LINCOLN — Three days after Nebraska’s 43-36 victory over Arkansas State, defensive coordinator Bob Diaco said he doesn’t really pay attention to statistics.
It’s about the points, he said. Keeping the points down.
“We don’t really talk about statistics,” Diaco said after the season opener. “We really don’t care. We try and build the plan to keep the points down so at the end of the game we have one more point than the opponent.”
Be that as it may, Nebraska’s defense is statistically the worst it has been in three years under coach Mike Riley.
After seven weeks, the Blackshirts rank 94th in scoring, 69th in run defense, 74th in pass defense and 76th in overall defense.
Should those rankings hold, all but one would be the worst since Riley took the job in 2015. The only exception would be the pass defense, which was 122nd under Mark Banker in 2015.
One main aspect could be the change from a 4-3 to a 3-4 under Diaco.
“We’ve got young players doing jobs that are hard to do against great players,” Diaco said after the loss to Ohio State. “We’re just getting started.”
The Huskers give up 30.9 points per game, 230 yards through the air and 166 yards on the ground. All rank near the bottom of the Big Ten.
The Blackshirts had three solid defensive efforts against Northern Illinois, Rutgers and Illinois. The defense held Rutgers and Illinois to fewer than 200 yards of offense and kept each team below its season averages in passing yards, total yards and scoring. Diaco and the defensive players felt growth within the new scheme in those three weeks.
But those teams also rank 96th, 119th and 118th, respectively, in total offense.
Ohio State, Wisconsin, Oregon and Arkansas State all rank in the top 35 in total offense. And Nebraska didn’t hold any of them below their average in total yards.
Arkansas State averages 331 passing yards, and NU let up 415. Oregon gains around 467 yards per game, and the Huskers let up 566 in Week 2.
Wisconsin and Ohio State had field days against Nebraska. Ohio State, the No. 2 offense in the country, gained 633 total yards, the fourth-most ever against NU.
The pieces are still being put into place, Diaco said.
“I just got here,” he said after the Ohio State loss. “A lot of new players are playing. We’re just getting started with our unit, with our culture, which had been under a spectacular amount of strain and attack, and we’re just getting started.”
The offenses Nebraska will face in the final five weeks don’t have the same firepower as the those from the first seven weeks, save for Penn State. Up next is Purdue, which ranks 94th in total offense, followed by Northwestern (65th), Minnesota (108th), Penn State (33rd) and Iowa (100th).
But the combined winning percentage of the final five teams Nebraska will face (.633) is nearly identical to the winning percentage of the first seven (.627).
Which means the roller coaster of a defensive transition is not over. And as frustrating as that might be for Diaco, he also has hope.
“As a coach, the silver lining of this dark and miserable cloud is that the players are improving through experience, and overall the unit, brick by brick, building, the unit building will become the type of unit in time,” Diaco said. “Culture and mentality and mindset, after a couple weeks like we’ve had, definitely needs care. To say it doesn’t need care wouldn’t be true, and it’ll need care and attention.”
Yards NU has allowed each game
Rush, Pass, total
Arkansas St. (W, 43-36), 82, 415, 497
Oregon (L, 42-35), 201, 365, 566
N. Illinois (L, 21-17), 85, 128, 213
Rutgers (W, 27-17), 68, 126, 194
Illinois (W, 28-6), 93, 106, 199
Wisconsin (L, 38-17), 353, 113, 466
Ohio State (L, 56-14), 279, 354, 633
Defense’s goal is nailing down assignments
Nebraska’s defense gave up 633 yards, 41 first downs and 56 points to Ohio State last weekend, and coach Mike Riley said Wednesday he’d like to change a few things about the Huskers’ execution.
The plan itself from defensive coordinator Bob Diaco? Not so much.
“What was most disappointing wasn’t necessarily anything about the plan, it was just the execution of the plan,” Riley said.
His players weren’t beat physically that often, Riley said, but players were often out of position.
“That’s a combination of all of us doing better making sure (the player) knows and then that guy making sure we’re assignment-perfect,” Riley said. “I’d like to go back and change some of those early — particularly early third downs — and just be in a little better position and see what that would have done for the game. Maybe nothing. But I know it didn’t help, what we did.”
Riley said he wasn’t sure if Nebraska’s problem was a “blown assignment or being overwhelmed.”
“When that happens, what causes it? None of these kids try to make a mistake,” Riley said. “When that happens, we have to examine as coaches how we can help that guy be better. What in the world did we miss when that happens, right there?
“I don’t know if it was not knowing, not being sure, being overwhelmed by being down early, something bad happened that sets guys off, I don’t know. It’s different things. We didn’t give ourselves a chance to play because we weren’t in the right place a lot of times.”
Offense lacks consistency
Riley pulled no punches with his offense, which is 11th in the Big Ten averaging 25.9 points per game.
“I’m not disappointed in people overall — so you don’t have to think about players or coaches — I’m disappointed in offensive production,” Riley said. “I can’t change what’s happened already, but if I’m going forward …”
Riley started poking the table with his finger.
“In this day and age of playing football with the points that are put on the board, we have to be more productive,” Riley said.
The coach continued.
“The consistency of what we do is not good — whether it’s passing or running. You’ve seen signs, we’ve seen signs of really nice, crisp pass routes, catches, plays, and we’ve seen signs of good productive running, but the consistency of that is what is limiting us.
“It really cuts down on our opportunities to be in the red zone and score points. We have to score more points — that’s the bottom line.”
When Riley was asked whether he’d take over play-calling, he didn’t exactly answer the question.
“I wouldn’t talk about it publicly unless I’ve talked about any kind of changes with our staff,” Riley said. “What we have talked about is, basically, find a way to help our team do the things I’ve just mentioned, which is score more points offensively.”
Riley said it’s a “mystery” why Nebraska can follow up a touchdown drive with “two or three three-and-outs in a row.”
“We just have to be more consistent,” Riley said. “Score points.”
A medical redshirt decision will be made soon on running back Tre Bryant, who missed the last five games with a knee injury. Riley said he’s open to playing Devine Ozigbo and Mikale Wilbon equally, with Jaylin Bradley getting more work, not less, as the season wears on.
» NU practiced in full pads Tuesday. Riley said there was a good dose of ones vs. ones.
» Riley said he’s impressed with quarterback Tanner Lee’s play over the last three games. He’s already received better pass protection, Riley said, from his offensive line.
» The spirit of the Huskers’ team, Riley said, is good after a 38-17 loss to Wisconsin and the loss to Ohio State.
“I don’t want to sound pie-in-the-sky, but I think it’s great,” Riley said. “I think the work for two days has been really good. I won’t change my mind about this group of young men. I like ’em a lot and they work hard.”
» Some assistants will head out on the road Wednesday to recruit, Riley said. Originally, coaches weren’t going to go out until Thursday night, but cornerbacks coach Donte Williams, Riley said, lobbied him otherwise. Riley said he’ll attend a local game and a game somewhere else this weekend.
» Riley said he’s willing to talk about Nebraska making a bowl game and finishing at least second in the Big Ten West with players even as he focuses on Purdue.
“Motivation comes in all different packages for people,” Riley said. “I’ve got 128 guys and there might be 128 different buttons, but whatever it is that turns you on, let’s push it, let’s go. You being the best player you can be, you being a senior and wanting a great finish to your senior year — whatever your motivation is, let’s punch it and let’s go.”
» Riley doesn’t consider the last five games of this season as an “audition” for new Athletic Director Bill Moos.
“I want to do that Jim Harbaugh deal and put a sign up above my door that says, ‘Coach the team,’ ” Riley said. “That’s all I’m worried about.”
Nebraska at Purdue
When: 6:30 p.m. Oct. 28
Where: Ross-Ade Stadium, West Lafayette, Indiana
Radio: 103.1 FM