LINCOLN, Neb. — Nebraska coach Mike Riley stood in front of reporters at his weekly news conference this past Monday. He had just been asked about the comments made by defensive coordinator Bob Diaco on Saturday evening. Riley doesn’t always have the answers immediately after being asked, but he does his best to be forthcoming with what he does know. In response to Diaco’s comments, he paused for a moment before proceeding.
“I think that probably he can explain about that, about what he meant specifically,” Riley said. “But, we have obviously tried to make a difference in what we’re doing defensively. We made a structural change. The adaptation of players into this system has been a big job for our staff and we did for, I may have mentioned to you and to all of you, that we did it with our goal of being better. We are growing to that, not necessarily past it yet. That’s a pretty obvious at where we are I think.
“Like I said, as we made this change, staff, system, all that, I can appreciate all the work that’s gone into making those parts work.”
Riley is right. Nebraska did make a big structural change when it decided to move from former defensive coordinator Mark Banker to Diaco. It was a high-risk decision that would take Nebraska from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 base defense, and would aim to limit the big plays and challenge an opposing offense to beat the Blackshirts.
Yes, it was risky. But it also had the potential to be high in reward, if it panned out as intended.
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Diaco hasn’t shied away from his desire for more time. Having been hired by Nebraska this past January, it’s apparent he’s frustrated at the idea of spending less than a year with the Huskers – a distinct possibility with Riley’s job status in question thanks to the Huskers’ 4-5 record.
“It is a year-long process and as I said, it is a years process to get the defense built back to being great,” he told reporters recently. “We see moments of greatness. And we’ve seen moments of poor play. Even with that, you go in and you’re thinking, ‘OK, you want the game to end and just try to figure out a way defensively that [the opponent] can have one less point than we have.’
“And that’s been very, very hard to do.”
Douglas Farmer, who covers Notre Dame football for Notre Dame on NBC, understands what Diaco is talking about. While the Fighting Irish’s situation was much different when coach Brian Kelly and Diaco arrived in 2010, it was still going to take time.
With that in mind, Farmer can see why there have been growing pains for Nebraska. While some of that is on Diaco, Farmer also thinks some of that may be on expectations.
“I would argue that’s the case no matter who you bring in,” Farmer told Land of 10. “It’s exasperated when there’s a scheme change like Diaco brings, but it’s never a quick fix.”
Two months ago, former Nebraska defensive coordinator Charlie McBride expressed similar sentiments about the challenge ahead of Diaco. McBride saw a group of young athletes unfamiliar with the 3-4 defense, which would create a fair amount of growing pains for Nebraska.
“You start with a new system — first of all, people don’t understand that when you’ve got a new system, the seniors are freshmen,” McBride said at the time. “Everybody’s not on the same page. You don’t have the same defense going [for years] where the older guys [know it].”
When McBride was asked about Diaco’s defense, things were a little different. The Huskers had just begun their 2017 season, and a lot of hope and potential were on the table.
Two months later, things feel a little different for Diaco and his Blackshirts.
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Diaco’s “bend, don’t break” defense is based on the idea of limiting big plays. He’s done that, in some ways. In fact, Diaco could easily rattle off a list of what his defense has accomplished this season, as Sam McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald pointed out:
- only 33 plays of 20 yards or more
- only 14 plays of 30 yards or more
- only 6 plays of 40 yards of more
There’s no denying those statistics are impressive — Nebraska ranks in the top 25 nationally in each category — but that’s not the entire story when it comes to Diaco. Since Diaco took over the Huskers defense, Nebraska is giving up:
- More yards per play
- More yards per carry
- More points per game
- More third down conversions
- More first downs
For comparison, that’s Diaco’s defense versus that of his predecessor, Banker. So sure, Diaco is improving some areas of Nebraska’s defense but it’s not consistent across the board.
Farmer saw similar results from Diaco during his time with the Fighting Irish. Outside of Diaco’s 2012 season with Notre Dame, there were plenty of bumps for the defensive coordinator. And a lot of that has to do with the goals of Diaco’s defense, regardless of where he coaches.
“I would say it’s a high-risk, high-reward defense,” Farmer said. “The ‘bend, don’t break’ is predicated on the opposing 18- to 20-year-olds making mistakes. They’re going to, but when it doesn’t work? It’s because your 18- to 20-year-olds made mistakes and that’s going to happen, too. When you have mature and experienced players making fewer mistakes, the ‘bend, don’t break’ is relying on the opposing team making one mistake out of every 15 plays. It’s going to happen, but it’s risk-reward in that sense.
“It’s not a defense that’s going to stop you every three downs. In 2012 it did, but that was about it.”
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Examining Diaco’s tenure at Notre Dame provides interesting context for Nebraska. When Farmer looks back at the statistics from that time, there’s always one thing that stands out: Diaco’s run defense.
“I always did find it interesting with Diaco that on the good days, they would limit the big plays. But if you look at each stretch at Notre Dame, the successful season in 2012 came when they stopped a lot of rushing yards,” Farmer said. “They allowed 105.7 rushing yards per game, and that was 30 fewer than any other season while he was there. It wasn’t the passing that changed when it took off. It was the rushing defense.”
It’s not that the 2012 season was necessarily an anomaly for Diaco, but there were some key factors to consider. He had players like Manti Te’o, Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt. Those players were vital in 2012, and the run defense benefited as a result.
However, players like Te’o, Nix and Tuitt — Te’o and Nix were already at Notre Dame when Diaco arrived— may have masked the fact Diaco’s defense wasn’t perfect yet. It may have appeared that everything was in place, but Farmer isn’t so sure.
“I’m not even sure in Year 3 it was fixed,” Farmer said. “It was a historically special defense in 2012, but 2013 was right back to where it was. Bob Diaco’s job wasn’t in trouble after 2013 — the 2012 season bought everyone some time — but the defense took a big step backward and it made for the right time to take a head coaching job [at Connecticut].”
In fact, Diaco’s 2013 season at Notre Dame was eerily similar to what Nebraska is experiencing in 2017. For instance, Notre Dame’s 2013 defense had the most points given up in a season during Diaco’s tenure. That 2013 defense also allowed the most rushing yards per game and the most total yardage per game during Diaco’s time with the Irish. To top it off, it was the highest third down percentage converted and second-highest red zone touchdown percentage allowed under Diaco’s watch.
Sound familiar? It should, because it’s similar to Nebraska’s woes today.
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When Riley hired Diaco in January, he gambled on the high risk of Diaco in hopes of a high reward. A little more than nine months later, Riley is doing his best to explain what is and isn’t happening with Diaco and his defense.
There was plenty of hope it would turn out differently, but history may have always said differently. When Riley and Nebraska needed a quick fix, it instead found a long-term solution.
Unfortunately for Diaco and his defense, Riley and the Huskers never had the time to give.