LINCOLN — Rutgers coach Chris Ash is quite familiar with Nebraska football, having faced the Huskers 10 times as an assistant at either Iowa State or Wisconsin.
Ash began at ISU — under then-coach Dan McCarney — as a graduate assistant in 2000. He coached there through 2006, a time that included Iowa State wins over Nebraska in 2002 and 2004, before returning in 2009 as the Cyclones’ defensive coordinator. ISU famously forced eight Nebraska turnovers in that 2009 game, winning 9-7 in Lincoln.
Ash was then on Wisconsin’s staff in 2011 and 2012, when the Badgers faced the Huskers three times, including twice in 2012. Wisconsin finished 2-1 in those games, with the last being the 70-31 wipeout in the Big Ten championship game.
In his second year as head coach at Rutgers, Ash said he has plenty of respect for NU’s history and tradition.
“It has nothing to do with this game,” Ash said.
Rather, Rutgers must take one of the youngest teams in college football on the road for the first time this season. Forty players have made their collegiate debuts for the Scarlet Knights through three games, and 13 freshmen are on the depth chart. Offensive coordinator Jerry Kill, the former Minnesota head coach who won at NU in 2014, said he’s focused on getting better, not the Huskers’ atmosphere.
“The less said about it, the better,” Kill said of playing at NU.
Rutgers broke an 11-game losing streak — stretching back to last September — with its 65-0 win over Morgan State, an overmatched FCS foe that was shut out against Towson and Albany.
Senior Louisville transfer Kyle Bolin started the first three games for Rutgers, but the Scarlet Knights insert true freshman Johnathan Lewis for goal-line and running plays. Lewis has 12 carries for 56 yards and four touchdowns this season. The 6-foot-3, 240-pound Lewis is bound to see some action at Nebraska.
“I said I’d take Johnathan along slowly and, to this point, I think we’ve done the right thing with him,” Kill said. “Kyle’s playing very well. I don’t think people understand his passing percentage (59.1) and the things he’s done.”
Kill said both quarterbacks graded between 80 and 90 percent against Morgan State.
The Scarlet Knights have run the ball around 58 percent of the time in Kill’s first three games. Kill, who resigned from Minnesota in 2015 because of health-related seizures, has long favored a run-oriented attack.
“If you run the ball and you’re doing pretty good at it, and they’re giving you the run, you take it,” Kill said. “If not, you throw it. I think it’s that simple.”
Kill said he was hired by Ash “to keep us in games, slow the game down, things like that.”
Rutgers is No. 18 nationally in time of possession. Last season, the Scarlet Knights were No. 110. They averaged 282.4 yards and 15.7 points per game last season — last and second-to-last nationally, respectively.
Kill returns to Lincoln
Kill, a native of Kansas, still has a distinct fondness for the history and fans of Nebraska football.
“When we were at Minnesota and we beat ’em twice, I know one thing: We celebrated,” Kill said. “We beat ’em there, and that’s tough to do. But Nebraska fans are great fans, they really are. I mean, we came off after we beat ’em and, shoot, they’re calling me by my first name and saying, ‘Hey, you guys did a great job, Coach, congratulations.’
“They love football there. You show up for warmups, there’ll be 60,000 sittin’ there. They love football, they appreciate football. That’s Nebraska. When I think of Nebraska, I think of the way football should be. When you go through a little, small town and you pull in, all you see is that stadium. It’s a unique place. It’s got a unique history.”
Rutgers faces a new defense
Nebraska’s defense, coordinated by Bob Diaco, may not be like any other defense Rutgers faces this season, Ash said.
“A lot of eight-man drop,” Ash said. “They rush three.”
Ash added that there are unique things Diaco does in how he lines up his outside linebackers, as well.
NU’s defense has just three sacks this year. So does Rutgers. Ash wants more from his pass rush.
“We need to pressure the quarterback more on first and second downs,” Ash said, adding he expects to get “more creative” with pressure packages.
Nebraska struggled with stunts and pressure against both Oregon and Northern Illinois.
Tanner Lee and Co. ready to prove themselves
LINCOLN — Tanner Lee is seeing what he wants to through two workouts this week: a motivated group of players.
Three days removed from a 21-17 loss to Northern Illinois in which he was sacked three times and pressured multiple others while throwing two pick-sixes and another interception, the junior quarterback said teammate support is helping him stay confident heading into Saturday’s home tilt with Rutgers.
“This team’s got great character, and I think it’s showing, the way they’re coming to work,” Lee said Tuesday after practice. “We want to get better, and that’s what we’re going to do. You can tell it’s on everybody’s mind, so we’ve had a good couple practices so far.”
Lee described his own physical condition as “fine” and “great” after last weekend, adding that he’s been hit every time he’s played a football game. When asked about how the offensive line is bouncing back from its shaky performance, the QB said his protectors are hungry to reach a higher standard.
“I don’t think there’s words for it,” Lee said. “They’re focused. They’re tired of it. They’re ready to win just like the entire team is. It’s good to see; it fires everybody up. I think the team as a whole, we’re ready for Saturday.”
Lee said improving third-down conversions is one way to start a winning streak to begin Big Ten play. NU is 15 for 47 through three games.
A starting point, he said, is staying in third-and-five situations or better.
A step forward for rush
Nebraska’s pass rush was more active in the loss to Northern Illinois. NU notched two sacks, and defensive tackle Khalil Davis had an 8-yard tackle for loss on a quarterback draw that might as well have been a sack.
When coordinator Bob Diaco’s defense went into a six-defensive back dime scheme against the Huskies, Diaco dialed up the pressure. Expect to see more twists and wrinkles, he said, as the defense seasons and grows.
“If we had four, five participating seniors on defense … three of our most experienced, top-performing players aren’t available,” Diaco said, presumably referring to cornerback Chris Jones, safety Joshua Kalu and outside linebacker Marcus Newby, who missed the last quarter of Saturday’s game with a hamstring injury. “We (are) thrust into a situation where ‘next man in’ are really young and inexperienced players. So really nobody had any idea how they were going to behave or respond in game.”
Diaco said coaches have a better picture of how young Huskers will play.
“That allows for a little bit higher level of business in terms of systems, play calls we can do based on what they can do,” Diaco said. “… When you have an opportunity to do that, I’m all for it. In the last game, we were presented a few more opportunities to do that style of stuff. Our package is very flexible — it has all those trimmings in it.”
Young corners still growing
A baby doesn’t know right from wrong. That’s something you have to teach it. Which is how cornerbacks coach Donte Williams explained the way his young corners are learning the position.
“They’re still growing,” Williams said. “It’s not like a guy like Josh Kalu or Chris Jones who have seen something for the 50th time. And if something’s not right, their confidence may dip a little.”
His corners, sophomores Lamar Jackson and Eric Lee, are still just kids, Williams said.
“Their confidence doesn’t change week per week, it’s still the same,” he said. “They’re learning and growing and building confidence. So it’ll only get better.”
Nebraska’s corners have had a rough start to the season. The Huskers rank last in the Big Ten in passing yards allowed per game (302.7).
» Diaco said Rutgers tight end Jerome Washington, a transfer from Miami, may be the best tight end Nebraska has faced thus far. Washington, along with Rutgers running back Gus Edwards, played in Miami’s 41-31 loss to Nebraska in Lincoln in 2014.
“He blocks at the point of attack, and he’s a threat in the passing game,” Diaco said of Washington.
» Diaco has an interesting history with Rutgers offensive coordinator Jerry Kill, the former Minnesota coach who spent 2016 working as a liaison to K-State coach Bill Snyder before taking the Rutgers job. According to the Hartford Courant, Kill was interested in the Connecticut offensive coordinator job — and even spent time on campus — when Diaco was still head coach there.
“Coach Kill is a tough guy. He’s a brilliant football coach; no one needs me to say that,” Diaco said Tuesday. “His record speaks for itself. His reputation precedes him. His teams are hard-nosed. His offenses are hard-nosed; they’re disciplined and they block. They finish plays and finish runs.”
» Redshirt freshman safety Marquel Dismuke, replacing Antonio Reed, played on the final few plays of Northern Illinois’ touchdown drive. Diaco wouldn’t disclose why Reed went out of the game, but it was likely because of the hand injury that required him to wear a cast.
When Dismuke came into the game, NIU immediately threw a quick slant pass — off a run-pass option play — right in front of Dismuke, who was a step behind the receiver.
“We had a few moments of point-of-attack opportunities that didn’t happen,” Diaco said. “So Marquel is, again, another freshman who’s never played, but he’s a football intelligence player; he’s a tough guy and he loves football and he’s a hard worker. I had no reservations putting him in. The development process has been accelerated because of all of his participation, and that’s good for the future.”
» Kicker Drew Brown had taken responsibility for the blocked field goal just before halftime Saturday, saying Monday he booted the ball at too low an angle. Booker said Tuesday the breakdown wasn’t just on the senior. “We probably had a little bit of push in there on our right side. We got a little compromised,” Booker said. “The kick may have been just a hair low. And all that equals a blocked kick at the end of the half that we can’t have.”
» Donte Williams has not shaved this season. He said won’t be shaving until his corners play better.
Rutgers at Nebraska
When: 2:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Memorial Stadium
Radio: 103.1 FM