The Cornhuskers may have an edge up front when the Sooners have the ball.
When Scott Frost was hired away from Central Florida after the 2017 season, the Nebraska Cornhuskers thought they were getting one of the brightest offensive minds in college football. In fact, Frost owed a large measure of his success at UCF to the defensive coordinator who accompanied him to Lincoln, Erik Chinander.
Just as Chinander played a key role in boosting Frost’s stock at UCF, NU’s struggle to gain back respectability owes in part to the consistent mediocrity of the defenses under his watch. The Huskers are showing slight signs of improvement, though. In 2018 and 2019, the Cornhuskers finished 55th and 63rd, respectively, in Defensive SP+ overall. They moved up to 38th in 2020 and rank 30th overall through three weeks this year.
The Oklahoma Sooners pose a different kind of challenge than what NU sees on a typical Saturday in the Big Ten. Aside from the occasional date with the Ohio State Buckeyes, the Huskers rarely face a team that boasts OU’s explosiveness and efficiency. Linesmakers favor the Sooners by more than three touchdowns in the matchup on Saturday, a sign they don’t believe NU is up to the task.
Looking at how the two teams stack up, however, the NU defensive front may have an edge in the trenches. That’s a good place for Chinander to start if he wants to help propel the Huskers to an upset.
Chinander coached linebackers at Oregon for two years before Frost convinced him to become defensive coordinator at Central Florida in 2016. The move paid immediate dividends for the Golden Knights, who cut their average points allowed from 37.7 the year before he arrived to 24.6 in Chinander’s first season at UCF. UCF went from winless in 2015 to 6-7 the following season. A year later, the Golden Knights maintained their performance on D and added an offense that put up 48 points per game in a 13-0 season.
The contours of the turnaround engineered by Chinander at UCF look very similar to what has played out at OU under defensive coordinator Alex Grinch. The Golden Knights doubled their takeaways from 13 in 12 games in ‘15 to 26 in 13 games a year later. They actually raised that total to 32 in 13 games in 2017.
Meanwhile, linebacker Shaquem Griffin helped transform the UCF defense into an attacking unit that notched 103 tackles for loss in ‘16, including 38 sacks. When all was said and done, UCF’s Defensive SP+ ranking climbed from 105th in the country in ‘15 to 35th in ‘16.
At Nebraska, Chinander once again has his unit emphasizing negative plays. The Huskers went from averaging 3.7 tackles for loss per game in ‘17 to 5.3 in ‘18. Their average spiked to 6.1 in ‘19 and then 6.6 a year ago. Credit for that disruption goes in large part to Chinander’s ability to create opportunities for his players to wreak havoc with shifting fronts.
NU bases its defense out of a standard 3-4 alignment. In the base package, the Cornhuskers deploy a Tite front: The nose tackle plays a zero technique over the center, and defensive ends flank the nose in 4i techniques to the inside shoulders of the offensive tackles.
The outside linebacker positions include a hybrid LB/DE in the mold of OU’s RUSH position lined up to the boundary. On the field side of the formation, the Huskers use a strong side LB who can cover and support against the run.
The image above from NU’s first game against Illinois provides a good example of a situation in which the Huskers will probably roll out their 3-4 base look. In true Bret Bielema fashion, the Fighting Illini are using 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends) on their first play of the game.
NU’s three defensive linemen are in a Tite front. Weak side OLB Garrett Nelson (No. 44) lines up in the space outside the offensive tackle’s outside shoulder, while strong side OLB Caleb Tannor (No. 2) has walked up to the line of scrimmage to play heads up with the inline tight end to the right side of the offensive formation.
The heavier defensive personnel match what is usually a running look from the offense. If you see two (or more) of Austin Stogner, Brayden Willis and Jeremiah Hall on the field at the same time, expect NU to counter with the 3-4.
Chinander also has added a 2-4-5 package to his bag. It’s all the rage now for combatting spread personnel groupings from the offense. Here’s an example with the Illini lined up in 11 personnel (one RB, one TE):
As the designation would imply, NU pulls one of its DLs off the field for what is essentially a “big nickel” in JoJo Domann (No. 13, lined up across from the second receiver to the top of the screen). The OLBs often spin down to play with a hand in the dirt on the edge. The DL can shift into a one-gap scheme: In this case, the nose tackle is shading the center, and the other defensive tackle plays a three technique between the left guard and left tackle.
The upside of the 2-4-5 for the Huskers is that Chinander gets more speed on the field; consequently he can get creative with angles and pressures from his defenders. The downside is that he’s leaving the D susceptible to getting bullied in the ground game.
Note that Tulane (above) gave OU a similar look against 11 personnel.
The Cornhuskers don’t have an overwhelming front six/seven on defense, but they do have some nice pieces to challenge OU’s offensive line. Nose tackle Damion Daniels, for example, is a load for interior blockers at 335 pounds. Veteran Ben Stille, a classic 3-4 DE, has played his way into contention for All-Big Ten honors. On the outside, Tannor’s range and athleticism can cause problems for the tackles tasked with handling him.
A solid group like that may be good enough to get the best of the OU offensive line, which showed some cracks two weeks ago against Tulane. In particular, keep an eye on how effectively the Sooners run the ball in 11 personnel. If the Huskers can hold up in a pass-oriented alignment against the OU running game, it will free up players on the back end to help stymie OU QB Spencer Rattler and the aerial attack. That could turn this game into a dogfight for the home team.