LINCOLN — Six kids playing football in a front yard could tell you it’s easier to play defense with two-hand touch rules than it is to tackle. So for the first half of Nebraska’s spring game Saturday, the White jersey wearing defense had a decided advantage over the Red team offense, especially on running plays.
The passing plays should have been more of an even matchup, but Husker junior Garrett Nelson, alongside his fellow edge rushers gave quarterbacks Casey Thompson, Logan Smothers and Chubba Purdy little room to breathe and little time to run.
Using a modified scoring system, the White won 43-39. But NU’s first-half passing numbers — 13 of 28 for 140 yards — told a better story. So did Nebraska’s 12 first-half drives producing nine first downs.
“Sits pretty good,” said Nelson, who had two of NU’s three sacks and several more pressures.
Said coach Scott Frost: “We had trouble blocking them today.”
“They’re very good players, so we have to give them the credit they deserve,” said Thompson, who completed 3 of 4 passes for 31 yards in three drives. “Today, I felt their presence a little bit.”
Given the Huskers' pass-rush struggles over multiple years — when Nebraska has really needed one in big games, such plays have been elusive — Saturday’s performance may have been a little surprising. After all, NU is thin enough at pass rusher that it rolled out the red recruiting carpet Saturday for TCU transfer Ochaun Mathis, who may soon be deciding where to spend his final two years of eligibility.
But Nelson gained 10 pounds of muscle in the offseason so he could play more true defensive end while also getting fast enough to zip around an offensive tackle. Against backup Brant Banks — playing in lieu of injured Teddy Prochazka — Nelson did so on the game’s third play, touching Thompson, wearing a green jersey, for a sack.
“The quickness is definitely there — and has been throughout the spring,” Nelson said. “I wanted to keep getting better and, as we were start playing in the Big Ten with those first-round tackles, I wanted to be able to do that against them, as well, to cement myself and the edge guys as a true threat in the Big Ten.”
Saturday, it provided a threat to a Husker offense that couldn’t fully show off its new, aggressive run-blocking style until the second half because of the “thud” approach in the first.
Running back Rahmir Johnson jokingly called the structure “trash,” in part because it didn’t give backs a chance to break tackles. Only junior college transfer Anthony Grant, on a reverse of field 60-yard touchdown run, made much headway in the opening two quarters.
Thompson played limited snaps. Smothers completed 5 of 14 passes for 46 yards. Purdy, the Florida State transfer who spent much of spring camp recovering from a foot injury, had the most success, throwing for 63 yards. He hit tight end AJ Rollins for 27 yards on a long corner route that set up a short field goal from Chase Contreraz. Later, Purdy hit Kamonte Grimes for a 15-yarder.
White led the Red 29-10 at the break.
“I thought it was a little ugly, offensively, in the first half,” Frost said. He added NU’s approach to playcalling was “dreadfully simple,” since the Huskers didn’t want to share too much of new offensive coordinator Mark Whipple’s system in front of 54,357 at Memorial Stadium, lest season-opening opponent Northwestern cribbed too much off of the BTN broadcast.
In the second half, Nebraska allowed tackling, which favored running backs who were free to break tackles. They did, with Trevin Luben (91 yards), Isaiah Harris (36) and Cooper Jewett (35) all having healthy second halves on the ground.
They helped the Red score four second-half touchdowns — two passes, two runs — turning a blowout into a photo finish, won by the White when fourth-string quarterback Heinrich Haarberg threw an interception to reserve defensive back Darius Moore. That play was worth six points to the defense.
Turnovers aside, Frost was pleased with the offense’s play in the third and fourth quarters, which occasionally featured a running clock.
“In the second half, that’s as much push as I’ve seen in downhill running, and that’s what I’ve been seeing all spring,” Frost said of a ground attack that finished with 70 carries for 375 yards. “I think the way the offensive line’s playing and the way the running backs are running are going to make us more efficient in the run game.”
A better run game should help whoever becomes NU’s starting quarterback.
Thompson took the game’s first snap and played the fewest snaps, a status that tends to be afforded a team’s starter. But as he has throughout his tenure at NU, Frost declined to tab his guy in the spring.
“You know me, I’m not going to crown anybody,” Frost said. There are more practices, and more reps, to come.
And more chances for Nelson, Caleb Tannor, Blaise Gunnerson and Jimari Butler — who had a sack after shoving offensive tackle Ezra Miller to the ground — to prove they can get, as Nelson said Saturday “one more sack” per game than the 1.67 they averaged last season while maintaining the high standard the defense set in other areas. Nelson, one of the new vocal leaders on a defense in need of them, said he talks about it “all the time.”
Consider Saturday, for him, a step in the right direction — and around offensive tackles.
“We don’t, believe it or not, want to lose by one possession or one point anymore,” Nelson said.