Decoding Coach Speak: “They Made a Lot of Mistakes”
Understanding Why Pelini Was Critical of Husker Linebackers
In his weekly press conference, Bo Pelini pulled few punches. He said his team, particularly his defense, needed to execute better. His comment about his linebacking corps - "they made some plays, they made a lot of mistakes" - raised some eyebrows considering how the NU linebackers filled the stat sheet with tackles. Why the criticism? With apologies to Tracy Morgan the incomparable Jay Mohr - LOOK AT THE GAME TAPE. In re-watching the Fresno State game, the linebackers' miscues were apparent. In fact, three common ones all appeared on the same Bulldog scoring drive.
Stats Don't Tell the Entire Story
Glancing at the stat sheet from Saturday, one might think the Husker linebackers had a stellar game. Middle linebacker Will Compton recorded 15 tackles. Weakside linebacker Lavonte David also tallied 15. Strongside linebacker Sean Fisher was in on five tackles. They also made their fair share of highlight-worthy hits. Pretty good, right? Well, it's not the whole story. The each also committed some serious linebacking "sins" during Saturday's game.
Lavonte David - the tried and true Husker tackling machine - did it more than a few times on Saturday. On one play, Nebraska was in their nickle defense (five defensive backs, two linebackers) so he is playing in the middle, heads up on the offensive center. He mis-read or didn't read his key at all, and took two quick steps to his left immediately at the snap of the ball. The play went away from him, behind the offense's left guard (his right). David was out of position, caught on the wrong side of not only the center but the right guard as well. His defensive lineman teammates didn't help him by controlling the point of attack very well. But the play was a big gain because he was walled off by the guard and the back ran to the space he had just left. False steps by linebackers cause big plays.
Instead of shooting his gun and attacking the back, Fisher appears to almost wait in the hole. He doesn't "scrape". The pause costs him, as the guard is able to get a piece of him and the allusive Fresno back bounces the play to another hole and is able to gain a yard as Compton wraps him up. It's only a yard, but it could have been a three yard loss. This kind of play is not what a coach wants or expects from his strongside linebacker.
He Who Hesitates is Lost
Hesitation also leads to a linebacker getting caught in "no mans land" - the space where they are neither attacking a ball carrier or defending a potential reciever. It's a terrible thing to be a wasted defender this way. This exact thing happened to Will Compton on the play where Fresno quarterback Derek Carr went airborn to score.
On the play, Fresno went "big" again, this time out of a closed formation with a tight end and two backs lined up on the I formation behind Carr. Carr faked a running play to his running back, and then rolled to his left and created a run-pass option for himself. It's a one-receiver route. Nebraska safety Austin Cassidy is running stride for stride with that receiver (the Fresno fullback). At that point, Compton is at the edge of the play with Carr running at an angle toward him and the end zone. Re-watching the play, you can see Compton turn his head to check the fullback, hesitating momentarily on what he should do. If he trusts Cassidy to execute his assignment and goes to take away Carr's run opportunity, the play is dead in the water.
But, the hesitation allows Carr to get to the outside and eventually score (albeit in spectacular leaping fashion). To add a bit of pain to the matter, the aforementioned Fresno fullback peeled back on his route and clocked Compton with a wicked block, just as Carr lept for the goal line. Ouch.
Each of these three examples came from the same first-quarter Fresno State drive, when the Bulldogs scored to go up 14-7 on Nebraska. As Pelini also said during the press conference, it truly was as if the defensive squad was "taking turns making mistakes." When you add the sum of those mistakes together, it can create a sloppy defensive performance.
The point of this is not to criticize the play of three student athletes. In fact, each of these three players made crucial plays and tackles in what would eventually be a Husker win. The point is to illustrate what Bo Pelini means when he says the Husker linebackers made some mistakes. Each of these issues is very correctable with practice and discipline. In fact, there are examples of each of these players improving in each of these aspects of linebacker play in the second half of the same Fresno State game. It's very correctable.
For Nebraska to have a better outcome against Washington, the Husker linebackers must be more precise, physical and decisive in their play on a consistent basis.