Nebraska football fans knew they were going to see a change in defensive structure when defensive coordinator Mark Banker took over from the de facto DC in former head coach Bo Pelini. As discussed by a smart and particularly handsome analyst, Pelini’s schemes relied on keeping two safeties high and protecting against the deep ball, at the expense of stopping the run.
Banker’s scheme is almost entirely the opposite. Under Banker, Nebraska’s defense floods the box with defenders and, in exchange, asks the secondary (particularly the cornerbacks) to win one-on-one battles with receivers on deep fade passes.
The statistics bear that out. Last year, Nebraska was no. 80 nationally in rushing defense, and no. 33 in passing defense. This year (admittedly only two games in), Nebraska is no. 16 nationally in rushing defense, and no. 120 (!) in passing defense. According to Brandon Vogel of Hail Varsity, Nebraska has already given up nine passing plays of 20 yards or more, no. 110 nationally in that category.
(All other stats from cfbstats.com)
We’ve seen that dynamic play out this season. Sure, we all remember the “Hail Joseph” where Nate Gerry and Daniel Davie were trying to out-jump Mitch Mathews. But Nebraska’s secondary was victimized a number of times for passes 15 yards or longer. And early in the fourth quarter, it was Davie who got beat on a jump ball on a fourth-and-one that kept BYU’s hopes of a comeback alive.
Davie was victimized as well against South Alabama, giving up pass receptions of 55 and 33 yards. He wasn’t alone, of course – Byerson Cockrell and Josh Kalu have given up their share of long passes as well. But Davie, as the senior leader in the secondary, is the one that gets first look when the secondary struggles.
At times, watching Nebraska’s defense this year has felt a little bit like playing EA Sports Madden NFL franchise online, where opponents would simply throw deep on every play and wait to hit a bomb.
(Of course, it’s unlikely that Nebraska’s opposing offensive coordinators are 14-year-olds swearing at you through a headseat, but that’s a separate conversation.)
When asked about it, Banker emphasized that winning the one-on-one battles is part of what cornerbacks have to do in his defense. According to Michael Bruntz of 247 Sports:
Banker said that while Nebraska could have helped with a safety, he wanted his players on the edges to have to make plays against deep balls. He expects similar plays until Nebraska can show that it can shut down the plays. Banker said South Alabama also made good throws on the deep balls. “We can help the corners through scheme, and at some point we will,” Banker said.
In other words, Husker fan, get used to seeing your cornerbacks on an island. And hope they get better quickly.
But to put all of the blame on the secondary would be unfair. If a defense is going to ask its corners to live on an island, it has to get pressure on the quarterback. Otherwise, at some point those receivers are going to get loose from single coverage.
Nebraska has struggled getting pressure on quarterbacks, especially with a four-man rush. In the second half against South Alabama, you saw a lot more additional pressure being brought – with mixed results. Defensive tackle Maliek Collins is already drawing a number of double and triple teams, meaning the ends should have one-on-one battles to win.
If they’re not able to win those battles, then Nebraska will be put in a circumstance of either being forced to bring pressure or leave its corners on an island. Either way, the pressure will continue to be applied on Nebraska’s cornerbacks.
And that’s by design. Yes, against BYU and South Alabama, the defense gave up some big plays. Against the Cougars, those big plays were the difference between winning and losing. But Nebraska has made a philosophical decision on defense. The deep pass is a much lower percentage play for an offense than the running game, so Nebraska will continue to focus on stopping the run at the expense of putting pressure on its secondary.
That may be cold comfort next week if Miami’s receivers are able to gouge Nebraska’s cornerbacks. But it is a strategy that looks to pay dividends as Nebraska prepares to face conference foes like Wisconsin and Minnesota.