Monday Rewind: Blackshirts Shine Amid new Faces
That Nebraska’s defense has shown significant growth and improvement over the last two games shouldn’t be deemed a big surprise.
It’s the fact Bob Diaco has molded this unit together with so many moving and missing pieces that’s most commendable.
Diaco, the first-year Nebraska defensive coordinator, began the season without the services of arguably the best player on defense, senior cornerback Chris Jones, who suffered an ACL tear in July.
Then the Blackshirts surrendered 78 points and 906 yards of total offense through the first six quarters of the season, and Nebraska entered the season’s third game without starting safety Joshua Kalu and starting linebacker Marcus Newby, both injured.
All the Huskers have done in the meantime is produce back-to-back games with the lowest yards allowed in the Mike Riley era. The latest was the 194 yards Rutgers mustered in Nebraska’s 27-17 victory Saturday.
“I’m excited about the growth and excitement in the defense with the defensive players,” Riley said Monday at his weekly news conference. “I think that they are excited about what they are learning. I think they are definitely getting better.”
Kalu and Newby will remain sidelined when Nebraska (2-2, 1-0 Big Ten) plays Friday night at Illinois (2-1, 0-1), but the “new faces” to which Riley has often referred have done an admirable job.
Junior linebacker Sedrick King saw the most action he’s ever seen in the game against Rutgers. Redshirted freshman Ben Stille, primarily a defensive lineman, played linebacker and contributed with three tackles, including one for loss.
Senior safety Kieron Williams, a one-time starter now third on the depth chart, also stepped up with strong play when Aaron Williams was ejected in the first quarter for targeting. Williams actually suffered an injury on that play but is expected to play this week, Riley said.
Junior safety Antonio Reed, starting for Kalu, continues to play with a cast on his hand but contributed with six tackles against Rutgers and also intercepted a pass.
Jones, meanwhile, continues rehabilitation, as does redshirted freshman JoJo Domann, who suffered a knee injury in the spring. Riley had no updates on Jones' status or the possibility of him still playing this season.
And this is beginning to sound like a broken record, but Riley said senior linebacker Luke Gifford, who sealed the victory with an interception, had one of the best games of his career.
“I think the idea of playing team defense is definitely catching on,” Riley said. “The idea of each guy doing his job and being good at it and locking into each play, and a tremendous focus by the coaches on each play. It’s been fun to see that growth, and it’s also fun to see that excitement in what they’re doing and in getting better.”
“We have some real stability on the inside with Chris Weber and Dedrick Young II, I think that that’s real good for our team,” Riley said. “Our front is getting better. Those guys that are relatively new, the Davis twins [Carlos Davis and Khalil Davis] are playing this much and are getting more and more used to what they can do in this defense.
“Even though they maybe didn’t get any sacks, they made some impactful plays in the passing game, rushing the quarterback. All of that is good to see.”
The 407 yards allowed over the last two games are the fewest the Huskers have allowed in back-to-back games since allowing 377 yards to Minnesota and Iowa in 2012. Since halftime of the Oregon game, the Huskers have forced 13 three-and-out possessions.
There’s only so much a quarterback can say when he’s thrown nine interceptions over four games, with three of them returned for touchdowns.
And Tanner Lee said it on Monday.
“I need to stop hurting the team with turnovers,” Lee said. “That’s something I’m well aware of and continuing to work hard on that. As we get into Illinois, I’ll just continue to study hard and continue to find ways to make plays and get us in the right place and put the balls in our play-makers’ hands.”
Riley continues to express faith in Lee, who was 13-of-26 passing for 109 yards and two touchdowns against Rutgers, but with two more interceptions. The first area of needed improvement, Riley said, is Lee’s decision-making with throwing the football.
“And then the other thing that he can do is don't make a bad play worse,” Riley said. “I think that when a guy wants to make a play, and frankly when we are not doing as well as we want to, then you tend to force things.
“A quarterback has to understand that … sometimes, someone is going to get beat in pass protection, sometimes the receiver is going to get covered, and it’s not there, and now all of the sudden, something is coming and things are starting to break down. It’s not going to be a great play, don’t make it worse. That’s where a lot of times a quarterback can make his worst decision.”
Lee admitted the descision-making process can be difficult, and something he’s learned throughout the course of his career, including two years at Tulane.
“It’s one play at a time, given what the defense puts out there, just take what they give you and move the ball,” Lee said. “First downs, slowly moving the ball and putting it in the end zone when the time is right. It’s something that I’ve had to develop throughout my career, and I continue to get better at it.”
Piecing it together
As has been the case in past seasons, injuries have affected lineups and rotations along the offensive line as much or more than any position group.
Against Rutgers, the Huskers started their third different player at right tackle, true freshman Brenden Jaimes. Also, center Michael Decker played in place of injured center Cole Conrad. While Conrad is expected to return Friday, Jaimes will again start, as senior David Knevel and redshirted freshman Matt Farniok continue to recover from injuries.
By most accounts, Jaimes, a 6-foot-5, 250-pound native of Austin, Texas, had a solid performance in his first career start. He’s only the fifth true freshman offensive lineman in Nebraska history to start a game since freshmen regained eligibility in the early 1970s.
“Him doing what he did, coming out and playing the game that he played, was, at least in my eyes, great,” junior guard Jerald Foster said. “It was great to see him step up to the plate and do what he needed to do to be able to give us that victory.”
Foster admits that Jaimes played with far less nerves than he would have had, given the same situation.
“He definitely exceeded my expectations,” Foster said.
As for the offensive line as a whole, players were happy with progress made against Rutgers. Not only did Nebraska rush for 197 yards and allow no sacks, but the Huskers also controlled clock in the second half, holding the ball for nearly 23 minutes and milking away a victory.
“We figured out what was working best for us and we stuck with it, it’s as simple as that gets,” Foster said. “We found our good plays, went away from the plays that were hurting us more at the start of the half. I felt like we definitely found our niche, found our groove and we went with it.”