Coming into the season, a common thought among the Nebraska fanbase was that the Huskers’ offense would be the strength of the team. After all, it returned a 3-year starter at quarterback in Adrian Martinez, an electric athlete in Wan’Dale Robinson, its starting running back in Dedrick Mills and the entire starting offensive line.

Fans thought the offense would have to score 30-plus points in every outing just to stay in the game because defensive coordinator Erik Chinander’s defense needed to replace 5 starters in the front 7. That alone left many thinking Nebraska’s run defense was going to struggle this season.

Through 3 games, everyone’s been wrong. The Huskers’ defense is the unit saving the bacon while head coach Scott Frost’s offense has been underperforming.

One specific wrinkle that has been fun to watch with this Nebraska defense is when it uses its dime package, which Chinander was nice enough to chat about on Tuesday with the media.

The Huskers’ dime look uses 2 defensive linemen, 4 linebackers and 5 defensive backs. It’s used when offenses come out in 10 (1 back, 0 tight ends, 4 receivers) or 11 (1 back, 1 tight end) personnel. That package has done well this season, and came through in the clutch stopping Penn State’s final 2 drives last week.

Nebraska’s D-line rotation includes any combination of Stille, Ty Robinson, Casey Rogers, Damion Daniels, Jordon Riley and Deontre Thomas. With Will Honas, Collin Miller and Luke Reimer handling the two middle linebacker spots, the two outside ‘backers are a combo of Garrett Nelson, Caleb Tannor, Pheldarius Payne and Nick Henrich. The corners are Cam Taylor-Britt and Dicaptio Bootle, while the safeties are Deontai Williams and Marquel Dismuke. The hybrid linebacker/safety is JoJo Domann.

It doesn’t matter if you call it “dime” or a 2-4-5, this package is working this season. Nebraska was in dime on the final play of the game last week, and Stille, the 3-technique over Penn State’s left guard, got home for the sack:

 

Chinander saw other programs using similar packages.

“If you’ve watched the Alabamas and the Georgias over the years and many others, even Wisconsin, when they get in their nickel personnel grouping, those outside ‘backers truly become defensive ends and those defensive ends in the 3-4 truly become the defensive tackles — the nose guard and the 3-technique,” Chinander said Tuesday.

All 11 guys obviously work together, but the engine that makes this dime look work is Domann. It’s hard to pin a single position on the 6-foot-1, 230 pound senior from Colorado Springs, Colo., because he acts as both an outside linebacker and a safety. It says a lot about the guy when you find out he played literally every snap against the Nittany Lions and finished with 12 tackles and 2 tackles for loss.

“He’s playing really good football right now and he’s doing his job,” Chinander said. “He hasn’t been going rogue or anything like that — he’s playing within the defense. He’s been making the plays when his number is called. When you’re a really good football player, that’s what you do. You help other people and your teammates make plays when their number is called, and when your number is called, you make one. But I still don’t think any of us have seen the ceiling on JoJo Domann yet.”

While there’s a heavy rotation of players on the D-line and outside linebacker spots this season for the Huskers — which Chinander noted is because the depth is finally getting better — Domann is out there nearly every play. You can expect to see more of the dime look this Saturday against Illinois, a spread offense that will want to establish its run game early.

The Illini will likely play both Brandon Peters and Isaiah Williams at quarterback. Peters, a transfer from Michigan, will be available on Saturday after sitting out the past 21 days due to a positive Covid test. He started the season opener at Wisconsin.

The 5-10, 180-pound Williams, a former 4-star recruit from St. Louis, is exciting in the run game and had a stellar debut last week against Rutgers, rushing for 192 yards and 1 touchdown on 31 carries. He isn’t much of a passer, however, as he completed just 7 of 18 throws for 104 yards.

Peters isn’t a statue in the pocket, either. Williams is obviously the more dangerous threat with his legs, but Peters isn’t afraid to get what he can on the ground — he led the Illini in rushing against Wisconsin with 75 yards on 7 carries and even broke free for a 31-yard scamper.

Whether Illini head coach Lovie Smith goes with Peters or Williams or both, Illinois will want to run the ball on Saturday. It’ll come in with the 4th-most rushing attempts in the B1G with 164 and the 3rd-best yards-per-carry average with 5.04.

In its last 2 games, against Northwestern and Penn State, Nebraska is allowing 196.5 rushing yards per game and 4.3 yards per carry.

Illinois will want to test the Huskers’ front 7 on Saturday with a steady dose of runs. Nebraska’s D has held its ground the past 2 games, and should again against the Illini, no matter who is playing quarterback.