September certainly didn’t lack for intrigue for the Nebraska Cornhuskers. Whether it was the stunning home loss to Northern Illinois or the firing of athletic director Shawn Eichorst shortly thereafter, there has been no lack of talk surrounding the future of the program.
But take a step back and Mike Riley’s team is a respectable 3-2 and, more importantly, 2-0 in the Big Ten entering October. That’s not to say Nebraska has been transformed into a legitimate contender in the West Division, although the Huskers are currently in first place.
What it does mean, however, is that while it may have seemed the season was already over following the loss to the Huskies, there’s still plenty of football left to be played and the story of Nebraska’s 2017 campaign has yet to be written.
Credit to Riley and his team for not allowing things to spiral out of control, rallying from back-to-back losses to Oregon and NIU to convincingly beat Rutgers at home and Illinois in Champaign last Saturday. And while better success running the ball (362 rushing yards in last two games) contributed to those wins, a potentially more promising development has been the improvement on the other side of the ball.
After giving up more than 1,000 total yards in the first two games against Arkansas State and Oregon, the Cornhuskers’ defense has turned things around in dramatic fashion. Including the loss to Northern Illinois, Nebraska has surrendered a total of 606 yards in its last three games. To go from one of the nation’s worst defenses to start the season to its current ranking of 34th (333.8 ypg) is quite the accomplishment for first-year defensive coordinator Bob Diaco and his players.
This is the type of defensive effort Cornhusker fans were expecting when Riley hired Diaco in the offseason and after a rough start, the results are starting to show. But are these statistics for real or more indicative of the level of competition? It shouldn’t take too long to find out with Wisconsin and Ohio State set to come to Lincoln the next two Saturdays followed by a bye and then a trip to West Lafayette to play Purdue.
In the Buckeyes and Badgers you have the Big Ten’s No. 1 and No. 3 offenses, respectively, while the Boilermakers sit seventh at nearly 400 yards per game. With Nebraska still figuring out things with its own offense, it’s imperative for the defense to continue its strong play if the Cornhuskers want to build on their recent momentum.
In particular, Nebraska has been especially stingy against the run. Outside of the 201 rushing yards Oregon racked up in Week 2, the Huskers’ four other opponents have averaged 82 yards on the ground with just two rushing touchdowns allowed. Wisconsin is known for its proficiency in running the ball and this season is no exception. The Badgers are 23rd nationally at 234 rushing yards per game while Ohio State is a few yards better (241.0 ypg). Purdue hasn’t been nearly as productive on the ground but is still averaging close to 140 yards per game.
No one needs to tell Riley, Diaco or any of the Nebraska players what a win over either the Badgers or Buckeyes at home would mean to a fan base that’s seen the luster and reputation of their tradition-rich team slowly wear away over the past decade or so. For that to happen, the defense needs to lead the way just has it has done these past few games.