If you’re a Nebraska fan, you know the story all too well.
Take care of the easy ones, get hyped up for a possible conference title run, and watch it all come crashing down at the hands of a top-25 opponent.
Year after year, that seems to play out in Lincoln. Even when the Huskers reached No. 7 in the rankings last year, it was spoiled by back-to-back losses to top-25 teams (the first real quality foes on Nebraska’s schedule).
With the exception of the disastrous 2015 regular season, that’s been a regular occurrence since Nebraska joined the B1G in 2011. Husker fans don’t need to be reminded that the program still hasn’t won a conference title this century.
Mike Riley waived goodbye to his longtime defensive coordinator because he, like the rest of us, saw the writing on the wall. It didn’t matter that the Huskers had a much-improved pass defense and finished 33rd nationally in scoring defense. Nebraska cannot continue to get punched in the mouth by top-25 teams and expect to compete for conference titles.
New defensive coordinator Bob Diaco was brought in to do the obvious — prevent top-25 teams from lighting up the Blackshirts.
Against top-25 teams, Nebraska has a tendency to look like a Big 12 defense. The Huskers jumped off the Big 12 ship six years ago, but they still have the identity of a Big 12 team. As in, they can put up a lot of points, but they can’t get enough stops to really hang with the big boys.
And if you think this is Big 12 bashing, go look up how many teams in the conference finished in the top 50 in scoring defense last year. I’ll save you the time. It was two.
But back to the matter at hand.
Here are a few fun (well, not so fun) facts about Nebraska’s defensive struggles vs. top-25 teams in recent memory:
- Allowed at least 27 points in 11 of last 12 games vs. top-25 teams
- Allowed at least 41 points in 5 of last 12 games vs. top-25 teams
- Held top-25 opponent under 30 points and won once in last four years
You can go back even further and find that with the exception on Ndamukong Suh’s Heisman Trophy candidate season in 2009, the Huskers struggled mightily to slow down top-25 opponents.
Fortunately, Diaco had plenty of success taking care of elite foes when he ran the Notre Dame defense. His numbers compared to Nebraska’s B1G numbers are significantly different.
|VS. TOP-25 OPPONENTS||NEBRASKA (2011-16)||NOTRE DAME (2010-13)|
|Rushing yards allowed per game||215.5||138.8|
|Passing yards allowed per game||218.3||243.2|
|Points allowed per game||35.1||22.7|
In case you were wondering, Nebraska’s rushing numbers weren’t just the result of Melvin Gordon running a half marathon against the Huskers in 2014.
Nearly two touchdowns allowed per game is a significant difference. There’s obviously no guarantee that Diaco replicates that success in Lincoln. After all, he had his own Heisman Trophy candidate defender in Manti Te’o for the majority of his time in South Bend.
But we’ve seen all over the country that you don’t need four- and five-star athletes to put a formidable defense together.
Don Brown had the best defense in the country at Boston College two years ago without a single four-star athlete. Dave Aranda didn’t need any blue-chip recruits to turn Wisconsin into one of the top defenses in the country.
Nebraska doesn’t need another Suh in order to put up a better fight against top-25 competition. It simply needs a coordinator who can maximize talent with an effective system.
Easier said than done, right? Diaco has all the traits needed to accomplish that.
New cornerbacks coach Donte Williams was asked by the Omaha World-Herald to describe what he’s seen from Diaco so far.
“One word: passion,” said Williams, who added Diaco is “the best defensive coordinator in the nation.”
Diaco has a long way to go to become that. His to-do list at Nebraska is lengthy.
Finding a replacement for Nate Gerry, who has been Nebraska’s best defensive player the last three years, is huge. Developing a young nose tackle in Khalil Davis is crucial for Diaco’s 3-4 to work. Improving Nebraska’s 5.2 tackles for loss per game, which ranked 12th in the B1G and 97th nationally, is also important.
But even if Diaco accomplishes all of those things, his Nebraska tenure will still be defined by the obvious question. Did his defenses perform well against top-25 teams?
He’ll learn soon enough — if he hasn’t already — that’s all they want in Lincoln.