LINCOLN, Neb. – Stick around Nebraska defensive coordinator Mark Banker long enough and he’ll tell you. Those big plays he’s always harping on, they’re starting to catch up with Nebraska. And more frustrating than anything else, it’s the Huskers’ own fault.
“Those need to go away, the mistakes need to go away,” Banker said Wednesday after practice. “If you get beat, and you don’t want to, but if you get beat you can almost accept it, but beating yourself is never a good thing. And that’s what we’ve done.”
Big plays are part of the reason why Nebraska has entered the fourth quarter in four of five games either trailing or leading by only one score. And though the Huskers haven’t given up too many big plays this year, when they have, they’ve hurt.
Oregon extended a lead in the first half on a 50-yard touchdown run by Taj Griffin and retook the lead in the second half on a 41-yard touchdown run by Kani Benoit. A 42-yard run from Wyoming’s Austin Conway helped Wyoming score and go into the fourth quarter down only seven. A 42-yard touchdown run from Northwestern QB Clayton Thorson helped the Wildcats enter halftime down only three.
But are the big plays just things that happen in football? Both Michigan and Ohio State, the two best statistical defenses in the Big Ten, have given up plays of longer than 35 yards. Michigan, in fact, gave up an 87-yard touchdown run against Central Florida and a 70-yard pass play against Colorado.
Do you sometimes just have to chalk it up to big plays will happen?
“Every now and again there’s that perfect call for that perfect defense and it just happens that way, but a lot of the times it’s just that lapse of discipline, just that one guy out of his gap, and there goes the ball,” Nebraska senior linebacker Josh Banderas said.
All of which is totally fixable, he said.
“There are little gaps that we need to clean up, so if we can eliminate those big, big plays, which is totally doable, then we’re going to be top in the league in defense,” Banderas said.
Football is football, Banker said. So, yes, sometimes teams will get a big play. It’s just the way teams have been getting big plays on the Huskers that bothers him. On the big run plays, it’s mostly been a wrong fit, or someone’s eyes go the wrong way, Banker said. Those are things Nebraska can eliminate.
“Most of the time it’s just how it happens. If there’s mostly no need for it that just drives me nuts,” Banker said.
The other issue is tackling. Coach Mike Riley brought up on Wednesday he’s not been pleased with the way his team has tackled through five weeks. Even when Nebraska is in position to make a play, it hasn’t, and that leads to long runs.
“We have given up some of those runs kind of unnecessarily because of missed tackles,” Riley said. “We think we’ve let some guys get away, kind of some yards after first contact that haven’t been very pretty. We don’t like that. That’s not as good as we were a year ago.”
The one thing Banker said he can hang is hat on is there haven’t been many long pass plays, or plays “over the top,” as he calls them. Most of that has to do with the play of his two cornerbacks, juniors Josh Kalu and Chris Jones.
But just having one part of the defense play well isn’t enough, Banker said. Everything has to function at the same time for the defense to shut down those big plays and for Banker to be pleased with the Blackshirts as a whole.
“The secondary and pass defense is only as good as the pass rush,” he said. “The pass rush is only as good as the guys covering so they can make the (quarterback) hold onto the ball. The linebackers and run fits are only as good as the D-line when they cancel their gap. The D-line is only as good up front when the linebacker shows up so they can get the double team to tackle.
“I’ve been in situations with lesser teams against much better opponents but because they played as a team, the last time I checked there’s only one ball, so if you can get 11 players to one ball, you’ve got a chance.”
Banker also broke it down like this. On defense, you’re trying to play an imperfect game perfectly. You can try to stop every big play, but that’s not realistic. What is realistic, though, is putting in the effort, and he says that could make all the difference.
“You get as close as you can, and a lot of time effort to the ball can prevent those plays whether it’s a pass or a run,” Banker said.