With respect to our offense, either you get it at this point, or you don't. Still, let's see if we can find a few match-ups that might get us some points.
This is a well-coached, well-coordinated group that does a great job of matching up to the passing game and overplaying the running game. They have size upfront, quickness in their linebacking corps, and a secondary that they're more than comfortable leaving on an island so they can outnumber the offense at the point of attack. The Pelini's are man coverage adherents and they blitz less frequently than one would imagine. When they do blitz it's effective, because it's generally not well-accounted for as the opposing offense tries to put more and more receivers into routes to counteract the layers of man-coverage.
Their weaknesses are not really something we can readily exploit and their strengths are matched to what we're probably going to be doing. Fortunately for us, as our offense does no single thing well, Nebraska probably has no idea how we'll try not to attack them.
These guys are all big and physical and their inside guys play with a real motor. DE Pierre Allen is a pretty good player who has been there forever and has never seemed to make the jump, He's a big physical force outside, but a one move pass rusher. Steinkuhler and Crick are the best DT pair in the conference, though I think Kheeston Randall is a better player than either one of them. Both are very active, strong guys inside and we've not seen anyone like them yet so far this year. I expect them to destroy our zone blocking with their activity level, but we might have some success running right at them. They're very adept at bringing pressure from inside (6 combined sacks in 5 games) and they play sideline-to-sideline. Cameron Meredith is the other DE and he has been more of a run stopper than pass rush force.
Their front goes 6-6, 6-6, 6-6, 6-4 so batted balls will be an issue, particularly if we're running a succession of four yard hitches and Gilbert has to flatten the plane of his delivery.
Very undersized, very quick, very active. And a huge aid to what they're doing in pass coverage. They're very comfortable manning these guys up with RBs or TEs. I'm convinced that you can make a living running right at them if they have to play your passing game with honest numbers, but they may not face an opponent in the Big 12 who can execute that. Lavonte David - their 210 pound MLB - has been a revelation and he completely dominated the Kansas State game. He is averaging 12 tackles a game and he reminds you of the undersized Miami sprinter LBs of the 80s and 90s. Eric Hagg is the peso - a hybrid nickel/SS/LB - and he's a solid tackler at 210. The other LB, Alonzo Whaley (from Madisonville), is, at 225, the giant of the LB corps. I've watched Nebraska play twice and I've yet to see this dude make a play.
Nebraska's weakness - a power running game between holes 0-4 with outside receiving threats to force honest coverage - is precisely what we're least capable of executing.
This is the best passing defense in the country, per Huckleberry's adjusted stats ratings. They play a lot of man coverage and they have excellent cornerbacks paired with ball hawking safeties. Good size across the board as well and they're not shy about rocking a receiver. CB Prince Amukamara is an All-American level player and the underrated safety Dejon Gomes is a spicy Dejon mustard of turnover-causing mischief. He has a crazy knack for stripping balls, as we saw in the Big 12 title game last year. Ricky Thenarse is a solid safety who will mix it up and Alfonzo Dennard is a quality #2 CB who is adept at press-man coverage. 6-2 210 pound safety PJ Smith also gets heavy snaps and I think Nebraska considers him more or less a starter as we do Kenny Vaccaro.
Really good group and they're the centerpiece of everything Nebraska does on defense.
How do we attack them?
I thought about leaving this blank, because calculating Greg Davis' learning curve is almost impossible. But here's the old college try:
1. Attack man coverage. Nebraska mans up hard and, if last year's Big 12 title game is any indication, they aren't frightened of our receiver corps. What they did to Kirkendoll at the LOS was particularly amusing, if dwarf-tossing is your sort of thing. However, playing that much man is fraught with risk and Kirk did have an opportunity to score on an easy 70 yard TD. Which he dropped. The point is: big plays are available, but you have to make them. And you need to have more than one opportunity happen per game. Nebraska's secondary is big and talented, but even talented big guys struggle in space with smaller men who can water bug. So let's get them in space, for one thing. Crossing routes, verticals, pick plays, post-corner. Real offense.
2. Run well enough. I'm not looking for a 22 carry, 125 yard performance from anyone. Because that's like looking for peace in the Middle East. But is it so much to ask that we see 2nd and 6? Or 2nd and 7? Or convert in the red zone against an undersized Nebraska front 7? Or make 3rd and 1 anything less than an adventure? We just need to run well enough. And that includes Garrett Gilbert converting a couple of 3rd and 7s with his feet that open up against man coverage. Nebraska will play 7 DBs if we let them. We have to impose some sort of honesty.
3. Don't concede before the game starts. The most maddening Cassandra moment I had early this year was my caution that we should run real offense and open it up against Rice, Wyoming, Tech etc so that Gilbert could have a sense of real game management against UCLA, OU, NU. The sandbagging arguments I was met with were amusing. We failed, the results were predictable, and now Davis is commenting that there may have been value to doing just that and not starting every game playing not to lose or avoid a turnover. Basically, I'd like to us behave like a real offensive football team with a QB treated as the talent that he is - the one we saw glimpses of in one half against OU. I know my expectations read like a special needs menu, but that's where I am right now with this offense. Even incredibly basic tactical things are met with wild celebration.
Further, the TE checkdowns are a travesty and if we don't see different check down philosophies on 3rd down, I can promise at least one flip-flop ricocheting off of my television screen.
4. DJ Monroe. He's a playmaker. Give him the opportunity to make plays. Like, more than 4. Preferably in a multitude of ways rather than one formation that screams DJ PLAY! We get it - he can't pass protect. So don't ask him to do so. Motion him out or have him carry the ball. Have Cody Johnson or a TE play personal protector. OFFENSE IS HARD.
5. Limit killer turnovers. If Garrett throws a 55 yard pass that's intercepted, I will shrug. We just punted. If we throw a two yard hitch that Nebraska predictably jumps and brings back for 6, I will not shrug. It's not just turnovers - it's the type and amount. Aggressive turnovers and passive turnovers are different animals altogether.
Davis/Brown have never really understood that a "don't lose" mentality early in a game creates positive momentum for the other team and actually saps your young QB and offense of confidence. Receivers quit doing selfless things like blocking or finishing routes downfield to open up the horizontals, OL adopt a passive herd mentality, and RBs fret about their place on the carnival carousel.
Similarly, turnovers are created with greater frequency than a wide open attack because the defense is able to simplify their own decision making by reading easy keys and jumping routes, running stunts, and pre-planning adjustments. This is basic game theory and without a QB who can pull down the ball and make something happen, our deficiencies are revealed.
Unfortunately, a lack of cohesive offensive philosophy has us executing at a level now that most teams had in late August. We're behind the curve and now it's a struggle to catch up. I don't know if we'll get right in Lincoln, but an effort that doesn't cut the defense's throat would be a good start. Nebraska's D is fully mortal - it just requires a little aggression to reveal it.