now in the B1G West that are built to be power rushing attacks. Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa are all built to primarily run the ball right at you, as opposed to the spread-based concepts from the Big XII where teams on offense tried to create space by spreading receivers all over the field.

Here’s how Bo Pelini’s Blackshirts did against the run when facing these road-graders:

Year Opponent Rushing Yards Allowed
2012 Wisconsin (regular season) 56
2012 Minnesota 87
2012 Iowa 108
2012 Wisconsin (B1G championship) 539
2013 Minnesota 271
2013 Iowa 155
2014 Wisconsin 581
2014 Minnesota 281
2014 Iowa 142

So, what do these numbers tell us about Nebraska’s defense at the end of Pelini’s reign?

It hadn’t been bad for that long

September of 2012 wasn’t that long ago, when the Blackshirts bottled up Montee Ball and held the Badgers to 56 total rushing yards en route to a victory in Memorial Stadium. It was after that game where Pelini infamously told the assembled post-game media (according to Huskers.com) that “[c]ontrary to what you guys think, I haven’t forgotten how to coach defense and how to stop the run.”

As we know, karma catches up with Pelini about two months later, in exactly the way that the Blackshirts couldn’t catch Melvin Gordon.

But it wasn’t until that fateful matchup in Indianapolis where Nebraska’s weakness against the run was exposed. Minnesota utilized that to great effect, rushing for nearly 300 yards in each of its two upset victories over Nebraska. And Wisconsin didn’t forget how to turn the corner on the Blackshirts either, embarrassing Nebraska in Madison.

Iowa wasn’t really on the same level

Yes, Iowa plays smash-mouth football too. Fer cryin’ out loud, the Hawkeyes trotted out a glorified fullback in Mark Weisman as their feature tailback for two years in a row. And yes, Iowa has played Nebraska close three straight years, winning once and arguably deserving a second win last season.

But the numbers don’t support the premise that Iowa has run over Nebraska the way Wisconsin and Minnesota have since December of 2012. While Nebraska’s struggles to retain the Heroes Game trophy are real, they aren’t the same as against Wisconsin and Minnesota.

So why should things be different?

Scheme is everything. New defensive coordinator Mark Banker runs a quarters-based defense, where three linebackers stay on the field almost all the time, and the safeties are tasked with run-stopping duties. While there will be a lot of cover-two concepts, expect to see at least one safety in the box against run-heavy teams.

Grant Muessel of Hail Varsity did a much more detailed breakdown of Banker’s defensive scheme here, which you should read if you want more information.

In comparison, Pelini’s defensive schemes relied on keeping two safeties high (meaning deep and away from the line of scrimmage) to avoid being beaten by the deep pass. While effective in that regard, it also forced the defensive into a one-on-one situation against offensive blockers. If one defender was out of position or lost a battle, there was a Melvin Gordon-sized hole for an opposing ball carrier to barrel through.

Additionally, Pelini loved his hybrid guys, players who were a little too big to play safety and a little too small to play linebacker. He had great success with guys like DeJon Gomes, and tried to force Nate Gerry into that role as a freshman. Banker relies less on hybrids and more on true linebackers, falling back on the quarters scheme to provide support for the run and the pass.

So how did it work out? Well, Banker was defensive coordinator with Mike Riley at Oregon State from 2003-2014. There’s not a ton of smash-mouth teams in the Pac-12, but Stanford certainly qualifies. Let’s take a look at how Oregon State’s defense stood up against Stanford in comparison to its yards-per-game rushing average.

Year Rushing Yards Allowed Stanford’s Yearly Avg. Differential
2012 163 175 -12
2013 185 208 -23
2014 151 172 -21

In each of the last three contests, Oregon State held Stanford – the closest thing the Pac-12 has to a smash-mouth program – to under its yearly rushing average. And remember, this is an Oregon State squad that has significantly less talent than Stanford.

So given those results, it’s not unfair to expect that Nebraska should fare far better against its smash-mouth divisional brethren. This should make for far more competitive contests against Wisconsin, and should spell the end of Minnesota’s hex over Nebraska.

As for Iowa, well, Nebraska’s struggles against the Hawkeyes may have as much to do with a tryptophan hangover as anything else.

All stats were either from cfbstats.com or the team’s official websites.

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