Nebraska head coach Mike Riley reiterated this week what he’s said all season: He’s happy with his program’s transition to a 3-4 defense this fall and he thinks defensive coordinator Bob Diaco and staff have done a good job installing and teaching it.
However, he also seemed to disagree with the tone of Diaco’s comments following Nebraska’s 31-24 overtime loss to Northwestern on Saturday, when the first-year coordinator said that it would be unreasonable to expect this particular defensive unit to be capable of shutting teams down after nine games.
More specifically, Diaco said he thought his players were improving and that there were signs of progress, but also that, “There’s no reasonable reason, considering where the defensive program was (last season), to believe that they should be able to do everything that needs to be done in the game, to win the game.”
Asked about that answer, Riley said, “I think Bob could explain a little bit more about that about what he meant specifically. We made a structural change. The adaptation of players into this system has been a big job for our staff and … we did it with our goal of being better. We are growing to that, not necessarily past it yet. That’s a pretty obvious at where we are I think. As we made this change – staff, system, all that – I can appreciate all the work that’s gone into making those parts work.”
Riley pushed back, though, against the notion that NU players could take Diaco’s comments to suggest that they aren’t good enough or aren’t far enough into learning the new system to win games.
“That has never been any kind of a message that has ever surrounded any of our meetings or what we do as a team,” Riley said. “Program-wise, that’s never been thought of. We don’t even look back most of the time like that. I think that the proof for our players is kind of what happens with them day to day and the teaching that’s going on. I think they’ve latched onto it in a very positive way, actually. What happens with us productivity-wise may not reflect all the time the growth that we’re getting from individuals.”
The Huskers gave up 475 yards — including 232 rushing yards — to the Wildcats and are surrendering more than 37 points per game over their past four. Senior linebacker Chris Weber said he still sees the defense as improving each week.
“I think we are closer than it necessarily looks on the stat sheet at the end of the game,” he said after making a team-best 11 tackles against the Wildcats and exiting in overtime with a left shoulder stinger. “A lot of plays we have a lot of guys doing a lot of great things, but all it takes is a couple of breakdowns to give up big plays, points. That’s what we’re looking for, we’re looking for perfection.”
Many factors play into why the production has not been consistent. Weber insisted, though, that the Blackshirts are equipped with everything they need to win.
“That’s what I believe, absolutely,” he said.
Said Riley, “With the moving parts that we’ve had, I think (the defensive staff has) done a nice job of having to adjust to sometimes not having the first three safeties. From the very beginning we didn’t have a veteran corner (in Chris Jones), so we’re basically playing with 2.5 rookies — (sophomore cornerback Lamar Jackson) played a little bit a year ago — so there’s a lot of moving parts that we’ve had to deal with. Luke Gifford was one of our most solid performers there for a while and we haven’t had him (the past two games).
“These are just parts that are moving that have to be adjusted to all the time. I know for a fact that this group does a great job of teaching and preparation and doing what we can with the team to prepare to win.”
So where do the Blackshirts go from here? Diaco said Oct. 24 that, “There is no doubt that we are going to create a great defense. We are going to create the best defense in the country here. There is no doubt about that. It’s just going to take time.”
Currently, the Huskers are 92nd in scoring defense in the nation (30.1 points allowed per game) and last in the Big Ten at 5.8 yards allowed per play.
“I don’t ever remember saying, ‘Bob, let’s do this really fast,’ but we all want that,” Riley said. “We want that from the first game through every game. Then, when you see where you are, everybody just works hard at trying to make it better. That’s where we are in every phase of our game. And I’ve been proud of our coaches in the fact that I think they have kept the players engaged in growing.
“I’m proud that we have some guys, some players, that are tough-minded enough to keep growing and understanding.”