LINCOLN — Erik Chinander sees a team in Northwestern that doesn’t beat itself. The Blackshirts, therefore, must do likewise.
The Nebraska defensive coordinator and other assistants heaped praise on the Northwestern offense Tuesday for its discipline, toughness and execution. Part of that is reputation — the Wildcats were the least-penalized team in the country last season and are tied for 34th in penalty yards per game this year. Part of it is staff continuity and the ability to adjust quickly to any defensive look.
“Don’t beat yourself. That’s kind of a coaching cliché,” Nebraska inside linebackers coach Barrett Ruud said. “These guys literally don’t do it. So it’s a big challenge.”
The production difference is extreme between the Huskers’ last opponent and their next one. Northwestern’s scoring offense ranks 128th of 130 FBS teams (15.5 points per game), while Ohio State is third (52.4). The Wildcats are tied for last nationally in yards per play (3.93), while the Buckeyes are 10th (7.34).
Still, Nebraska coaches said, they see the attacks as more similar than different.
“They both execute at a really high level,” Ruud said. “Obviously Ohio State’s able to do it with maybe a little bit of a more talented player. But I tell you what, for years Northwestern has given Nebraska problems. And they give the rest of the Big Ten problems, too, because they never beat themselves.”
Chinander said the defense made corrections Monday from the OSU loss before moving on quickly to the defending Big Ten West champs.
Along with being fundamentally and schematically sound, Chinander said, Nebraska will have to pick its spots to apply pressure. If the defense is playing good assignment football, Northwestern’s quarterback will have to make throws he doesn’t feel comfortable attempting.
“You have to be sound in what you do,” Chinander said. “You have to be sound in your coverage. You can’t be pressing. You can’t be overextending yourself trying to make a play because they’ll make you pay. They’re smart enough to adjust to what everybody’s doing.”
Nebraska also doesn’t know who the Wildcats’ quarterback will be. Hunter Johnson — the former five-star prospect and Clemson transfer — left late in last week’s game against Wisconsin after taking a hit. His replacement, junior Aidan Smith, threw a pick six and lost a fumble. But he also completed 8 of 20 passes for 99 yards and a touchdown and led another scoring drive.
Defensive backs coach Travis Fisher said the Huskers’ prep won’t change based on the QB. Northwestern will spread out and show different formations regardless.
“They’re very smart,” Fisher said. “They know how to attack your defense and what kind of defense you’re in. Different defenses you display, they know how to attack it. That’s a very good offense and very smart team.”