LINCOLN – Bob Diaco is a believer.
After Nebraska’s 31-24 overtime loss to Northwestern, the NU defensive coordinator, with the calm ferocity of a convert, explained to reporters the struggles of his run defense, where linebackers can’t shed blockers, linemen lose ground and the unit has allowed 1,063 rushing yards and 5.93 yards per carry in its last four games.
When the Huskers and Wildcats reached the extra period, tied at 24, the end nearly seemed preordained. Northwestern had run the ball with confidence and downhill momentum all afternoon. Aside from one pretty jet sweep, Nebraska hadn’t.
And the overtime played out just like that.
Northwestern ran seven times, gained 25 yards and scored a touchdown. Nebraska didn’t call a single run play, lost two yards on four pass plays, and left the field in dejection.
Diaco, afterward, said he was disappointed but his demeanor was resolute: His defense is right on schedule. So is Husker football, at 4-5 overall and in danger of missing a bowl bid.
“There’s no reasonable reason – considering where the defensive program was at – to believe that they should be able to do everything that needs to be done in the game, to win the game,” he said. “The strain was spectacular, right? So we could just go back and look at the game.”
He looked at various reporters.
“Do you see the strain? Do you see it, or no?”
Oh, Husker nation sees it. The strain is real. All aboard the struggle bus.
In a game that featured five combined interceptions, 13 penalties, and a combined 23 percent third-down conversion rate, Nebraska was outgained by 138 yards and still squandered two chances to build on a touchdown lead. NU then wasted a chance, on its final possession of regulation, to drive for the game-winning field goal.
“Probably lots of things to look back on and talk about in that game,” coach Mike Riley said. “Had an opportunity to win and let that slip away and couldn’t respond in overtime.”
“We didn’t finish,” quarterback Tanner Lee said. “We didn’t get it done in the end. It’s a game of inches. We just didn’t get those inches tonight.”
Lee included. After perhaps his best game at Purdue, Lee had one of his worst against Northwestern, throwing three interceptions.
Two – zipped right to Northwestern safety Kyle Queiro, playing zone coverage underneath out routes – were Lee’s fault. The third and most painful pick was not. Lee was hit just as the ball left his hand, and it traveled into the lap of safety Godwin Igwebuike at the Northwestern 16. It snuffed out a Husker scoring opportunity in the fourth quarter that could have extended Nebraska’s lead from 24-17 to ten or even 14 points.
“We actually had a max protection called, and we got beat on a stunt,” Riley said of Nebraska’s offensive line, which was missing center Michael Decker, who just underwent season-ending surgery. Lee had faked a bubble pass for JD Spielman and was trying to throw deep to Stanley Morgan. Riley said the call looked like “a good play.”
“But it turned into a real bad play,” Riley said.
Northwestern, which couldn’t convert Lee’s other two interceptions into points, didn’t blow the third one, driving 84 yards in 13 plays to tie the game on Wildcat quarterback Clayton Thorson’s seven-yard scramble. Thorson, who had one of this two interceptions returned by Husker ‘backer Marcus Newby for a 49-yard touchdown, completed his only third-down pass of the game on that drive.
But the Huskers (4-5 and 3-3 in the Big Ten) then marched back into Northwestern territory, reaching the Wildcat 40. Much like its game at Wisconsin last season, Nebraska had kicker Drew Brown ready to try a game-winning field goal. But Lee couldn’t convert a third-down pass to Spielman – Queiro nearly had another interception – and the Huskers punted. Northwestern’s subsequent drive and Hail Mary fell short, which set up overtime.
Coming in, Northwestern (6-3 and 4-2) had won two straight overtime games over Iowa and Michigan State, both of whom pulled big home upsets Saturday over Ohio State and Penn State, respectively.
“Our guys have some confidence in tight games,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “To see now the way we responded, to see the look in their eye when it was overtime ‘we are going to win this game.’”
The Wildcats were also armed with a rushing attack that had given Nebraska’s defense fits all afternoon, as Justin Jackson (154 yards) and Jeremy Larkin (69 yards) patiently waited behind Wildcat blockers for holes to emerge, darting through them with quick, hopping steps.
In overtime, Larkin started Northwestern’s possession with runs of 12 and six yards. Thorson finished it five plays later, on fourth down with a one-yard sneak for a touchdown. The 89,721 in Memorial Stadium were never louder than they were during the fourth-down play, and never quieter than they were just after it.
“It could have ended,” Diaco said of the fourth down play.
Four plays later, the game did end. Nebraska’s overtime drive was a mess.
Lee threw high and wide of Morgan on first down. On second down, Lee took a ten-yard sack because Nebraska called a screen pass to running back Devine Ozigbo. NU’s struggled with the screen game all season.
“We have,” Riley agreed. “But as of late we’ve hit a couple. That obviously was bad timing for that play.”
Third down was an eight-yard pass to Tyler Hoppes. On fourth down, Queiro, appropriately, knocked the pass away. Northwestern’s pass defense flummoxed Lee, who threw first-half touchdowns to backups Bryan Reimers and Jack Stoll on well-timed play calls, but also threw too often into heavy coverage.
“We got surprised with a couple of coverages,” Riley said. “Not that they haven’t run those coverages, but we just got surprised with a couple of them when they got intercepted on those out-routes.
“They did a good job of mixing looks,” Lee said.
Like his head coach, Lee was glum. As he talked about a game of inches, a few yards away, the gleaming, empty weight room opened up before him, the benches tattooed with the words “HUSKER POWER.”
Nebraska football doesn’t seem so powerful right now. Its own offensive coordinator, Danny Langsdorf, conceded he was surprised Nebraska ran the ball as well it did – for 112 yards – because Northwestern’s run defense is so stingy.
The Huskers’ run defense? Not so much.
Nebraska has never been good at stopping the run since joining the Big Ten. The 2012 run defense gave up 193 yards per game. The 2014 unit gave up 178. The 2017 bunch is at 177 and facing three teams at the end of the season – Minnesota, Penn State and Iowa – that all like to run the ball.
Diaco, hired as a Big Ten-style defensive coordinator, is getting a rough introduction to the league. But he’ll stay the course with playing as many defenders as possible his build-a-wall, mousetrap-style defense. He believes in all of it. The system, the players, the growth curve, the training. All of it.
“They’re improving,” Diaco said. “They’re not not improving. Players are improving. When you think about stopping the run, that requires a set of physical traits, it requires a particular set of intellectual traits. And the guys possess those traits. Some are at a level – let’s call a 100 level – of aptitude and those guys will move to 200-level aptitude, 300-level aptitude. They’ll grow. They’re moving forward. They’re going to get bigger, stronger and more physical.”
Building blocks, sand castles, something like that.