LINCOLN — Nebraska's defense spent five physical practices atoning for the 371 rushing yards it gave up to Ohio State.
“We've been full-pad, getting after it, for the last week and a half,” defensive coordinator John Papuchis said. “The effort level has been good. The physicality has been good.”
But Northwestern will attack the Huskers — ranked 91st nationally in rush defense — in all their tender places.
The Wildcats rank 18th in rush offense at 230 yards per game. Junior running back Venric Mark has had a breakout season with 797 yards. Quarterback Kain Colter is a quadruple threat to run, pitch, throw or catch.
Northwestern's athletes can run around the heart of a defense — or right through it. “A lot of playmakers,” is how corner Josh Mitchell described it, starting with Colter, who plays quarterback, runs like a halfback and lines up at wide receiver. The junior Wildcat has racked up 421 rushing, 432 passing and 152 receiving yards.
“I've haven't run across too many athletes who can do what he's done,” Mitchell said. “And the level that he's done it. And the way they use him is genius.”
Chew hard on Mitchell's last word. Because Nebraska coaches and players agree: How Northwestern's coaches prepare their team for a defense is more important than the quality of the players. The Huskers see the Wildcats' meticulous approach on film. And they saw it first-hand in a 28-25 loss last year.
“They're smart,” NU defensive tackle Chase Rome said. “I mean, obviously, they go to Northwestern. But they're all really well-coached ... and they know exactly what's going on. They know when the clock's stopped. They know how their system works.”
Said Papuchis: “They're good at putting a plan together for each opponent. They had a good plan for us last year in how they attacked us in the run game. So we have to be smart in how we approach it.”
Papuchis and linebackers coach Ross Els broke down this chess match more.
Northwestern's coaches teach offensive players to understand defensive fronts and “run fits,” which is how a defense divvies up gap and personnel responsibilities. The Wildcats often know where a defense is vulnerable on a given play and where it'll be getting extra help from a safety or a nickel corner.
From there, they can create formations that give them the defensive looks they want or change the play if a defense shows its scheme before the snap.
“They understand where you're getting the leverage on your coverage, and they run away from it,” Els said.
Nebraska can combat this, Papuchis said, by not tipping its hand.
“We have to be smart in how we hold our looks — and how we attack what they do,” Papuchis said.
Although the coordinator didn't mention it, the Huskers could simply ditch their tendencies and try to stop Northwestern's running game in ways they haven't shown before.
Coach Bo Pelini crafts a new defensive plan each week, regardless of the opponent, and expects his defense to master this plan during “install” — Monday and Tuesday of game week. Linebacker Will Compton said the key to grasping Pelini's plan is usually film study. Sometimes, Compton said, he'll flag down a graduate assistant for an extra pair of eyes.
However Pelini draws it up, Rome expects that a bye week of film study will help. He and Compton spoke of the “early jump” a team gets on an opponent with time off to plan. In the five post-bye games Nebraska's played in the Pelini era, its defense has given up an average of 18.2 points and 292 yards per game. Four of those games were wins.
“You get a better feel for what's coming — when it's coming — a little bit longer than you normally do in just a week, when it becomes an organized time crunch,” Rome said.
That extra time is especially helpful, Rome said, when preparing for a mobile quarterback. Nebraska's recent struggles against dual-threat talents like Ohio State's Braxton Miller and Michigan's Denard Robinson are well-known.
But Rome points out that the transition between stopping to stopping Colter is more natural than the hard shift NU took from Wisconsin to the Buckeyes.
“We're in a good defense, but I think it takes an extra level of execution and an extra level of focus when we play mobile quarterbacks,” Rome said. “And sometimes that's hard to adjust to when you go from a team like Wisconsin, who lines up and they're going to try to run it up your butt no matter how many people you have in the box, to Ohio State, who will spread it out and (Miller) will take off when he sees the need to take off.”
But even if Nebraska wins the chess match and uses the extra prep time to combat Northwestern's intensive method, there's a tackle — often in space — to be made. The Wildcats' spread offense requires a defense to win one-on-one battles. And it's there that Els hopes to see improvement.
“We're too inconsistent right now,” he said. “We need to be able to tackle in the open field better. Still.
“Ohio State was as good of an opponent as anybody's going to face all year. So you gotta take your hat off to them first. But we need to be able to match up better and see what we can do scheme-wise to slow somebody down running the football. Because we're not doing that very well right now.”
Contact the writer:
402-202-9766, email@example.com, twitter.com/swmckewonOWH