Husker columnist

Steven, a lifelong Nebraskan, newspaper enthusiast and UNL grad, joined the Journal Star in 1990 and has covered NU football since 1995.

Husker football practice, 9/19/17

Nebraska defensive coordinator Bob Diaco makes notes during football practice in September at Hawks Championship Center.

FRANCIS GARDLER, Journal Star

Things I know, and things I think I know:

It'll be the Bob Diaco Show this week in Lincoln. Grab some popcorn.

The first-year Nebraska defensive coordinator mystified many Husker football fans Saturday with his comments following the Huskers' 31-24 overtime loss to Northwestern.

His explanations for why his defense struggled against the Wildcats and throughout most of the season — the Huskers rank 73rd nationally in total defense, 43 spots lower than they finished in 2016 — simply aren't flying with a lot of folks.

I'll cut him slack. Perhaps the 44-year-old New Jersey native is trying too hard to make sense of it all. On one hand, he said, "The guys that go in (the game) can produce." He has said in the past the Huskers have the type of players to succeed. They "strain" hard in practice and games, he says. He consistently tries to build up his players. That's generally an admirable trait.

In the next breath, however, he'll tell you his defenders lack "the aptitude to execute the scope and full range of the package."

"We're not at that point yet, and there's no reason why we should be at that point," he said Saturday in reference to Nebraska's offseason switch from a 4-3 system to his 3-4.

There's a school of thought that says Diaco's comments are designed to create a comfortable landing spot for his players, perhaps to keep them in a positive frame of mind entering the final three regular-season games.

But Diaco couldn't have generated much confidence among the troops when he said after watching Northwestern accumulate 475 yards, "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."

Huh?

Wonder how Penn State's horses on offense will interpret those comments as they prepare to play Nebraska on Nov. 18.

Of course, there's also a school of thought that says Diaco's comments were indicative of a coach in damage-control mode, mindful of what he hopes is a long career ahead. After all, he's coming off a rugged three years as Connecticut's head coach. He was 11-26 there. This season, his defense ranks 71st nationally against the pass, 81st against the run and 115th in sacks per game (1.22).

The Huskers last season under Mark Banker finished 65th nationally in average sacks (2.0). They allowed 23.9 points per game (33rd nationally) compared with 30.1 this season (91st). Ouch.

Nebraska head coach Mike Riley fired Banker in January and hired Diaco a couple of days later. Riley, in his third season at NU, hoped for immediate improvement from the defense. He sold that notion to fans. Instead, the unit has regressed.

It's regressed even though Diaco told us in January his system was flexible enough to accommodate defenders who weren't necessarily recruited to a 3-4. 

"The Nebraska defensive personnel is going to be just fine to become and be a great defense," he said then.

Asked Saturday about the Blackshirts' run defense this season, Diaco said, "Listen, everybody's improving. They're improving. They're not not improving. Every player's improving. And when you think about stopping — let's just call it stopping the run, right? — so that requires a particular set of physical traits, and it requires a particular set of intellectual traits, and the guys possess those traits. They possess those traits. Some are at a level, let's call it a 100-level of aptitude and those guys will move to 200-level aptitude and 300 level. They'll grow. They're moving forward. They're going to get bigger and stronger and more physical ..."

Meanwhile, Michigan State (7-2, 5-1 Big Ten) ranks third nationally in rushing defense and 12th overall even with six sophomores and three freshmen among its top 15 tacklers. You're not hearing excuses coming out of East Lansing, Michigan — although, to be fair, the Spartans didn't change systems.

Wisconsin (9-0, 6-0) lost its best linebacker to injury and has a first-time defensive coordinator calling the shots this season. The Badgers change coordinators like most people change socks. Even so, they are tied for fourth nationally in scoring defense (13.3). Again, no excuses.

Nebraska has five sophomores and two freshmen among its top 15 tacklers. And, yes, NU changed systems.

Diaco will lay out in great length the accompanying challenges.

* I did appreciate some of Diaco's comments Saturday, particularly the ones about how his "heart is wrenched for the seniors." In that regard, it's great to see linebackers Chris Weber and Marcus Newby playing well in the final stages of their college careers. It's been an uneven ride for both of them.

* Tanner Lee always strikes me as a class act. Asked what he thinks when he hears former Huskers criticize the current team, the junior transfer quarterback said, "I would be disappointed if I was them. I think this means so much to them. They want to see their school do well, and that's understandable."

* Iowa stunned Ohio State while playing two freshman offensive tackles. OK, OK ... I'll stop now with the "no excuses" jag.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7440 or ssipple@journalstar.com. On Twitter @HuskerExtraSip.

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