They don’t have the Buckeyes’ Silver Bullets. Or the Wolverines’ Spider-Man moments in the secondary. Or the Badgers’ relentless wave of linebackers.
But if you’re looking for a reason why the Nebraska Cornhuskers have climbed stealthily to a No. 8 national ranking and a 6-0 record (3-0 Big Ten) in coach Mike Riley’s second season, an uptick in the Big Red’s defense has proven to be almost as important as the dramatic drop in team giveaways.
The Huskers head into a Week 8 visit from Purdue allowing 18 points and 344.5 yards per game, fourth in the Big Ten in both categories behind the league’s big three defensive beasts at Ohio State, Michigan and Wisconsin.
If those stats hold, it would be the lowest opponent yard-per-game average for the Huskers since their Big 12 North salad days in 2010, when Bo Pelini’s crew gave up just 306.8 per contest, a mark that ranked 11th nationally.
Nebraska’s defense wound up among the top 10 in fewest opponent yards per game 21 different times over a 40-year stretch from 1962 to 2001 — when “The Blackshirts,” named for the unit’s beloved practice jerseys and worn as a badge of honor, became one of the bedrocks of the program’s ascent under Bob Devaney and Tom Osborne.
The Huskers are a pain everywhere again, back to front, and in a good way. Here’s why:
- Points per drive is to football what OPS has become to baseball, a better measure of efficiency and dominance than simply comparing yardage to yardage. The best defenses keep teams out of the end zone and off the scoreboard, whether that’s because of a stifling front seven, a smothering secondary, a propensity for timely turnovers, or a combination of all of the above. The Big Red are on a pace to allow fewer than 1.6 points per opponent drive (1.57 against Football Bowl Subdivision foes, No. 25 nationally) for the first time since giving up just 1.44 in 2010 (No. 10 nationally). It’s the first Riley team among the top 25 in defensive efficiency versus FBS opposition since his 2012 Oregon State bunch (No. 25, 1.64).
- And even when teams can string together drives against the Huskers, they usually haven’t done squat to punch it in. Nebraska ranks second in the Big Ten in lowest opponent touchdown percentage in the red zone at 42.86 percent (six in 14 trips), trailing only Ohio State (25 percent, four in 16) and has proven it can shrink the pocket in a pinch:
— PFF College Football (@PFF_College) October 4, 2016
- The Huskers head into Week 8 ranked third in the Big Ten in opponent pass defense efficiency (106.4), slotted behind two of the aforementioned biggies — Michigan (83.8) and Ohio State (89.4). Opposing quarterbacks have thrown just four touchdowns while getting picked a Big Ten-high 11 times, tied with the Buckeyes for the most picks in the loop. Nebraska’s 11 interceptions are already more than the 10 they snatched all of last season, when the Big Red ranked 10th in opponent pass defense efficiency (133.0) while allowing 25 touchdowns through the air.
When lined up in the slot, Nebraska DB Aaron Williams has allowed a QB Rating of 23.7 into his coverage, best of any Big Ten defensive back. pic.twitter.com/AuyslEJetU
— PFF College Football (@PFF_College) October 6, 2016
Riley didn’t make sweeping changes from Year 1 to Year 2, but a few subtle tweaks have gone a long way so far. The Huskers let defensive line coach Hank Hughes go after last season and brought John Parrella in as his replacement. Another switch: Defensive coordinator Mark Banker added coaching safeties to his responsibilities, with defensive backs coach Brian Stewart handling cornerbacks.
The proof is in the numbers. While the Blackshirts aren’t all the way back to their former glory, Nebraska’s defense is closer than at any point since the program began Big Ten play in 2011.
From Monte Kiffin to Charlie McBride, it’s the kind of thing in Lincoln that, like Huskers fans, has always traveled damn well. And proudly.