How Much Must Change for Nebraska’s Defense?
An interesting talking point arose in the aftermath of Nebraska's too-close-for-comfort win over Wyoming. NU defensive coordinator John Papuchis pointed out that more than half of the yards given up by the Huskers to the Cowboys came on just 11 plays. Reducing those blunders would likely have a large impact. Is that a fair way to look at the defense?
You could actually shrink the pool of big plays to eight. Wyoming had 8 plays that each went for 22 yards or more. There was at least one play that big on every Cowboy scoring drive. Nebraska, by contrast scored three touchdowns in the game on drives without a play that big. That lends at least some credence to the idea that limiting plays that big isn't asking your defense to pitch a shutout every time out. Only three such plays were given up by Wyoming, and they still got lit up pretty good. By contrast, the entire Western Michigan versus Michigan State contest featured just three such offensive plays. All three drives ended in touchdowns.
Surrendering a big play (versus a slow death of smaller ones) was certainly Nebraska's undoing against Georgia. All six Bulldog touchdowns were snapped from 24 yards or more. Likewise, eight offensive touchdowns by Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship game featured a play that long (provided we include a 13-yarder that had a 15-yard personal foul added to it). The lone exception was a one play drive that started on the NU 9-yard line.
So clearly it seems fair to define the problem as giving up the big play rather than being nickel and dimed to death. Identifying the problem doesn't fix it, but it's probably a necessary step in getting there. Southern Miss managed just a few big offensive plays against Texas State and then failed to capitalize in the red zone at times after making them.
If Nebraska can follow the Papuchis prescription of cutting the big 11 down to 5, that should well be enough to delivery a victory against the Golden Eagles. Cutting it then further to 3 against UCLA would probably also do the trick there. Then to 2 against South Dakota State and 0 against Illinois would seem likely to leave the Huskers 5-0 and the fan base much happier than they are right now.