Erik Chinander's mind is squarely on Northwestern this week. His respect for the Wildcats is obvious.
But the first-year Nebraska defensive coordinator has a dilemma that looms in the back of his mind.
His unit often practices against head coach Scott Frost's spread offense. That'll help as the Huskers gear to play the Wildcats at 11 a.m. Saturday in Evanston, Illinois. But it wasn't much help last week against Wisconsin's power-oriented, pro-style offense, which hammered out 533 yards of total offense, including 370 on the ground, in a 41-24 victory.
Michigan's pro-style system produced 491 yards, including 285 rushing, in a 56-10 win Sept. 22 against NU.
"I've got to figure out a way to get us more familiar with that scheme going forward, and playing in those tight boxes …" Chinander said Tuesday.
He sounded confident his defenders would respond well to the loss at Wisconsin in which the Badgers were physically dominant at times.
However, "I have concerns we have a long ways to go footballwise and a long ways to go strength and conditioningwise if we're going to catch up and be able to beat teams like Wisconsin and Michigan," he said.
Iowa and Michigan State are other teams on Nebraska's schedule that use a power-oriented offense that often employs two running backs and relies on physical play at the line of scrimmage. As is the case with NU, Wisconsin and Iowa are in the Big Ten West.
“The majority of the country is more like what we’re seeing this week (against Northwestern), whereas in the Big Ten you’re going to have a handful of games where you’ve got pro-style, two-back, I (-formation) football, and that’s something we have to be prepared for," said Husker inside linebackers coach Barrett Ruud. "We have to be able to go week to week and still apply your rules but understand you’re getting a different offense.”
Frost said the adjustment the Husker defense currently faces against power offenses is exacerbated by the fact the program is working through a coaching transition.
“In Year 2 of any program, I think you’re afforded more time in the spring to start working on other people’s schemes rather than trying to just learn your own," Frost said. "So certainly in spring ball next year I’m sure we’ll do a lot more things with our defense where we can try to give them the looks that those teams give. This first spring … most of those reps are against our offense. All those things are going to work together to make that a little bit easier.”
As for Northwestern (2-3, 2-1 Big Ten), the Wildcats lean hard on their passing attack. The loss earlier this season of running back Jeremy Larkin to cervical stenosis — a non-life-threatening condition that ended his playing career — evidently has set back the Wildcats' ground attack. They rank last in the Big Ten and 127th nationally with an average of 77.4 rushing yards per game.
In Saturday's 29-19 win at Michigan State, Northwestern prevailed despite a net of 8 rushing yards on 20 carries.
Although Northwestern's scheme looks hardly anything like Wisconsin's, "I don't think either one is better or worse," Chinander said. "It's just a different scheme."
His review of the Wisconsin game film had to be unpleasant.
"Once again, it was guys being in the right spot, (but) not being able to make the play right now," he said.
Lack of depth in some spots also is an ongoing issue, especially with no break in sight. The cancellation of the opener against Akron, and subsequent addition of Bethune-Cookman to the schedule on Oct. 27, means Nebraska is playing 12 straight weeks without a bye.
"We were playing decent early against Wisconsin, and then we kind of got worn down," Chinander said.