‘Developing’ Husker defense sees opportunity flip switch in red zone

LINCOLN — Pick a game from Nebraska’s 3-2 start to the season. In each one, a defining moment has come with the defense backed up near its own end zone.

There have been highs: The Blackshirts forced two Arkansas State incompletions at their own 11-yard line to seal a 43-36 win. And they halted two long Illinois drives last week by forcing field goals to pull away 28-6.

There have been lows: Oregon scored touchdowns on five straight trips inside NU’s 20 to build a 42-14 halftime lead. Northern Illinois completed its 21-17 shocker with a 2-yard run to pay dirt following a 16-yard completion near the goal line.

Red-zone stops have been an emphasis for Nebraska defensive coordinator Bob Diaco in the eight-plus months he’s been with the program. Bow up. Seize back momentum. Make a big play.

“The red zone is a culture piece,” Diaco said. “It’s not necessarily the call, it’s more the mindset. And we’re working on that, we’re a work in progress there.”

There have been heroes on that part of the field. Against Arkansas State, NU snuffed a drive at its own 9 when defensive end Freedom Akinmoladun tipped a pass that linebacker Tyrin Ferguson intercepted. On the penultimate play of the game, Lamar Jackson knocked down a would-be game-tying pass in the end zone.

The Big Red were big in the red zone facing Illinois as well. Members of the front seven grabbed headlines last Friday night as outside linebacker Ben Stille emerged to make a key tackle for a 5-yard loss on one drive and the defensive line swallowed up Illini rushers and pressured the quarterback on the other threat.

Both lengthy possessions — lasting 15 and 12 plays, respectively — resulted in short field goals that fired up the Husker sideline. Sequences like those are why nose tackle Mick Stoltenberg says the Blackshirts see red-zone situations as a way to positively affect a game rather than being in tough spots.

“If someone’s got you backed up that far, obviously they’re not going to be able to do as many things,” Stoltenberg said. “They’re not going to be as dynamic because there’s less space to work with. So it’s just treating the red zone as an opportunity to get a big momentous stop, and it’s exciting for us.”

Diaco said there is also a mathematical side to evaluating red-zone success. If the goal is to limit scoring — “It’s really just about the points,” Diaco said — then the most telling measurement is comparing red-zone penetrations against points.

Nebraska’s opponents have reached the 20-yard line and beyond on 17 occasions through five games. On 15 drives when the other offense was trying — Oregon and Northern Illinois each went into victory formation deep in NU territory — the Husker defense has held foes to five points per red-zone drive.

During those 15 possessions, the Blackshirts have defended 49 plays inside the 20 and allowed 2.82 yards per snap. They’ve given up nine touchdowns and four field goals while twice posting zeroes. In red-zone chances during Big Ten wins the last two weeks, NU has surrendered three field goals and a touchdown.

“We’re a developing defense, we’ve got a lot of young players playing and a lot of inexperienced players playing,” Diaco said. “Good players — excited about them — but we’re just a developing defense that’s growing. So I would expect that each coach and each player would just keep getting better week to week, day to day.”

Overall, Nebraska has allowed touchdowns on 52.94 percent of opponents’ drives to rank 56th nationally after placing 90th (64.71) last year. By comparison, Nebraska’s 2009 defense that led the country in scoring defense ranked seventh (39.29). Diaco’s 2012 Notre Dame defense that played for a national title was third (34.21) in that category. His units at Connecticut and with the Fighting Irish have ranked in the top 25 in that stat in five of the last seven seasons.

NU coach Mike Riley said the red zone is where offenses often get most creative. So there’s an even greater onus on defenders to be sharp mentally and make stops at the first point of contact.

“It’s kind of a microcosm of the game,” Riley said. “It’s all condensed. You’ve got to be ready for just about anything and you’ve got to be really physical to stop them from scoring and you’ve got to be really smart to keep from getting tricked.”

The Blackshirts are aware Wisconsin can move the ball as they face an attack that ranks 22nd in scoring offense (40.8 point per game) and 35th in total offense (459.8 yards per game). But it’s what happens close to the goal line that could be the difference between a season-turning upset Saturday night and another week of uncertainty.

“We’re tough anywhere we are on the field,” linebacker Mo Barry said. “We try to play the best ball we can, but when they get into the red zone, it’s kind of like another switch flips on. Just because they’re down there doesn’t mean they have to get any points. We try to keep them as far away from a touchdown as we can. We just keep defending and try not to give up anything, really. Not even a field goal.”

Wisconsin at Nebraska

When: 7 p.m. Saturday

Where: Memorial Stadium

Radio: 103.1 FM

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