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Nebraska: Beyond the Box Score Preview - DEFENSE

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Yesterday we discussed a Nebraska offense with very well-defined strengths and weaknesses.  If their line is able to get some traction and they are getting yards on first down, they are one of the best in the country; but if they are getting stopped short on early downs, their options are significantly limited.  The Nebraska defense doesn't go to quite the same extremes, but they still rank quite differently on standard and passing downs.


Overall Ranks

S&P+: 8th
Success Rate+: 13th
PPP+: 7th

Standard Downs S&P+: 15th
Passing Downs S&P+: 2nd

Redzone S&P+: 45th

Q1 S&P: 52nd
Q2 S&P: 9th
Q3 S&P: 13th
Q4 S&P: 9th

1st Down S&P: 25th
2nd Down S&P: 8th
3rd Down S&P: 5th

Rushing Ranks

Rushing S&P+: 35th
Rushing SR+: 35th
Rushing PPP+: 38th

Standard Downs: 32nd
Passing Downs: 30th

Redzone: 62nd

Adj. Line Yards: 83rd

Passing Ranks

Passing S&P+: 1st
Passing SR+: 1st
Passing PPP+:4th

Standard Downs: 9th
Passing Downs: 1st

Redzone: 32nd

Sack Rate: 83rd
SD Sack Rate: 101st
PD Sack Rate: 96th

DT Jared Crick: 24.0 tackles, 6.0 TFL/sacks
DE Cameron Meredith: 22.0 tackles, 4.0 TFL/sacks, 1 PBU
DT Baker Steinkuhler: 21.0 tackles, 4.0 TFL/sacks, 1 PBU
DE Pierre Allen: 19.0 tackles, 3.0 TFL/sacks, 1 FF, 1 PBU
DT Terrence Moore: 6.0 tackles, 1.0 TFL/sacks, 1 FR

LB Lavonte David: 58.0 tackles, 5.0 TFL/sacks, 6 PBU
LB Eric Martin: 15.0 tackles
LB Alonzo Whaley: 7.5 tackles, 1.0 TFL/sacks
LB Mathew May: 6.5 tackles
LB Will Compton: 3.5 tackles (2 games)

S DeJon Gomes: 49.0 tackles, 1.0 TFL/sacks, 1 INT, 2 FF, 1 PBU
S P.J. Smith: 26.5 tackles, 3 INT, 1 PBU
S Rickey Thenarse: 24.0 tackles, 1.0 TFL/sacks, 1 INT, 1 FF, 1 PBU
CB Prince Amukamara: 20.0 tackles, 7 PBU
N Eric Hagg: 16.5 tackles, 3 INT, 1 FR, 3 PBU
CB Alfonzo Dennard: 11.0 tackles, 3 INT, 6 PBU
S Anthony West: 8.5 tackles, 1 INT, 1 PBU

N Austin Cassidy: 5.0 tackles

(N = Nickel Back, something Nebraska uses constantly ... they call it the Peso, but ... Nickel works just fine too.)

As I mentioned yesterday, I was horribly wrong in my opinions about the Nebraska running game -- I significantly discounted the impact Taylor Martinez could have.  In a way, even though I was tut-tutting all the "This Nebraska defensive line will be every bit as good as last year's!" talk this offseason, I also significantly discounted the impact Ndamukong Suh could have.  Turns out, I wasn't giving Suh enough credit ... which is amazing, considering how many times I used "Suh" and "transcendent" in the same sentence this past winter, spring and summer.  Tackles Jared Crick and Baker Steinkuhler are certainly good players, but it is crystal clear that the line has taken a rather hefty step backwards this year.  The linebacking corps might have too (because of injuries as much as anything else) if not for the emergence of sideline-to-sideline missile Lavonte David, an undersized stick of dynamite who is seemingly involved in every play on the field.

The 2010 Nebraska defense is still quite good, but it is good in a completely different way than last year.  The 2009 Blackshirts showed what an amazing front four can do for you -- because of Suh, guys like Jared Crick and Pierre Allen were allowed to roam free, and opposing quarterbacks and running backs were repeatedly destroyed.  In 2010, this is a back four-dominated unit.  If you can stay on schedule and move the ball on standard downs, you can actually get somewhere on the Huskers.  But the moment you start falling into 2nd-and-9's or 3rd-and-7's, you're dead in the water.

The question is, how will Mizzou choose to attack the Nebraska defense to stay in good position on standard downs?  At one point or another this season, the Tigers have attacked virtually every section of the field -- sideline passes, slants, intermediate routes, up-the-middle runs, sweeps ... they've done it all, and it has all, at one point or another, succeeded somewhat.  The gameplan they will choose to draw up is a complete mystery to me.

(In previous seasons, the Nebraska game has brought out the best and worst in this coaching staff.  In 2002, the Brad Smith Aura was dinged when Nebraska rather easily shut down a Missouri offense that was as limited in scope as Nebraska's offense is this year.  In 2004, with Damien Nash suspended, Gary Pinkel and company threw off Tony Temple's redshirt and proceeded to ... have Brad Smith pass 50 times in swirling wind.  But in 2005, the staff gameplanned perfectly for Nebraska's over-aggressiveness, and Smith both ran and passed for 200 yards.  In 2007, Dave Christensen and Chase Daniel couldn't have been more inside Kevin Cosgrove's head if they were his wife and kid.  In 2009 ... well, there were no good plays to call for a one-legged quarterback and an offensive line that couldn't stop committing holding penalties in a monsoon, so I'll give the coaches a pass for that one.)

As the Nebraska-Missouri series draws to a regrettable close (until the Big Ten starts its expansion quest again this winter! Kidding. Sort of. Or not. Be afraid.), how will the final chapter play out?  With one last dominant defensive performance from the Huskers?  With a reprise of Mizzou's 2008 performance?

Mizzou On The Ground

Boy, have our perceptions changed about this matchup in recent weeks.  Mizzou ran well (in the second quarter, when the game was being decided) against Texas A&M, then ran wonderfully (all game) against Oklahoma.  Meanwhile, Nebraska got gashed for 209 rushing yards by Texas and 212 yards by Oklahoma State.

The Texas game had a bit of a fluke aspect to it -- Garrett Gilbert ran for 71 yards as part of a "catch them completely offguard" gameplan -- but Cody Johnson, Tre' Newton and Fozzy Whittaker still combined for 142 yards on 32 carries (4.4 yards per carry), and they really haven't been able to run on anybody this year (they currently rank 71st in Rushing S&P+ and 100th in overall Offensive S&P+ ... 100th!).  Suddenly MIzzou fans are coping with the possibility that they can unleash a bit of a successful running attack on even a good defense (and that Nebraska is vulnerable in this regard) ... and it's a little bit disorienting, isn't it?

As we have seen repeatedly over the years, Missouri doesn't have to run 50 times for 250 yards to "establish the run" -- they just have to let you know that they will beat you with it if you don't account for it.  Can they establish this against another good squad?

The advanced stats are encouraging -- Mizzou's offense vastly outranks Nebraska's defense in terms of both Rushing S&P+ (Mizzou: 2nd in the country) and Adj. Line Yards (Mizzou: 29th) -- but individual matchups matter.  Colorado's underrated defensive line was able to stymie and confuse Mizzou's offensive line and running attack, but I think Nebraska's personnel much more closely matches Oklahoma's than Colorado's (similar size, but with better tackles and worse ends).  Color me cautiously optimistic here.

Mizzou Through The Air

Here's where things get very interesting.  We have learned through the years that establishing the ground game and the horizontal passing game go hand in hand for Mizzou's coaching staff -- they want to soften you up one way or another, and which way they choose depends on how they view the matchups at hand.

Knowing what we know about Nebraska, the intermediate and deep stuff likely will not be available unless Mizzou has really begun to punish Nebraska underneath.  A big Mizzou play is probably more likely to develop with a shorter pass (or run) and a broken tackle than with a ball thrown further downfield -- the cover skills for corners Prince Amukamara and Alfonzo Dennard are second to none.  And if Mizzou faces too many passing downs, they will, like almost any other offense against Nebraska, find the rate of survival rather low.  In passing downs, Nebraska can utilize their cover skills and speed in pursuit to utmost advantage.

Luckily for Mizzou, they have proven more and more flexible in their means of attack as the season has progressed.  Let's look at how Mizzou's strategy changed versus Oklahoma compared to how they were attacking earlier in the season.

Mizzou Passing Versus Oklahoma

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21+ Yds

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Yards After Catch

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Receiver Data
Egnew 5-15
Kemp 1-11
Josey 1-9
Moore 1-4
Murphy 1-0
Jackson 4-37
Egnew 1-8
Kemp 1-5
Moe 1-2
Jackson 2-36
Moe 1-14
Gerau 1-10
Lawrence 1-9
Jackson 3-68
Moe 1-20
Kemp 1-19
Egnew 1-13
Lucas 1-12
Kemp 1-35
Pct. of Total Passes 26.8%

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With the running game working and Oklahoma over-playing the horizontal stuff, Mizzou was able to attack the defense with intermediate routes.  That meant more Jerrell Jackson and less T.J. Moe.  They still went to Michael Egnew enough that it set up the hook-and-lateral in the fourth quarter, but for the most part, Oklahoma gave Mizzou Jerrell Jackson and the inside run, and they took it.  You can't cover everything, so what will Nebraska give them?

Dave Yost has proven this season that his adaptability is becoming as or more impressive than Dave Christensen's was at the end of his tenure as Mizzou offensive coordinator; like Dave Steckel, he seems to have improved by leaps and bounds in his sophomore season on the job.  Not every gameplan an offensive coordinator (even the best one in the world) draws up works as well as Mizzou's have the last two weeks, and on any given week Mizzou could slow back down, but I'm both curious and reasonably confident here.

Special Teams

Mizzou has derived a serious special teams advantage for most of the season -- that will not be the case in Lincoln.  Alex Henery is at least Grant Ressel's match (this year, he's been better), and Nebraska's return game is better than Missouri's.

Category Nebraska
Kicking 1st (9-for-9 FG) 8th (13-for-14)
Opp. Punt Returns
7th (46.3 Avg.)
87th (11.3 Avg)
49th (42.0 Avg.)
10th (3.3 Avg.)
Touchback %
Opp. Kick Returns
1st (69.0 Avg.)
4th (42.0%)
16th (25.2 Avg.)
28th (65.7 Avg.)
54th (15%)
29th (23.8 Avg.)
Punt Returns 12th (15.9 Avg.) 92nd (5.7 Avg.)
Kick Returns 16th (25.2 Avg.) 29th (23.8 Avg.)

From a situational standpoint, Mizzou could still earn the advantage with the same directional punting at which they have thrived this year, but in terms of top-to-bottom units, Nebraska's is one of the best in the country.  Mizzou will likely be hoping to fight the Huskers to a draw in this department.


I was going to put together a "Five Things To Watch Early On" piece like what I did last week, but honestly, I don't think there are five things.

1. What kind of push is Mizzou's defensive line getting?
2. Are there holes for Mizzou's running backs?
3. How is Mizzou attacking the defense -- in the middle?  At the edges?  Downfield?

That's really about it.  I don't have much of an idea what to expect tomorrow, but the answers to those three questions will tell us most of what we need to know.

Before I wrap this post up, however, I want to give a word about letdowns.  I mentioned this in Wednesday's Roundtable, and I'll do it again here -- I don't see Mizzou suffering the letdown a lot of talking heads are expecting because, quite frankly, Mizzou was far from super-human last week.  They were controlled and composed, and they obviously played well, but they only played well.  They still made quite a few mistakes and left plenty of room for improvement.  They can duplicate a good performance like this one, and I expect them to.  They might still lose tomorrow, but if they do it will be because Nebraska better utilized their strengths than Mizzou did.  It's that simple.  This is a game with interesting matchups and a ton of game-planning unknowns (especially on Missouri's side of the ledger), and I am extremely curious what will happen.  But I am very confident that talk of "letdowns" will be minimal after the game.

So who wins?  I usually don't make predictions.  The F/+ numbers say Nebraska by 0.5 points, which is to say it's a virtual tossup.  Does Nebraska's home field advantage give them the edge?  Will Memorial Stadium begin to clam up again and cause a homefield disadvantage like it did against Texas?  Anything can happen here.  That said, I'm a reasonably sentimental guy.  If I have to make a prediction, I'm going to give an ode to one of the most well-played games I've ever seen.  In honor of the 1978 MU-NU matchup, and the death of what was just becoming a really fun, balanced rivalry again, I'm picking Mizzou 35, Nebraska 31.