Nebraska's run defense impressed against Ohio State, which bodes well for Wisconsin game
Of the areas where Nebraska showed improvement in Saturday’s 52-17 loss to Ohio State, their run defense may have been the biggest surprise.
Coming into the game, the Huskers’ front seven was one of the top unknowns after losing a bunch of starters, including all three defensive linemen and the leading tackler at linebacker.
But the guys up front on Saturday — Ben Stille, Casey Rogers, Ty Robinson, Keem Green and Damion Daniels — battled. They hung tough with a big and experienced Ohio State offensive line and didn’t get embarrassed, which had to be a possibility floating around in the minds of Huskers fans in pregame.
Yes, the Buckeyes rushed for 215 yards. But their elite quarterback, Justin Fields, had 54 of them, with 1 touchdown. Fields is a first-round NFL Draft pick and the best quarterback that Nebraska will play this year. Fields was excellent — that’s what great players do.
The rest of Ohio State’s meaningful rushing yards came from Trey Sermon (48 on 11 carries), Master Teague III (41 on 12) and Steele Chambers (32 on 4). If you combined those totals, it comes out to 121 yards on 4.5 yards per carry. That’s pretty good for a Nebraska front seven full of young players still getting acclimated to B1G football.
It also bodes well for the Wisconsin game next week in Lincoln.
The Badgers come to town with a 7-game winning streak against the Huskers, but a major question mark surrounds redshirt freshman quarterback Graham Mertz, who made a dazzling starting debut Friday night against Illinois. Mertz had an initial positive test for Covid-19, and the Badgers are awaiting confirmation of the result.
Social media was buzzing as Mertz, who was making his first career start after the foot injury to former starter Jack Coan, picked apart the Illinois defense to the tune of 248 yards and 5 touchdown passes on 20-of-21 attempts. Mertz completed his first 17 passes in the game and showed amazing touch on his throws as Wisconsin ran away with a 45-7 win on Friday.
Wisconsin QB Graham Mertz threw a catchable ball on 100% of his throws last night. For perspective, he's the only QB to do that in a single game in 2020 (min 20 att, @PFF_College).
I think the freshman might be pretty good. pic.twitter.com/l1RAF4ZDdh
— Anthony Treash (@PFF_Anthony) October 24, 2020
Mertz is still new, and as impressive as his outing against Illinois was, it’d be wise to have a wait-and-see approach before anointing him the next big thing in the B1G. He very well could be, but he needs to show it again, and against some of the top competition the conference offers.
If he can’t go next week, Wisconsin is looking at starting an extremely inexperienced quarterback.
While Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst had to love what he saw from Mertz, did he like the production of his rushing attack? It wasn’t your typical Badger mauling up front, as it was running back by committee with Nakia Watson (62 yards, 19 carries), Garrett Groshek (70, 13) and Isaac Guerendo (36, 11).
Wisconsin averaged just 3.4 yards per carry, and their longest run was 13 yards. Is that evidence of the Badgers’ offensive line not being as strong as we’re used to seeing? That’s very doubtful; it was the first game of the season.
However, is it evidence that Nebraska’s front seven can potentially replicate what Illinois’ did? I think so.
Against Ohio State, a spread offense that utilizes 11 (one back, one tight end, three receivers) and 10 (one back, no tight end, four receivers) personnel much of the time, Nebraska’s defense countered with a mix of 3-4 and 2-4-5 looks.
When the Buckeyes had more receivers on the field, the Huskers replaced a lineman with another linebacker to get a bit more speed on the field — that’s what we saw a lot of on Saturday, including this play below. Watch how Still, who’s lined up in the A gap, fights a double team and how linebacker Collin Miller forces Teague to straighten his path upfield by attacking the outside shoulder of the center. Those two things allowed outside linebacker Garrett Nelson to shuffle down the line of scrimmage and make the stop short of the first down:
👀 Stille, Miller and Nelson. pic.twitter.com/uhTHLOu7te
— Steve Marik (@YNTMarik) October 25, 2020
When Ohio State’s personnel stayed big, Nebraska was more inclined to leave three linemen in the game, which I don’t think we saw a ton of.
Because the Badgers offense tends to use bigger personnel with multiple tight ends, I’d assume Nebraska defensive coordinator Erik Chinander will use his three-linemen look much more than he did against Ohio State.
Stille, Rogers and Robinson, as well as Daniels, the Huskers’ 6-foot-3, 335-pound road blocker, and Green (6-5, 320) will need to eat double teams and do their best not to get displaced. Their jobs are tough ones, and not for the faint of heart. Those players did solid jobs against the Buckeyes, which allowed Miller (7 tackles) and fellow linebacker Will Honas (6) to clean up.
This might be a game where Daniels and Green play bigger roles, but we’ll see how the coaches attack it. Chasing around an elite quarterback like Fields isn’t Daniels and Green’s strong suit. Clogging lanes and not giving up much ground on double teams is. To me, this is where the game will be decided on Saturday.
Ohio State’s talent at receiver led to soft coverage from Nebraska’s defensive backs in an effort to avoid a big play and keep everything in front of them. Will that be a plan against Mertz and Wisconsin? With cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt and safety Deontai Williams missing the first half due to targeting penalties, it might need to be.
It should be interesting to see how corner Quinton Newsome and safety Myles Farmer do in this one. They were the ones who came in after the ejections.
After only one game, I imagine Nebraska is still trying to find the best combination at outside linebacker. With JoJo Domann being a linebacker/safety hybrid who spends most of his time in pass coverage, Nelson seems to be the leader of the pack of ‘backers near the line of scrimmage. Caleb Tannor and Pheldarius Payne got some run against Ohio State — Tannor had a sack on a nice twist stunt — as did the young redshirt freshman Nick Henrich.
Nebraska’s front seven impressed against Ohio State. The Badgers present a different challenge, but considering what we saw against the Buckeyes, the Huskers should go into their home opener with confidence.