Bob Diaco speaks — and says Husker defense followed his game plan well

LINCOLN — Bob Diaco picked up and held the lavalier microphone Monday evening as he usually does to talk with media members after football practice. But this time, he didn’t need an opening question.

Two days after not conducting postgame media interviews following a 43-36 win over Arkansas State, Nebraska’s first-year defensive coordinator explained why that was the case. It had nothing to do with shying away or shirking responsibility, he said, labeling the reaction to his media absence as “a product of a lack of communication and miscommunication.”

“Coach (Mike Riley) thought it would be a good idea for me to just immediately address the group after being attacked this morning the way that I was,” Diaco said to open his session, later adding, “I was under the impression that I didn’t have to do postgame media — that’s what I was told.”

Diaco spent most of the next 17 minutes talking defense. What went right and where improvement can happen from last Saturday. How Oregon’s offensive machine — the one that piled up 703 total yards (8.9 per play) and 77 points against Southern Utah — presents an even more formidable challenge.

But make no mistake, Diaco said, he had a plan against Arkansas State and stuck to it. Every defender knew Thursday exactly how much they would play. The Huskers took away “50-50-shot jump balls” and limited big gains. And afterward, as he planned, he didn’t talk with reporters.

The coordinator also said he was delayed from reaching the locker room quickly after the game while stuck in a Memorial Stadium freight elevator with fellow coaches.

Riley blamed himself for the postgame interview situation, saying he spoke with Diaco during fall camp about it, with Diaco preferring to let Nebraska have “one voice” after games and hold back comment until his midweek session. Riley didn’t revisit the topic with his coordinator, which led to Saturday’s headline absence.

“Contrary to at least what was depicted, I’ve never run away from anything in my life,” Diaco said. “I’ve never not stood up and been accountable and accountable and responsible to my work and what I’ve been entrusted to do. That’s never happened and hasn’t and will not ever happen. So to be painted in that light or that way is absolutely ridiculous and very disappointing to me.”

Said Riley: “What I think was a pretty innocent thing turned into a bigger thing, but that’s it.”

Diaco said the on-field defensive plan ultimately worked. His goal is to finish with one more point than the opponent, and Nebraska did that even while giving up 497 yards on 89 Arkansas State snaps (5.6 per play). The Blackshirts allowed only five “chunk” plays (ones that go for at least 15 yards) and no runs longer than 14 yards.

“We built a game plan, articulated it to the players,” Diaco said. “They did a wonderful job in Game 1 of putting it together. They were fantastic, just like they’ve been since the moment that I met them.”

Of the 26 first-half points scored by Arkansas State, Diaco said 19 were essentially “given” by the Huskers. There was the punt-return touchdown and a safety. The roughing-the-passer penalty that extended a drive and led to a touchdown. Three points on a bizarre sequence that allowed the Red Wolves time to kick a field goal as the first half expired.

Riley said there were plenty of “teachable moments” for the defense to build on, citing some lost coverage of ASU receivers on curl routes. Diaco pointed to a pair of long yards-after-contact plays in which “fairly routine tackles” would have resulted in short gains.

But there was also strong work in the red zone — highlighted by Nebraska’s stand at its own 11-yard line in the final seconds — and effort plays. Linebacker Chris Weber said he was inspired by safety Aaron Williams’ knockdown of an end-zone pass in the fourth quarter that turned a would-be 14-yard touchdown into a field goal. It came on a sequence in which he said he blew the coverage by running toward the line of scrimmage instead of covering the middle of the field.

“It ended up being a huge play in the game,” Weber said. “I think there are pictures like that for the type of defense, what effort can do for us going forward. That’s good things to learn from.”

Riley said the discussion of any defensive growing pains should start by acknowledging the relative newness of the personnel rather than critiquing the 3-4 scheme. Consider:

» Starting sophomore cornerbacks Lamar Jackson and Eric Lee had one career start between them, with top backup and redshirt freshman Dicaprio Bootle making his college debut. Lee recorded two tackles all of last year before notching seven on Saturday.

Also in the secondary, Joshua Kalu was playing his 40th career game but the first from his new safety position after shifting from corner.

» Despite entering Saturday with 30 combined starts, the first-unit defensive line — ends Freedom Akinmoladun and Carlos Davis and nose tackle Mick Stoltenberg — had its own learning curve. Stoltenberg manned the nose for the first time while Davis started just his fifth career game. True freshman and backup nose Deontre Thomas also saw extended action in the middle.

» At linebacker, junior Luke Gifford made his first-ever college start while logging his most snaps in a Nebraska uniform (his nine tackles against A-State eclipsed his eight combined stops from the last two seasons across 10 games). Neither of his fellow starters, Weber and Marcus Newby, started more than five contests a year ago.

Other ’backers to see key minutes included sophomore Alex Davis (who played his first game off the line in his fourth year of organized football), classmate Mohamed Barry (his four tackles nearly equaled his six from all of 2016) and sophomore Tyrin Ferguson (who redshirted last season).

“I thought that the communication with the defensive staff was good,” Riley said. “I think the stuff that they talked about at halftime with our team was really well done and organized and done in a real good fashion, so I’m very confident that our players will continue to learn.

“And I think that people will make a lot of the new defense, but we also have to understand that it’s not always about that as much as it can be some of the guys’ first game. So we had some guys that not only were playing in a new defense, which I don’t use as part of this discussion, but actually just playing in a game and playing as much as they did.”

Other Huskers voiced patience for the defense as it prepares to face an Oregon team that Las Vegas oddsmakers have as a 14-point favorite Saturday on the West Coast. “We’ll be fine,” Weber said. Tight end Tyler Hoppes recalled more than a few days in fall camp in which defenders “were kicking our butts,” adding that he has confidence in the group.

Diaco said he was encouraged by Saturday, evidenced in part by the large number of video cut-ups coaches deemed good enough to show the entire defensive unit. That everyone can learn while winning football games? “That’s the best,” he said.

The Blackshirts were far from flawless, Diaco said. But then he likened their debut to the Garth Brooks song “Unanswered Prayers.” Maybe Arkansas State’s air-raid challenge — and all the lessons that came from the game — was a blessing in disguise.

“We probably got the best thing for the team that we absolutely needed,” Diaco said. “Although you get the feeling that it didn’t need to be like that, it probably was exactly what we needed.”

Nebraska at Oregon

When: 3:30 p.m. Saturday

Where: Autzen Stadium, Eugene

Radio: 103.1 FM

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