Fixing Nebraska’s third down defense

LINCOLN — Matt Rhule didn’t even take a split second to start formulating his answer. Maybe that spoke to how much he — and his defensive coaches — have thought about the matter during the offseason, and perhaps one loss in particular.

The question: How can you get a little bit better on third down defense, and what are the hallmarks of the good third down defenses you’ve had in your career?

The start of Rhule’s answer: “To me, if everything’s pressure, you’re never going to be great. You have to have the ability to rush with four.”

Translation: Too many blitzes can get you beat.

More: “And third and three-to-six, you have to be able to play man (coverage). You have to be able to line up and play man.”

It’s here Rhule mentioned Wisconsin receiver Will Pauling, who caught eight passes for 79 yards in the Badgers’ 24-17 overtime win over the Huskers. At 5-foot-10, 185 pounds, Pauling led the Big Ten — and ranked third nationally — in third down receptions. NU labored to cover the guy, particularly on option routes.

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When opposing offenses line up in receiver bunch or stack formations, Rhule said, the Huskers must respond with good man coverage.

That didn’t always happen in 2023.

In fact, third-down defense has been a year-over-year problem for Nebraska.

Across the last five seasons — since 2019 — Nebraska has allowed opponents to convert 39.8% of their third downs into first downs. That ranks last in the Big Ten.

Maryland and Northwestern are next-worst at 39.4%. Wisconsin is No. 1 at 31.7%. Ohio State (32.9%) and Michigan 34% — the twin titans of the old Big Ten — rank second and third, and that includes all their College Football Playoff games.

A struggle to take the ball away is one bugaboo for the Husker D. Third down is the other. Tony White’s crew allowed opponents to convert 36.67% of their third downs last season. That’s NU’s best performance since 2015 and 45th nationally.

Still, Nebraska only ranked eighth in the offensively challenged Big Ten. And in NU’s final three games — losses to Maryland, Wisconsin and Iowa — opponents converted 42.2%. The Badgers converted 7 of 15, or 46.67%.

An elite defense, Rhule said, holds opponents to a conversion rate below 30%. Ten defenses — including OSU and UM — did that last year. The 2016 Wolverine defense — practitioners of a tight man-to-man scheme under old defensive coordinator Don Brown — held foes to a 21.02% conversion rate, the best figure in 15 years.

Nebraska last dipped below 30% in 2014, when Randy Gregory anchored that four-man rush, and Bo Pelini last directed NU’s pass defense. The Huskers’ 29.9% opponent conversion rate that year was aided by Fresno State’s 23 attempts during The Night That Would Never End, but it still was a good third down defense. So was 2015. And 2016.

In 2017, Bob Diaco rolled in town. His “no reasonable reason” D allowed a 43.06% conversion rate, including the night Ohio State converted 76.92% of its third downs, clearing out Memorial Stadium by halftime.

“There was nothing that wasn’t disappointing about tonight’s performance at every level,” Diaco said. (As only he could.)

Diaco’s scheme was designed more to bow up in the red zone than get stingy on third down. But his successor, Erik Chinander, was more aggressive. NU blitzed quite a bit in that first season — and got burned for it. Opponents converted 43.18% of their third downs.

In 2019, OSU rolled into town again. Converted 76.92% of its third downs. Again. That awful night was part of a five-year trend.

Since 2019, when Nebraska allows opponents to convert 50% of its third downs, the record is 1-15. When opponents convert fewer than 30% of their third downs, NU’s record is 11-4.

Rhule noted on Saturday defenses that face a lot of third downs tend to have success, too. That makes sense — an offense that’s in third down 20 times produced very few explosive plays — but Rhule also wants his D to get off the field.

“I just want to be great on third-and-seven-plus,” Rhule said of third downs that are seven yards or longer. “That’s the (conversions) that kill you, to me. Because then people think they can do it.”

In 2023, opponents did it against Nebraska. According to, foes threw 70 third-down passes on third-and-seven or longer, completing 58.6% of them. They converted 23 of those throws into first downs.

That’s a 32.9% opponent conversion rate. That’s last in the Big Ten. Michigan was first at 17.6%. Iowa ranked second at 19.5%. They played each other for the Big Ten title.

Nebraska finished 5-7. An anemic offense — that averaged 18 points — remains the primary culprit. But there’s room for NU’s defense to grow.

Pass rush and man coverage. That’s the key.

“It’s getting great rushers who are also disciplined enough to keep guys in the pocket, the ability to play man and still have the pressure package,” Rhule said. “Because Tony’s always going to create chaos.”

Does Nebraska have the four-man pass rush?

“It’s been really good up until today,” Rhule said Saturday, noting he’d have to review film. “We have the guys who can do it.”

Does Nebraska have the guys to play man coverage? Internally, NU coaches think so. Blye Hill is viewed as a major addition on the edge, one that allows Malcolm Hartzog to move to safety, which, on third down, can become like a slot corner role.

And then, of course, the Huskers have to get good coverage from linebackers, too. Guys who can both track a tight end or running back, and potentially track down a scrambling quarterback.

“One of the things in the Big Ten, at least last year, you had Tanner Mordecai, you had all these guys who could get out of the pocket and run,” Rhule said.

Mordecai rushed for 51 yards in that win over NU. It’s a loss that stung perhaps as much as any last season, and here’s why:

Nebraska’s offense gained 364 yards that day – the most it had against any Big Ten foe last year – and staked a 14-0 lead. The defense coughed up that advantage, as the Huskers lost to the Badgers for the ninth straight time.

It’s not a night NU can get back. But it’s a third down defense Nebraska can change.

Quarterbacks in Nebraska’s spring game

Be ready for good performances from the three scholarship Nebraska quarterbacks on Saturday. In the case of Dylan Raiola and Daniel Kaelin, be careful to derive too much from their work, too.

They’re young. They’re throwing to largely young receivers. Who will be covered by largely young defensive backs.

Watch for accuracy, turnover avoidance (except for Hail Mary stuff) and how the little things get handled at the line of scrimmage. Because quarterbacks have a green dot microphone in their helmet, they can navigate some of the pre-snap maneuvers — up to 15 seconds left on the play clock — with coaching assistance.

NIL and the Memorial Stadium renovation

As Kansas continues its full-scale football stadium renovation, and Missouri unveiled its $250 million end zone project on Thursday, Nebraska’s $450 million overhaul remains in a holding pattern.

By the next University of Nebraska Board of Regents meeting — June 20 — new Huskers A.D. Troy Dannen should be ready to offer more clarity on, well, what major donors think of the project and whether they can — or want to — fund both NIL and a stadium renovation at once.

Since schools can’t yet share their own TV revenue with student-athletes, the wealthiest fans of Husker football have to provide the name, image and likeness funds to maintain and improve NU’s roster.

And Rhule, like any coach, is bullish on NIL funding.

“You can’t sacrifice today for two years from now,” Rhule said this week in an interview with 93.7 The Ticket. “Even with NIL, sometimes people talk about ‘hey, it’s going to be in-house soon, we’re gonna be this.’ Just tell me what the rules are today. And stop complaining about — the rules are what the rules are.”

And within those rules, Rhule said, he wants to compete with the Big Ten’s best.

“Everyone has to make a decision,” Rhule said. “Do we want Nebraska to be at the pinnacle? And I’m really simple. If you want us to be No. 1 in the league — let’s say Nos. 1-3 — then the coaches salaries should be 1-3, the recruiting budget should be 1-3, the training table – everything should say ‘hey, it’s 1-3.’ And if you’re giving me everything, it’s the first, second or third-best in the Big Ten, from NIL on up, and I don’t get it done, I will walk my butt out of there.

“But don’t give coaches eighth-place NIL and eighth-place coaching staff salaries and then say, ‘how come you’re not first?’”

Nebraska volleyball improving serve receives 

Even a three-time AVCA All-American can find something to improve heading into her senior year.

“I can take more ownership of the court,” NU libero Lexi Rodriguez said this week to reporters. “I can take more balls, whether it’s in serve/receive or defense. And just be really good at communicating, whether I’m touching the ball or not.”

Nebraska lost the national title match to Texas in part because the Huskers collapsed against the Longhorns’ serve. And there were circumstances during the season where young players received serves Rodriguez would have handled better.

Based on the purple bus parked on the east side of the Devaney Center Saturday, it’s possible NU scrimmaged Kansas State.

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