Inconsistent, at best.
That might be the best way to describe Nebraska's overall defensive performance thus far.
The Huskers have shown flashes of what they could ultimately become against weaker competition (Rutgers, Illinois, and Northern Illinois), but have gotten gouged in key spots against better teams (Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Oregon).
With no easy answers or quick fixes, here's how I'd grade out the Nebraska defense and special teams.
DEFENSIVE LINE: C
The number one task for the defense line? Stop the run. Or, at least slow it down enough for the linebackers to jump in and help.
The verdict so far? See above: Inconsistent, at best.
Against meager running attacks, Nebraska has done just fine. But when really called upon to do something special against Wisconsin and Ohio State, it just wasn't there.
Nebraska was gashed for 353 yards on the ground against the Badgers, and yielded 279 to the Buckeyes.
The Huskers have dropped to 69th nationally in rush defense, allowing 165.9 yards per game, and 4.59 yards per rush. For a team that also has issues defending the pass, giving up 4.5 yards per attempt isn't going to get the job done.
While the D-line also shares in some of the pass rush responsibility, their primary focus is to slow down the run, and it's been a very mixed bag so far this year.
At times, they've been out of position. Other times, they've looked lost in the scheme.
They've looked slow. They've been hurt. And, there's been a lot of guys that have played in this group.
I count at least nine: Luke Gifford, Dedrick Young, Chris Weber, Marcus Newby, Alex Davis, Sedrick King, Ben Stille, Tyrin Ferguson, and Mo Barry; that have rotated in this season - and I might be missing one or two.
Yet with all the bodies, it just doesn't feel like Nebraska has found any kind of consistency at linebacker. Luke Gifford has been the best bet of the group, and even he's had moments where he's been out of sorts.
Nebraska's lack of pass rush doesn't fall entirely upon the outside linebacker group, but the Huskers are sitting at 102nd nationally in total sacks, with just 10 on the season.
Getting more consistent pressure on the QB would be a big help at this point.
In terms of covering tight ends, backs, and receivers in passing routes? It hasn't been pretty - I'll just leave it at that.
If not for the rash of injuries Nebraska has endured, this group could well be looking at a "F."
As things stand, Chris Jones is finally working his way back, and the trio of safeties (Kalu, Williams, and Reed) have all had another week to heal up.
That said, the issues in the secondary have been plentiful.
Guys out of position. Lack of tackling. Poor technique. Lack of speed. No coverage. Too many penalties. Lack of physicality. I could go on, but what's the point?
To top it off, Nebraska has played incredibly soft coverage at times to protect their corners, and thus given up way too many freebies.
It's been a mess - hopefully a healthy Jones, Kalu, Reed, and Williams can help bring some stability.
There's not much to gripe about when it comes to Drew Brown and Caleb Lightbourn.
Nebraska may rank 49th in net punting - but the 39.03 yards per punt is within 3 yards of being in the top 15. Lightbourn has become more and more consistent as the season has wore on, and is eons better than a year ago.
Brown is 6-8 on field goals this year, and has proved to be the lone bright spot in a few of Nebraska's darkest moments. He consistently kicked the ball through the end zone on kickoffs, and is a perfect 23-23 on PAT's.
Punting and kicking can always be better, but it's hard to ask much more of these two.
PUNT/KICK RETURNS: C
I wouldn't go so far as to say the return game has been a "weapon" for Nebraska this year, but it also hasn't been a liability as of late.
Early in the season, the decision making in the punt return game was maddening, and I actually called for a switch away from DeMornay Pierson-El. Since that time, he's steadily improved, and things look like they're trending in the right direction.
JD Spielman has also provided some spark in the kick return game when given chances, highlighted by his 99-yard return for a TD against Wisconsin.
Bob Diaco and his guys have an excellent track record and reputation of being solid teachers of the game.
That said, it hasn't exactly come together so far in Lincoln.
How much of it is poor scheme? How much of it is lack of execution? How much is basic lack of ability or mental errors?
The one question I'd like to see answered - where's the aggressiveness? Where are the blitzes? Why the soft coverage? Where's the tenacity? Is it lack of understanding, or have players simply not shown enough in practice to warrant cranking things up?
At this point, I can't quite sort it all out without seeing more. So, for the moment, it's an "incomplete" mark for the coaches.
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