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Nebraska football practice, 9/12/17

Nebraska linebacker Tyrin Ferguson (43) stretches during practice in September at Hawks Championship Center.

They are glaring statistics, and certainly not the type a defensive coordinator desires.

Nebraska has recorded only one sack in two games against opponents who combined to throw 101 passes.

What's more, Arkansas State and Oregon have completed 70.2 percent of those passes.

The new leader of the Blackshirts, coordinator Bob Diaco, maintains a sense of patience, mindful this is the players' first year in his 3-4 system.

"We're doing everything we can to try to help facilitate a growing, maturing, developing coverage," Diaco said after Tuesday's practice. "And that's a balance of some pressure, some four-man rush and some three-man rush."

Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert, in a 42-35 win against Nebraska last weekend in Eugene, Oregon, too often had ample time in the pocket. He finished 25-for-33 passing for 365 yards and three touchdowns, with one interception. He was never sacked.

In Nebraska's 43-36 season-opening win, Arkansas State quarterback Justice Hansen — often firing horizontal passes toward the sideline off a two-step drop — completed 46 of 68 attempts for 415 yards and three touchdowns, with two interceptions.

Diaco said both Arkansas State and Oregon feature offenses that create a lot of misdirection and a lot of problems in rushing the passer.

"They don't take a lot of negative plays, these style of offenses," the coach said. "They get the ball out (on pass plays) very fast."

When Nebraska was winning national championships in the 1990s, the goal was a sack every 12 attempts.

But, yes, times have changed in a variety of ways.

"Defending in 2017 is very different than defending in recent history because of the change in rules (in 2009) where the offensive linemen can run off the line of scrimmage," Diaco said. "A lot of the plays look like runs. So it's not like you're into a pass-rush mode until the critical situation — third-down-and-long or an end-of-game (situation)."

Oregon, using an up-tempo, spread offense, bolted to a 42-14 lead at halftime in part because of its success on third-and-long. In fact, its first two touchdowns occurred on third-and-8 plays — a 32-yard pass to Brenden Schooler and an 8-yard strike to Charles Nelson.

In the second quarter, Herbert gunned a 21-yard completion to Johnny Johnson III on third-and-17, setting up yet another touchdown.

Bottom line, those were opportunities for the defense to get off the field, Diaco said.

"We've got to capitalize on those moments," he said.

Entering Saturday's game against Northern Illinois (1-1), Nebraska ranks 128th in passing defense (390.0 yards per contest). The Huskers are 69th against the run (141.5 on 4.4 per carry).

He said the Huskies' offensive style will test the Blackshirts with many of the same type of issues that the first two opponents posed, including a lot of plays with a run-pass option. RPOs first began to formulate because of the controversial 2009 rule change that allowed linemen to block 3 yards downfield on a pass play, but is rarely enforced up to 5 yards.

Diaco describes it as "the most inequitable rule in the history of college football."

"But, hey, you know, America loves points," he said.

Diaco was asked where his defense stands through two games compared with what he envisioned a month ago, when Nebraska was in preseason camp.

"Well, there's a lot of change that's gone on in the last 30 days — for sure the last 60 days," he said.

He was referring to injuries to cornerback Chris Jones and safety Joshua Kalu, as well as the July death of safeties coach Bob Elliott.

Arguably the Huskers' top defensive player, Jones underwent a meniscus repair on his left knee in mid-July and his status for this season is uncertain. Kalu, also one of the team's top defenders, suffered a hamstring injury against Oregon. Kalu didn't practice Tuesday and is doubtful for Saturday, head coach Mike Riley said Monday.

Meanwhile, safety Antonio Reed practiced Tuesday in a green jersey after undergoing "a procedure" that prohibited him from full contact, Diaco said. Riley didn't mention Reed in the injury rundown Monday.

Nebraska's top cornerback group — redshirt freshman Dicaprio Bootle and sophomores Eric Lee and Lamar Jackson — entered the season with one start between them.

"At the same time, there are young players who can play," Diaco said. "They're really good guys. They're tough and they're on fire for their work. It's just a work in progress and a developmental piece that's going to take playing in the games."

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


Husker columnist

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

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