At halftime of the season’s second game, down 42-14 at Oregon, Nebraska’s defense was searching for answers.
Through six quarters, it was bad.
The Blackshirts had given up 69 points in 90 minutes. Allowed 151 yards per quarter, 11.5 points per 15 minutes and 6.8 yards a down.
But since an uncomfortable halftime locker room meeting, defensive coordinator Bob Diaco’s unit has been one of the best statistically in the country, albeit against subpar offenses.
In the past 14 quarters, Diaco’s defense has given up 23 points, 57.4 yards per quarter and 3.2 points per half.
And in a season filled with questions, including the job security of the head coach and the direction of the program, the past 14 quarters of defense have given Nebraska some stability.
“I thought the defense rose up all day long,” Mike Riley said after Friday’s 28-6 win at Illinois. “Illinois had some nice-looking drives, nice-looking plays, and our ability to keep them out of the end zone was beautiful.”
The caveat to the defense’s success is the quality of its opponents. Illinois, Rutgers and Northern Illinois aren’t scoring machines, and rank near the bottom nationally in total offense.
However, there are a handful of things that give Diaco and the defense confidence entering Nebraska’s toughest stretch of the season against No. 10 Wisconsin and No. 11 Ohio State.
The first is the red zone defense, a cornerstone to Diaco’s philosophy.
Twice on Friday, the Illini drove into the Nebraska red zone and failed to punch in six. The Illini began a set of downs at first-and-goal from the 3 late in the first quarter, and the Huskers forced a field goal. Nebraska did it again in the third quarter, when the Illini had first-and-goal from the 10.
“We’ve been playing good football,” senior linebacker Chris Weber said. “We’ve kept the points down, kept some of the yardage down, limited the big plays — which is something we’ve been harping on, make teams earn it.”
In the last 14 quarters, Nebraska has kept teams to 3.4 yards per carry and 9.4 yards per completion. Stopping the run on early downs has allowed Nebraska to ramp up the pressure on third down, leading to more pressure on the quarterback.
Through the first two weeks, Nebraska had one sack — last in the Big Ten. NU had five alone on Friday.
Carlos and Khalil Davis each had a sack, as did Weber, Ben Stille and Freedom Akinmoladun.
“Anytime we get on the field, it’s a chance to show what we can do,” Carlos Davis said. “So every stop we can get, it’s a confidence booster.”
Injuries have hit the defense.
Outside linebacker Marcus Newby and starting safety Joshua Kalu have been out the past few weeks, and cornerback Chris Jones remains sidelined. But replacements like Stille and safety Antonio Reed have filled in nicely, and young players such as nose tackle Deontre Thomas have given Nebraska depth in all spots.
“It’s been really wonderful to watch these young guys, guys who have never participated, who are just getting better and better,” Diaco said. “They can feel themselves improving each week.”
Nebraska’s next two weeks will likely define the season. And with stingy defenses like Wisconsin and Ohio State — among the top units in the Big Ten — it will likely be up to Diaco’s squad to keep the Huskers in it.
And the question becomes: Which defense will show up? The one that struggled to get stops against better talent in the first six quarters? Or the defense that was strong the past 14 against lower-ranked offenses?
“After a couple losses, it’s tough to get guys ready to go for the next week, and I think the defense has responded really well to adversity this season,” nose tackle Mick Stoltenberg said. “We’re really inspired. We’re really encouraged. When you put together a few good weeks like that, it’s exciting for a defense.”
Wisconsin at Nebraska
When: 7 p.m. Saturday
Where: Memorial Stadium
Radio: 103.1 FM