LINCOLN — Five weeks into the college football season, Wisconsin’s defense has a standing statistical reservation among the nation’s best.
The Badgers make the top 10 in scoring defense, total defense, rushing defense, sacks, fewest first downs allowed and fewest big plays allowed. UW’s 3-4 scheme — under its third coordinator in as many years — gives offenses fits with myriad blitzes, stunts and coverages.
Nebraska offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf calls the Badgers’ defense the “best, easily” his team has faced this season.
“They’re solid across the board,” Langsdorf said.
Said offensive tackle David Knevel: “The biggest thing about these guys is they ain’t going to make any mistakes. They’re going to be in all their gaps, where they’re supposed to, so it’s going to be a battle.”
But Nebraska may have a secret decoder ring to Wisconsin’s system.
NU coach Mike Riley hired the defensive coordinator in January to install a 3-4 defense. Riley wanted to switch to the 3-4 because Nebraska can recruit outside linebackers more easily than elite defensive linemen, but he also figured NU’s offense could use the practice against the scheme. Across their last three games against the Badgers, the Huskers have averaged 3.97 yards per play — 1.92 yards per play less than their three-year average.
So Diaco’s presence — and his system — is supposed to prepare Nebraska for what Wisconsin might do.
“It helps us out a lot going against it in spring and fall camp, especially for so many reps,” quarterback Tanner Lee said. “It helps our offensive line out, mixing up looks and different stunts and blitzes and things.”
Langsdorf, Riley and players agree that preparing for a 3-4 defense — where the three down linemen are stationed over the center and tackles, flanked and supported by four linebackers — tends to be harder than a 4-3. They said it’s also easier for an offense that faces the 3-4 in practice to prepare for a 4-3 cold than it used to be for NU to prepare for a 3-4 after seeing a 4-3 in practice.
In his early coaching days, Riley was a defensive coordinator and used the 3-4, although it may have been closer to the “50” or 5-2 defense favored by most college programs in the 1980s. So he was aware of its advantages. Throughout his coaching tenure at Oregon State, and for his first two years at NU, he was a 4-3 guy, using a three-man line only in third-down prevent defense situations.
Under Diaco, the Huskers stick with the 3-4 quite a bit, though they’ll shift to a four-man line in sub packages. So will Wisconsin.
“In nickel situations, it can morph into a four-man front,” Riley said.
Husker linemen saw all of it in spring and August practice. So did reporters. Diaco was more exotic with his pressure packages, twists and wrinkles than he has been in the games themselves, and NU’s offensive line, especially in third-down drills, struggled to keep up.
It was fun, right guard Tanner Farmer said. Also a little frustrating. Left guard Jerald Foster agreed.
“Coach Diaco has given us every look you could possibly have,” Foster said. “So hopefully we don’t get surprised by anything that comes that way, that we’re able to adjust to whatever they bring.”
The 3-4, Foster said, “is a little difficult” for linemen to read, in part because the fourth pass rusher, on any given pass play, could be any of the four linebackers.
Husker linemen have seen the scheme for months, building mental and muscle reps, girding for the game that Nebraska has to win to control its destiny in the league. Each 3-4 is a little different, so Diaco’s system isn’t an exact replica of Wisconsin’s system. But all the practice can’t hurt in preparing for the Badgers.
“Now that it’s what we usually go against, I think we’ll have a good time against them,” Foster said.
Chris Jones’ return ‘up to him,’
LINCOLN — Nebraska cornerback Chris Jones’ return to action will be “entirely up to him,” defensive coordinator Bob Diaco said Tuesday.
“Trying not to get overly excited just because we as an organization don’t want to put any undue pressure on him,” Diaco said following Tuesday evening’s practice inside the Hawks Center. “But he looks really good. He looks really good. Quick, big, fast, smart, making right choices, stayed in his books. The hand signals, the calls, the process, the checks — things in play that might take a little while to connect the dots — he’s doing a nice job. He’s really looked good the last few days.”
Cornerbacks coach Donte Williams is hopeful Jones will play on Saturday but didn’t sound as if he’s counting on it.
“He looks the same. He’s been working out a long time,” Williams said. “I hope one of these days he can step on the field and play. I don’t know when that’ll be but hopefully it’ll be sooner rather than later.”
Two other senior Blackshirts, linebacker Marcus Newby (hamstring) and safety Joshua Kalu (hamstring) also returned to practice this week and participated Tuesday after missing games.
Diaco said it’s “sad” when injuries keep seniors from seeing the field in their last go-round with a program.
Same old Badgers
Diaco called Wisconsin a “championship organization” and said “they know who they are on offense.”
“It looks and feels like the Wisconsin offense from when I was a player in this league,” said Diaco, an All-Big Ten linebacker at Iowa in the mid-1990s. “Not much has changed since, let’s call it ’94-’95. Big, strong, cohesive, one unit. Everybody knows their job. Big, tackle-breaking runners. Excellent tight ends. It’s a strong, strong offense.”
Diaco said UW’s top three tight ends — led by 6-foot-6, 248-pound senior Troy Fumagalli — are “pretty excellent,” and “I think you’d be hard-pressed to see better tight ends in the league than them.”
Running back Jonathan Taylor will also be a focus, Diaco said. The 5-foot-11, 214-pound freshman from New Jersey has 524 rushing yards and seven touchdowns on 72 carries (7.2 per attempt). Diaco said the back has a lethal combination of size and speed and will be a challenge to tackle.
Knevel ready for UW test
David Knevel walked to reporters in full pads, wearing a smile.
The senior right tackle from Canada, out for several weeks with a high ankle sprain and a stress reaction in his foot, wanted to be back for the Wisconsin game.
“I really want to play in this one,” said Knevel, who was available for the Illinois game but watched true freshman Brenden Jaimes get his second career start. “I love playing against Wisconsin. I looked at film on Sunday and these guys are really talented. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”
Knevel said UW’s edge rushers — Garret Dooley and Leon Jacobs — are good, but he’s equally impressed with the Badgers technique-sound defensive line.
“I think we’re equally matched in talent,” Knevel said. “It’s just one of those things where you’ve got to persevere.”
Jaimes and Matt Farniok — both of whom have played right tackle since Knevel was injured against Arkansas State — are coming along, Knevel said.
“I’m in their ears a lot,” he said. “Maybe too much.”
Big plans for redshirt Thomas
Dooley had 3½ sacks against Northwestern; this week in practice, freshman Guy Thomas is simulating Dooley on the scout team.
Nebraska has big plans for Thomas, linebackers coach Trent Bray said, but coaches felt a redshirt season was best for him instead of playing a handful of third downs per game.
Thomas’ teammates are impressed with him.
“Guy is a physical freak,” outside linebacker Luke Gifford said. “That was obvious when he got here. He showed up light and he put on weight fast. He got big and strong, and he was already a fast kid. It’s cool to see him develop.”
» Fumagalli is someone Nebraska has to watch, Gifford said.
“He’s really good,” Gifford said. “We’ve seen him the last couple years and he’s been a big matchup for us.”
NU has generally had success covering tight ends this season.
“I think it’s a lot of guys covering a couple dudes,” Gifford said. “It makes a big difference when you have a lot of guys who can do it.”
» Running back Devine Ozigbo said Mikale Wilbon (ankle) and Tre Bryant (knee) remain upbeat as they work through injuries. Neither back participated in practice Tuesday.
“They’re always there, they have the scripts, they’re helping out,” Ozigbo said. “We’re talking, we’re going over things. I ask both of them how my runs look, what they saw in pass protection, things like that. We’re always helping each other out. They both have pretty good attitudes. They’re going to do whatever they can in any role to help the team.”
» Bray said Tyrin Ferguson could’ve played against Illinois. So he could see time on Saturday against Wisconsin. The sophomore from New Orleans has been out with turf toe.
» De’Mornay Pierson-El, Kalu, Antonio Reed and Aaron Williams all wore green jerseys at practice, indicating all four are taking it easy this week to avoid injury.
» Ozigbo has been tucking up his jersey into his pads for a “crop-top” look. He said on Tuesday he hadn’t been yelled at for it by a ref until Saturday’s game. He said he’ll continue to try out the look, which is no longer technically allowed in college football, until he gets told otherwise by another ref in a game.
Wisconsin at Nebraska
When: 7 p.m. Saturday
Where: Memorial Stadium
Radio: 103.1 FM