LINCOLN — Nebraska’s defensive line will be as close to full strength as it's been all season in time for its biggest test yet stopping the run.
D-lineman Casey Rogers is “90-95%” and set to make his 2021 debut Saturday night at Michigan State, position coach Tony Tuioti said Tuesday. Colton Feist will also return from injury, putting the Husker line seven players deep as it faces rusher Kenneth Walker III and the Spartans, whose collective 6.82 yards per carry ranks fifth nationally.
“I feel really, really confident about those guys going into Big Ten play each and every week to be able to win in the trenches for us,” Tuioti said.
The 6-foot-5, 295-pound Rogers appeared in every game last season, including one start, and finished with 25 tackles and three for loss. Tuioti said Rogers’ change of direction and general look in practice show him he’s ready for live action.
Defensive lineman Deontre Thomas said these are the games his group relishes. No deception. Lots of trench warfare.
“Oklahoma, they kind of run east and west,” Thomas said. “Michigan State is going to try to run it right at you, north and south.”
Added Tuioti: “They’re a true downhill, zone-scheme team. They don’t do a lot of things really, really fancy — they just do it really well. And the running back executes it to perfection.”
Depth may loom larger as Nebraska returns to league play, Tuioti said. The Huskers have yet to see more than 83 defensive snaps in a game (Buffalo) and saw 67 against Illinois and 69 against Oklahoma.
Walker and a big MSU line have yet to execute more than 72 plays in a game, meaning every run play could weigh heavily in the outcome.
“(Walker) is powerful, he’s got great vision, he can cut it back, he can hit it frontside,” Tuioti said. “Takes more than one guy to tackle him and it shows up on tape. Kenneth Walker, he’s the best running back we’re going to face to this point. One of the best running backs in the country. Nearly averages a first down every time he touches the football. So he’s definitely got our attention. The offense goes through him, and we’ve got a great challenge ahead of us.”
That old-school Nebraska option
Nebraska running backs coach Ryan Held moved to the coaches box during games at the request of coach Scott Frost, and he said he’s still adjusting to the experience.
Held has focused on Nebraska's triple option game. Held appears to have had some hand in its continued development and use during games this season.
“We all did, but I like it because of the old-school being here back in the day Nebraska option stuff,” Held said. “There’s a lot of the (same) principles, just presented differently. So I like that piece of it.”
Secondary meets expectations
There are six Big Ten teams allowing opponents less than 6 yards per pass attempt. Only one of those six — Nebraska — has played a pass offense like Oklahoma's.
NU has allowed just two pass plays of 30 yards or longer in 133 attempts. The Husker secondary, which hoped to be one of the best in the nation, is so far living up to expectations.
“Guys understand splits, they understand formations, they understand where their eyes are supposed to be,” Chinander said, complimenting the teaching acumen of defensive backs coach Travis Fisher. “They know what they can give up and what they can’t give up.”
Nebraska’s pass defense plays “top down,” focusing on playing over the top of deep routes while sometimes allowing shorter curl and crossing routes to be completed.
Chinander said Braxton Clark’s pass breakup on a deep Oklahoma pass was a good play but still should have been an interception. Clark played a technique that allowed him to close hard on the pass and nearly pick it off.
“It was great coverage, a great play," Chinander said. "I’ve seen Braxton make that pick 1,000 times. That’s the confidence we have in him.”
Receivers can still improve
Wide receiver Zavier Betts stepped to the microphone Tuesday for the first time since fall camp.
Betts has climbed into the Huskers’ receiving rotation. He only returned kickoffs during Nebraska’s loss to Illinois, but he caught three passes for 61 yards — including a 55-yard bomb during the fourth quarter — in 27 snaps against Oklahoma.
Betts’ confidence grows with each opportunity.
“I feel really good being able to get in and show what I can do on the field,” Betts said. “Having the coaches' trust to put me in this much makes me feel good. It makes me want to work harder in practice.”
Betts also likes how the receivers look at large. He thinks Nebraska effectively marries “quick-twitch” receivers like himself and Samori Touré with “shifty” players like Wyatt Liewer and Levi Falck.
But Betts also sees room for improvement. He said he could’ve created more separation on his big catch against the Sooners, and though he likes carrying the ball on jet sweeps, “we don’t always get the blocks we want.”
“We can still take it up a couple notches,” Betts said. “There's a few things we can get cleaned up, and then there’s just more things we can get better at.”
Sharing a bathroom with linemen
Levi Falck is a wide receiver living in an offensive lineman’s world. Falck, who lives with several of the Huskers’ protectors, said his roommates always leave the football facility with extra food, and his garbage can is “filled” with pizza boxes.
He also shares a bathroom with right guard Matt Sichterman and left guard Brant Banks, which “you guys can guess how that goes,” Falck said with a smile.
Falck’s roommates also encourage him when he throws a good block like he did during practice Tuesday. Sichterman likes when Falck makes a big play, like his 20-yard catch against Oklahoma. But the Husker linemen also appreciate that Falck doesn’t care whether the ball comes his way.
If Falck needs to block, he blocks. And if his roommates need to correct his form, they’ll do that.
“I tell him what he needs to hear,” Sichterman said.
Pass rushers can do more
The Blackshirts’ leading pass rusher knows the front seven needs to do more to help the secondary in pass situations.
Pheldarius Payne, the only Husker with multiple sacks this season, wears number 0. That’s the same amount of sacks Nebraska’s defense recorded in its last two games. Still, if you look closely, the defensive pressure is there, the Huskers just aren’t finishing plays or getting the opportunity to.
“We’re not always gonna get sacks because these teams, I think they see that if they hold the ball, we’re gonna get there,” Payne said. “So they’re trying to get it out quick like little curl routes.”
Payne recognizes there’s more to a pass rusher’s impact than just sacks, and the Huskers’ defensive linemen and edge rushers are still generating pressure and panic, but they can do more.
“Our DBs are doing good in coverage, but we can’t make them play under and over. So we gotta help them, get our hands up in the windows, batting balls down, getting pressure on the quarterback in different ways.”
This Saturday will afford a new opportunity, a team predicated on physical, Big Ten football and its running game. The Spartans are led by the nation’s leading rusher, Kenneth Walker II. Payne has watched his film and is ready for a different challenge.
“He’ll go from the A gap to the C gap looking to see what’s open then he’ll break for 90 or 70 yards. But if we swarm all 11 to the ball, it won’t be a problem.”
Payne’s blueprint for perfection seems pretty self-explanatory: gang tackle, get in the backfield and get hands up, and don’t give the refs reasons to beat you.
“I feel like we’re rushing good. Buffalo and Fordham got the ball out quicker, I feel like Oklahoma, we got a few calls that wasn’t ... but we’re Nebraska, we’re not gonna get all the calls that we need.”
» Nebraska hasn’t seen many five-step drops from quarterbacks since the defense had success against Illinois, Tuioti said. Offenses have adjusted by getting the ball out quickly on three-step drops or by falling back into deeper pockets.
» Thomas, a D-lineman, said he practices at fullback once a week for a few plays. Is he getting any handoffs in workouts?
“Maybe,” Thomas (6-2, 285) said with a smile. “I don’t want to talk to you guys too much. Maybe.”
» Sichterman said center Cam Jurgens continues to push the rest of the line to his level despite his pair of personal fouls Saturday against Oklahoma.
“I’m not going to condone the penalties,” Sichterman said. “But I think he set a standard for where our room needs to be in terms of just finishing blocks and things like that.”
» Nebraska will continue to play “at least two” players at left guard moving forward, offensive coordinator Matt Lubick said. Who appears in games will be based on who practices the best. Ethan Piper started the first three games before Trent Hixson took over at Oklahoma.