This is getting to be old-hat for the Huskers.
Another week, another team that wants to complicate the simple task of calling a defensive play. Another team that turns substituting players into the football equivalent of a Formula 1 pit stop. Another offense that often gets back to the line of scrimmage and runs another play before the broadcast can show a replay.
Northwestern is averaging nearly 78 plays per game and regularly operates without a huddle.
NU has faced similarly fast outfits this season in Arkansas State, Oregon, Ohio State and Purdue, and defensive coordinator Bob Diaco said that tempo doesn’t seem to cause problems for his team.
“You watch a lot of defenses and the players are not lined up, they’re still looking and not necessarily ready to play,” Diaco said. “There’s 12 guys on the field or 10 guys on the field, there’s just a lot of stuff. For us, there’s been virtually none of that. Players are ready.
“A lot of these teams have gone warp speed. Some of these balls have been snapped somewhere between 8-13 seconds, so to have as few errors and as few missed assignments and mental errors as we’ve had in those tempo situations, I’ve been well pleased with that aspect of the defense.”
One instance where the Huskers did not handle it as well came when Purdue had a second-and-goal from the 1-yard line and multiple defenders looked confused and were not lined up. Linebacker Marcus Newby, though, stopped Richie Worship for a 2-yard loss and the Boilermakers eventually settled for a field goal.
“Down there tight, the tighter they get, the more aggressive you get,” Diaco said. “So now that requires not only positioning yourself but positioning yourself and putting your eyes on a man or finding a man. When you have to add that next layer, it can be difficult.”
The Huskers appeared to have moments of confusion in getting lined up early on against the Boilermakers, but settled in as the game progressed.
“For the most part I think we’ve been really good communicating,” head coach Mike Riley said Thursday. “I think that’s one of those things that you get better at as you go if you pay attention. Coach Diaco and the group do a nice job. ... I really like that communication and how it’s called and how the players get it. Most of the time we’ve been in pretty good shape when the ball is snapped.”
Where Purdue ran the ball 38 times (57.5 percent of snaps), though, the Wildcats will put the ball in the air often behind quarterback Clayton Thorson. He leads the Big Ten in pass attempts — only Ohio State and Indiana have thrown more times overall than Northwestern — but hasn’t been particularly efficient. Thorson’s thrown 10 touchdowns against nine interceptions and is averaging 6.7 yards per attempt, which ranks eighth among passers by yardage in the league.
Thorson’s quarterback efficiency rating (121.7) is outside the Big Ten’s top 10 and ranked No. 87 in the nation.
The ball will be in the air frequently, though, which means lots of work for a Nebraska secondary that took some lumps against the Boilermakers but was bailed out by several drops or misses on deep passes.
“With (Northwestern’s) tempo and everything like that, we’ve got to make sure that our eyes are in the right place and we’ve just got to play fast,” safeties coach Scott Booker said. “We’ve gone against fast-tempo teams. We’ve seen it and Northwestern is going to be the same. We’ve got to make sure we get the call first, get the communication and get aligned so we can do our jobs.”
Who will be doing those jobs, though, has been a week-to-week question in the Huskers’ secondary.
Sophomore Eric Lee had not cleared the concussion protocol as of Thursday evening. Safety Antonio Reed practiced this week with a brace on his left knee and a cast on his left hand, while fellow junior safety Aaron Williams (neck) practiced for the first time this week on Thursday. Riley said both juniors will be available but each may be limited and neither may start.
That means it could be another relatively active Saturday for redshirt freshman safety Marquel Dismuke, who’s seen significant playing time each of the past three games.
“Marquel was able to come in and do a good job,” safeties coach Scott Booker said Tuesday. “Proud of him and the way he stepped up. We’ve talked about him for a while as a guy that’s been ready all year, a guy that’s done good things on special teams.
“He’s ready to play at any time, he’s ready to help out his team at any time and you can see that he’s getting better and better, more consistent and learning from some guys that have veteran experience.”