LINCOLN — It took all of two snaps last Saturday to see that South Dakota State would have success throwing the football against Nebraska.
The Jackrabbits started their first series with Cam Jones running a simple crossing route, getting in behind Ciante Evans and catching a 15-yard pass from Austin Sumner before any Huskers could help.
They followed with Jones running a curl route, shielding safety Corey Cooper with his 6-foot-5, 250-pound frame and taking an easy throw from Sumner for 16 more yards and across midfield.
Sumner was 2 for 2 on his way to an 11-for-14 first half, spoiled only by a Stanley Jean-Baptiste interception in the second quarter.
And SDSU would be the latest team to complete a high percentage of its passes against a Nebraska defense that let few do it in recent seasons.
The Huskers are allowing a completion rate of 63 percent through four games (85 of 135), with only Southern Mississippi going below 64 percent. In the past four years, teams completed a combined 49 percent against NU — the nation’s best mark in that time frame.
“If you get caught up in stats, especially in this day and age in football, you’ll be chasing a lot of ghosts,” assistant coach Terry Joseph said. “But we know we got to play better. And it’s the root of a lot of different issues that we’ve got to get cleaned up.”
Problems in coverage and pass rush have contributed to the high completion rate, as have demands on Nebraska safeties to help more in run support. Junior cornerback Josh Mitchell said he didn’t know the specific figure — only two Big Ten teams have allowed a higher completion rate — but he knew it couldn’t be pinned on one thing.
“That’s why defensively we try not to look at the stats and just focus on making the plays,” Mitchell said. “We’ve just got to make sure we make the plays when we can make the play.”
Despite its defensive problems a year ago, Nebraska still allowed a 47.1 percent completion rate — the lowest number since 2001 and the third time in coach Bo Pelini’s first five seasons that the final mark was below 50 percent.
Cooper said there’s no magic formula to lowering the completion rate, pointing instead at corrections such as attitude and communication. Among those taking advantage of leaks in those areas were Wyoming quarterback Brett Smith (29 of 43, 383 yards, four TDs) and UCLA’s Brett Hundley (16 of 24, 294 yards, three TDs).
“It’s just getting back to the fundamentals,” Cooper said. “It’s nothing schematically that’s wrong. We’ve just got to get back to playing confident.”
NU defensive coordinator John Papuchis said the pass percentage is partly a trickle-down effect from problems stopping the run. When Nebraska has handled that aspect in the past, it could keep both safeties back deep.
That wasn’t feasible last Saturday as the Huskers had to figure out how to address an SDSU run game that was gashing the defense.
“Our secondary’s always benefited from the fact that we’ve played the coverage style that we’ve played,” Papuchis said, “and there’s a lot more put on them when you’re not playing that way because you’re gapped out to stop the run.”
The next test comes next Saturday with Illinois, which is completing 65 percent of its passes and ranks second in the Big Ten in passing with 306 yards per game. NU then might get a break with two passing attacks that have struggled — Purdue (175.5 yards per game, 55.9 percent) and Minnesota (105.2, 53.2).
Joseph said he and the defensive backs have talked about communication and getting in better position. One positive has been nine interceptions through four games, including four by Jean-Baptiste.
“We have to be more aggressive in our coverage — we have to see it quicker and we’ve got to react quicker,” Joseph said. “Because early in the season we haven’t gotten to that point yet.”