The validity of Nebraska’s top-10 ranking remains highly debated heading into Saturday’s night’s Big Ten Conference football game against the University of Wisconsin at Camp Randall Stadium.
The Cornhuskers are one of nine undefeated FBS teams, yet most would likely consider Northwestern to be the best of their seven wins.
What’s not disputable when it comes to the seventh-ranked team in the country? Its defense, particularly the back end of it, has made dramatic improvements over the offseason.
“I’m both excited and proud of the work our defensive staff has done, our defensive players have done,” Nebraska coach Mike Riley said. “I think that (they’re) taking to heart some of the things that we had to do better and really making that kind of a part of the teachings.”
Riley, who has led Nebraska (7-0) to its best start since 2001, said his defense spent a lot of time this offseason on two things in particular, one of which was tackling. The Cornhuskers installed a new tackling method in the spring, and Riley was impressed with how quickly his staff and players bought into it.
The other area of focus was being more sound downfield, so as to limit the number of big plays in the passing game.
Last season, Nebraska gave up 60 passing plays of 20 yards or more, the fourth-most among FBS teams. The Cornhuskers rank 15th nationally in that category this year and have given up just 17 such plays in seven games.
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“Last year, I remember getting ready for them and you see those big plays,” UW coach Paul Chryst said. “And you just don’t see them this year. I think they’re just playing really good defense right now.
“I think you see it across the board. I think they’re playing really good team defense, and I think they’ve got good players doing that. I know they’re well-coached. I think it’s a group that’s playing with confidence.”
Riley said Nebraska was technically sound against the run during his first season in 2015, but he wanted his passing defense to follow suit after issues in that area contributed to a 6-7 season.
The Cornhuskers’ defensive backs are talented, and now they have the fundamentals and discipline to show it off. Safety Nate Gerry has emerged as one of the nation’s top safeties and owns Pro Football Focus’ top coverage grade in the country, while cornerbacks Chris Jones and Joshua Kalu have also turned into big-time players.
Nebraska has depth it didn’t have a year ago, too. Per PFF, safety Aaron Williams has allowed the third-lowest quarterback rating in the country by defensive backs lined up in the slot.
“Aaron Williams has become really, I think, a proficient guy playing there,” Riley said. “Kalu can go in there and play. We’ve got a young guy out there, (freshman) Lamar Jackson, that is going to be a real good player as we go forward, so our depth is pretty good there, the work is good.
“I think the emphasis on what’s really important to take care of, we’ve done a better job of. I think that all has really produced better defense.”