Cracking the Code
It's no secret that Nebraska's defenses have been bad against teams with dual-threat quarterbacks. If they were equally bad against pocket passers, Bo Pelini might not still have his job as head coach. The deadly dual-threat guys have been few and far between enough though that the Huskers have won 9-10 games a year and won their division a couple of times. Still, the hopes of the Husker Nation for 2012 and beyond rest on NU cracking the code of how to stop offenses with running quarterbacks.
As Simple as Safeties?
One of the reasons that Pelini's defenses have been so effective against traditional pro-style offenses over the years is that he usually keeps his safeties deep. He doesn't give up many big pass plays to pocket passers and forces offenses to patiently put together multi-play drives. It only takes one or two mistakes by the offense or one or two good plays by the defense to put the offense behind schedule and once an offense is staring at third and long, the odds get pretty poor of keeping a drive alive. Running quarterbacks really change that math.
Stopping the run with seven guys is much harder to do when there's an extra player (the quarterback) to account for. You might think a deep safety would improve the odds of preventing a big play, but some of the shiftier players (like Braxton Miller) might actually get more dangerous when they've got extra room to maneuver. Even less-shifty but speedy guys (like Taylor Martinez) get harder to stop when they've got an extra step or two to get to full speed. Deep safeties can get deceived into bad angles. It's a rough deal.
Football fans have heard the term "put 8 or 9 in the box" for years to describe defenses that bring their safeties close to the line of scrimmage to stop the run. In the absence of a credible passing threat, this can work very well. Of course, it creates favorable matchups for receivers which is why it can be unappealing. You sort of trade pass efficiency defense for run defense. It's also more difficult to justify against spread teams (like Northwestern) because there's bound to be a receiver left wide open for a big play.
What About the Tackling?
Safety position might explain some of NU's struggles, but there are too many examples that Husker fans can think of where a player has been in position to make a tackle yet failed to do so. Some of this may come down to practice habits. Whether it's the "green jersey" for the quarterback, or other safety measures, if players aren't asked to tackle their man to the ground in practice, they're probably less likely to do so in games. The tradeoff is injuries. You lose more players to injury with full-speed/full-contact/play-to-the-echo-of-the-whistle practices. But maybe in weeks leading up to these dual-threat games it's a necessary evil.
All In Your Head?
NU is hardly the only team that can be challenged by dual-threat quarterbacks. It's not like anybody's been able to completely stuff Braxton Miller or Denard Robinson. But has there been a snowball effect where struggles against the running quarterback one week translate to the same kind of struggles the next? Hard to answer with any certainty, but like a lot of things in sports a precondition to success is a belief that you can succeed. Hopefully, this angry team that Bo Pelini says he has will show a determination not to let the past color the future.
One thing is clear. If Pelini ever does find a recipe for consistently stopping dual-threat quarterbacks, we may see a whole new Nebraska team. The kind not seen since the great Charlie McBride walked the sidelines.