Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Nebraska's defense officially has problems

The same Nebraska-related point has popped up in each of my past couple weekly roundups: The defense isn't very good. And not just "isn't very good by typical Nebraska standards" -- I mean it just isn't very good.

Losing the best player on that unit (and arguably the best defensive tackle in the country) probably won't help:
Nebraska All-American defensive tackle Jared Crick's college football career is over. The Huskers announced on Wednesday that Crick, a senior, has a torn pectoral muscle that will keep him out for the rest of the season.

Crick was a second-team All-American last year and a two-time first-team All-Big 12 honoree. He has been projected as a first-round NFL pick, and ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. has him ranked him No. 18 overall on his most recent 2012 Big Board.

Crick missed the Wyoming game after suffering a head injury against Washington. He finished the season with 22 tackles and one sack in five games.
Ouch. From what I saw of Crick this year (which, to be fair, doesn't include Nebraska's first couple games), he didn't seem like quite the same player. That "head injury" has been a matter of debate ever since it happened; the only thing we know is what Bo Pelini has told the public, which is basically nothing other than "he got dinged." Was it a concussion? Maybe. He didn't play the next week against Wyoming, and while he was moderately productive in the past two games against Wisconsin and Ohio State, he clearly wasn't the Ndamakong Suh Lite he looked like for most of last season. Crick is the only guy who knows if there were some lingering issues there.

Still, he was very good -- even 75 percent of last year's Jared Crick qualifies as very good. I'm fairly confident that he wasn't the problem. But since I'm busy/lazy and don't wanna break down hours of game tape or drive 1,000 miles for some one-on-one time with Carl Pelini, I don't have any idea why Nebraska's defense can't seem to stop anybody this year. Seven starters returned from last year's legitimately elite defense, including three of the four defensive linemen, Lavonte David and Alfonzo Dennard. The relevant pieces are largely the same outside of Prince Amukamara and safety-type guy Eric Hagg. Since the primary issues are in run support, maybe I'm underestimating Hagg's importance.

Here are the point totals for Nebraska's D-I opponents this year: 29, 31, 14 (this comes with a grain of salt since it was Wyoming), 48 and 27. And that 27 should be effectively doubled since it came against a laughably impotent Ohio State team that came into the game 91st in scoring offense.

A few other interesting stats about Nebraska this year:
  • 59th in total defense
  • 65th in scoring defense (one spot behind Indiana lol)
  • 80th (!!!) in rushing defense
  • 49th in pass-efficiency defense
  • 90th in sacks
If you just kinda skimmed those numbers, this is what you need to know: Nebraska's defense is sixth or worse in the Big Ten in literally every stat the NCAA keeps. Read that again; it's hard to believe.

It hasn't really been much of an issue yet since the offense is averaging 37 points per game and has done plenty in every game other than the Wisconsin one, but it will be at some point barring a significant turnaround (which seems pretty unlikely with Crick gone). The Wisconsin loss was a pretty good indicator of what happens if the running game gets held in check and Taylor Martinez has to try to arm-punt his way down the field.

Here's Nebraska's schedule the rest of the way:

@ Minnesota (lulz since me and 10 readers could hold this team to single digits)
Michigan State
@ Penn State
@ Michigan

After the inevitable Minnesota massacre, there's only other team on the schedule (Northwestern and its craptacular band of defensive backs) with a defense that isn't as good as or better than Nebraska's. Michigan State, Penn State and Michigan (!?!) are all in the top 10 in scoring defense, and Iowa is 39th. The running game is good but won't be able to just shred all those teams. And even if most Nebraska fans are unreasonably attached to the idea that T-Magic is the greatest thing since corn, I doubt they really want his ability to sustain drives with his arm to be the determining factor in whether this team wins eight games or 10 (insert Denard Robinson stuff here, but at least Denard is inconsistently dangerous rather than consistently mediocre).

Here's where I'm going with this: Despite the cachet built up via the past few years of Bo Pelini awesomeness, Nebraska's defense is not good, especially now that its best player is done for the year. This isn't a sample-size-related uncertainty anymore, so nobody should be expecting a sudden revelation followed by a bunch of dominating performances. And the offense is basically the 1997 offense (philosophically) with more shotgun and a little less talent; are that and a below-average defense enough to win the division, which is what me and everyone else expected at the beginning of the year? I'm not so sure anymore. Anyone who is has a lot more faith than I do in Nebraska's ability to consistently score points against good defenses.


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