EUGENE, Ore. — Nebraska’s first-half performance against Oregon lacked two things: consistency and energy. At least that’s what the players think.
“I think just the way [we started the game] kind of did that [to the energy], which sucks to say and it shouldn’t be that way but that’s what happened,” linebacker Luke Gifford said after the game. “It’s tough.”
It’s hard to argue when you look at the numbers. In the first half alone, the Blackshirts allowed Oregon 42 points, 16 first downs, 409 total offensive yards and just over 16 minutes of possession time. When Nebraska went to the locker room at halftime down 42-14, it felt like this one was over.
Even defensive coordinator Bob Diaco called the first half a “sequential mess.” But as he addressed the busted coverages that led to countless big plays, he saw a group wanting to improve. It was the first step in Nebraska’s near-comeback.
“I saw a resilient, focused group that was looking for some answers, that was looking for some help,” Diaco said. “But [they were] resilient and locked in to getting it. And guys that were ready to step up and say, ‘I’m going to do this. I’m going to make it happen. I’m going to make this play. They had that look in their eyes and they never not had that look in their eye.”
So, what was the message?
“One thing is just specifically give them systematic things that we can do and change to help them,” Diaco said. “And then some other fundamental and alignment changes and tweaks that we can give them, real information to help and then try to refocus the unit’s energy on playing each play individually and not looking at the scoreboard or thinking about the first half.
“That’s a history lesson to learn from.”
Gifford said the veteran players also reminded the younger players of the Blackshirts tradition. They spoke about the “N” on the helmet and what it means to represent those who played defense at Nebraska before them.
By the time the Huskers left the locker room, something clicked. The energy was there, which was apparently all Nebraska needed. Aside from allowing zero points by the Ducks in the second half, the Huskers also held Oregon to 157 yards. That was a significant improvement from the 409 yards allowed in the first.
In fact, the second half was exactly what Nebraska wanted from its defense all along.
“It’s everything we wanted,” linebacker Mohamed Barry said. “We contained the run, [Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert] couldn’t run, they couldn’t do long shots. It was perfect.
“That’s on our coaches. They made great adjustments. And us as players, we made great adjustment in our emotions and how we approached the game. So we all made adjustments the second half, and that’s the best thing right there.”
If that’s the case, then Nebraska’s halftime changes should serve as the blueprint for the defense going forward. Whatever inspired the Blackshirts to come out energized needs to be a part of the plan from the get-go going forward.
Sure, that’s easier said than done, but Nebraska’s defense did what it needed to do in the second half. Knowing what the players know now, it should be easier to replicate going forward.
When asked what changed from the first half to the second, Diaco said he saw his players settle down and do their jobs. Barry said the defensive coaches were a big part of that, keeping their composure during halftime as they tinkered with the alignments and assignments.
From there, it was all on the team to take the notes and do something with the information.
“And then you saw laser focus in the second half, and that’s what happened,” Barry said. “That’s why [Oregon] didn’t score in the second half.
“If we play like that every half, I’m telling you we’re going to be the best defense.”