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Nebraska's New-Look Defense Faces Tough Task Against Oregon

Mike Riley, Nebraska Cornhuskers Football

Mike Riley, Nebraska Cornhuskers Football

It’s safe to say the first game for new Nebraska defensive coordinator Bob Diaco didn’t go according to plan. The Cornhuskers survived on Saturday night against Arkansas State in a seven-point victory, but the defense surrendered 497 total yards, 36 points and gave up two scoring drives in the fourth quarter to close the gap on the scoreboard.

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While the defensive performance from Week 1 left a lot to be desired, this unit is going to improve over the course of the 2017 season. However, Diaco’s assignment for Week 2 is even tougher than the one he had in Nebraska’s debut. Nebraska has to travel out west to take on an explosive Oregon offense, which should rank among the best in the Pac-12 once again in 2017.

The standard under new coach Willie Taggart is similar to previous regimes in Eugene. The Ducks gashed Southern Utah for 37 first downs, 703 total yards (8.9 yards per play) and 70 offensive points. Taggart’s up-tempo attack is a little different than the version utilized under Mark Helfrich and Chip Kelly, but the results at USF and through one game at Oregon are the same.

Oregon’s offense is headlined by running back Royce Freeman – the active career leader at the FBS level for rushing yards (4,296) – and rising star Justin Herbert at quarterback. The Ducks also return one of the Pac-12’s top offensive lines, which is anchored by standout (and first-team All-Pac-12 by Athlon Sports) tackle Tyrell Crosby. Dynamic and speedy senior Charles Nelson led the team with five catches on Saturday, with tight end Jacob Breeland (three) and freshman Johnny Johnson III (two) also pitching in key grabs.

Diaco was regarded as one of the Big Ten’s top assistant hires for 2017 and brought a new 3-4 scheme to Lincoln. A quick transition to one of the conference’s best defenses wasn’t expected right away, and it’s not easy to judge how much of the playbook or scheme is installed for the first game of 2017. Additionally, Diaco’s task got a little tougher over the summer after top cornerback Chris Jones was lost for the year due to a knee injury.

The transition to a 3-4 scheme is going to take time and can’t be evaluated just on one performance (Arkansas State) or for the entire 2017 campaign. The three-man front requires finding a nose tackle to handle double-teams and play a key role in disrupting the offensive line to stuff the run. On the outside, Nebraska has to identify pass rushers, which was a concern after registering just 26 sacks in 2016.

After Week 1, it’s simply too early to panic or have concerns about Nebraska’s defense. But make no mistake: Week 2 isn’t going to be any easier or better for Diaco. Oregon has a better quarterback, running back and is deeper (and more talented) on the offensive line. Even if the Cornhuskers unveil some new looks to slow down the Ducks, it’s a tall task to win in Eugene with a defense still in transition.