ATLANTA ― Nebraska’s whole team will undergo a revamp now that Scott Frost is the Huskers’ coach. The offense he instills rightfully is going to get Nebraska fans sweating with excitement. And the win by Frost’s former team, UCF, over Auburn in the 2018 Peach Bowl on Monday should give those same fans plenty of hope for a defense that was abysmal in 2017.
At Nebraska, Frost is much more likely to find himself in defensive battles than he was in the free-flying AAC. If you look at this game as a test, defensive coordinator Erik Chinander passed.
“You know I thought we could have played a lot better on offense in the first half,” Frost said after the game. “We missed some chances, uncharacteristic for us. They have great defense, and they have future NFL guys at every position. Defense kept us in that one early and then offense hit its stride when it needed to.”
Nebraska’s defense was horrid this season. UCF’s Peach Bowl performance gives fans hope.
Nebraska’s defense was in such a state after the 2016 season that Mike Riley was forced to fire Mark Banker, a close friend with whom he’d coached for 20 years, from his post as defensive coordinator. He brought in former Connecticut coach Bob Diaco to run the unit. It did not go well. From allowing 54 or more points in each of Nebraska’s three final games, tossing out conspiracy theories about the team’s tackling technique, Nebraska’s defense cratered under his watch.
The Huskers allowed 54 points to a Minnesota team that went on to lose to Northwestern and Wisconsin by a combined score of 70-0 in the following two weeks. Giving up 56 points to Penn State and Iowa is slightly more defensible, but doing so in consecutive weeks was a disaster. Chinander’s defense at UCF actually regressed from 2016 (30th to 78th in S&P+), but showed on its biggest stage that it wouldn’t be dominated by a talented Auburn front.
Another contrast here that surely gave Nebraska fans goosebumps: UCF got after Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham. The unit brought him down five times in the first half and once in the second. Auburn’s offensive line is full of blue-chip recruits, but pass protection was its one weakness. UCF took full advantage from the get go. Jamiyus Pittman took Stidham down on Auburn’s very first snap, and AAC Defensive Player of the Year Shaquem Griffin was in Stidham’s face when he threw a game-ending interception.
“We had a tough time. There’s no doubt about that,” Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn said. “That’s what I was kind of saying ― that in the first half, probably played as bad as we have offensively all year for a half. Had some miscommunication on some things right there that wasn’t good, and we didn’t do a good job protecting him.
“Any time you don’t do a good job protecting your quarterback, that makes things extremely tough and added to the fact that we had trouble running the football. Their number 18 is a dynamic player. He’s very good. I was very impressed.”
Nebraska returns all three of its starting defensive linemen and two out of four linebackers in 2018, and while Year 1 in a new system can be rough, it’ll help to have experience next season. The Huskers don’t have anyone as dynamic as Griffin, but the coaching staff will be striving to change that.
Nebraska’s coaches showed they can stick with an SEC opponent. Now they’ll have to prove that wasn’t a one-off.
At Nebraska, Chinander and Co. will face different threats than the ones they saw in the ACC. That might be a relief because UCF’s defense was involved in some shootouts this season. The Knights had allowed 55 and 42 points in their previous two games, and it bears repeating that the Knights ranked 78th in defensive S&P+. Concerns of a small sample size are valid here, and one bowl game performance won’t guarantee anything. He’ll inherit a team with more resources and a better tradition at Nebraska, but nothing will be certain. The Big Ten West is shaping up to be better next season, and Frost will have to deal with trips to Ohio State and Michigan. The Huskers are shaping up to be big underdogs in those games. They’ll hope to be able to echo this quote from UCF’s Jamiyus Pittman:
“We heard someone say that we weren’t supposed to be on the same field as Auburn. I wonder how that dude feels – I’d love to talk to him.”