After a season of wishing that the Big Red would play like the BIG RED, we've gotten it two weeks in a row. Almost.
One thing is still missing.
Great Nebraska teams – great team's period – win the turnover battle. Just three seasons ago, the Blackshirts were a gang of playmakers, with Kyle Van Dan Bosch, Mike Brown, and friends stuffing opponents even when the offense dropped the ball. Remember the back-to-back home games in 1999 with Texas A&M and K-State, when the Huskers fumbled on their first play from scrimmage both games? Remember how the defense stepped up, then blocked field goal attempts both times?
This Nebraska defense, even though they have played well in back to back games, still continues to lack the ability to make the big play at the big time. Against Texas, it was more of the same. A pretty decent defensive effort (at least in terms of run-stopping) produced just one harmless interception with just seconds left in the first half. Texas put it in the air more than forty times. There needs to be more in the takeaway department. The whole Nebraska defensive effort can be summed up on one play. Texas drive in the first half. Chris Simms drops back to pass deep in the Husker Red-Zone. Pass toward the goal line. Josh Bullocks steps in front of the reciever with nothing but 100 yards of green in front of him. And the ball sails right through his hands.
Nebraska is a minus five in turnover margin this season. And it's not like they are fumbling or throwing three picks every game. They could be better, but they've done a decent job of protecting the football for the most part.
They are minus five because they simply can not create turnovers.
I asked a coach friend of mine why. It's not a quick, easy answer he told me, but he gave me some insight on why some teams can, and others can't, get turnovers.
First, it starts with speed. Does your defense have speed? Are more than one or two players meeting the guy with the ball? Players don't fumble much in one-on-one tackling situations. More tacklers means somebody can try to strip the football.
Second, is your defense playing an "in-your-face" style? Think about basketball. Teams that play a pressing man-to-man style get more turnovers than teams that sit back in a conservative zone. Same in football.
And third, is your offense helping out? Teams that are playing from behind are more prone to turning the ball over, for obvious reasons. Past Nebraska teams that have had the offense piling up points early and often put the opponent in situations that helped lead to more turnovers for the Blackshirts.
So it's not just one thing. We can blame it on Craig Bohl's ‘bend-but-don't-break' style, and on the fact that the young Husker defense is still a step behind in terms of reading and reacting. And this Nebraska offense has seemed - strangely – better at playing from behind.
It means that with more experience, it's likely that these Blackshirts will get a little better at creating turnovers. They do have young talent and raw speed on that side of the ball. Bohl – who's job is on the line as the season concludes – had better return to the aggressive, attacking style that made the Blackshirts feared.
The opportunity to win the conference is gone, but there's plenty at stake with three games left. A Bowl bid, a nine-win season, and revenge against Colorado. It all starts with the defense.