LINCOLN -- That 30 minutes on the West Coast is well documented by now.
The 42 points scored by Oregon against Nebraska’s defense. The 409 yards, piled up at a rate of more than 9 yards each time Ducks sophomore quarterback Justin Herbert took a snap. The six passing plays of 20-plus yards. The helpless look of a defense, coordinated by Bob Diaco, in the process of surrendering more than 900 yards and 78 points in its first six quarters of game action.
What a difference a couple of weeks can make.
Huskers head coach Mike Riley readily acknowledged that the Blackshirts did the heavy lifting involved in a slogging, 27-17 victory over Rutgers on Saturday afternoon at Memorial Stadium.
“There has been growth,” Riley said. “Lots of good teaching, lots of good football today. I think that it was really telling how they drove down and scored right away and then really didn’t again.”
Really, that’s the way it’s been since halftime in Eugene.
The Huskers surrendered just 194 yards and 12 first downs to the Scarlet Knights.
Rutgers breezed 75 yards for a touchdown in an 11-play opening drive, converting both third-down tries and picking up four first downs along the way.
Over the final 50 minutes, 28 seconds, though, NU allowed just 119 yards (2.8 yards per play). The Blackshirts allowed one third-down conversion in 10 tries and just eight first downs total.
It wasn’t an overnight switch, either, but rather a trend 2½ games in the making.
In the past 10 quarters, the Huskers are allowing 4.1 yards per play. They’ve allowed just 31 total first downs, a 22.6-percent third-down conversion rate, two 20-plus-yard passes and 17 total points.
“We've shown signs,” senior linebacker Luke Gifford said. “As soon as we got that lead back this time, we pointed to last week and said, ‘That’s not happening. It’s not happening this week. We have to make a stop and once the offense gives us a lead, we were going to keep it.’”
Indeed, against Northern Illinois, the defense played well throughout and then gave up a 47-yard passing play that jump-started a go-ahead scoring drive. Defensive players this week said the goal was to play as well, but not give up any big plays, a tall task.
They delivered. Rutgers’ longest offensive play: 19 yards.
That, despite playing all but nine snaps without both starting safeties — Joshua Kalu missed his second straight game with a hamstring injury and Aaron Williams was ejected in the first quarter for targeting — their top two outside linebackers opposite Gifford, and top cornerback Chris Jones.
“The players, we just keep getting better,” Diaco said. “Continued adversity and then the next man steps up and goes in the game because he’s prepared well. The guys care a bunch and they go in and do the jobs and execute the defense. There’s a deep understanding of the plan because they put the work in.
"They didn’t blink, they didn't bat an eye, they just kept swinging and throwing haymakers. It’s a fun group to be developing with."
The Blackshirts’ most impressive work came in the second half Saturday. After Tanner Lee had an interception returned for a touchdown and a 17-14 Rutgers lead, the Husker offense went three-and-out and the Scarlet Knights took over at midfield, primed to extend the lead. Instead, NU forced a three-and-out of its own and the offense responded with a 17-play drive to take a 21-17 lead.
This time, like Gifford said, the opponent would not take the lead back. Instead, Gifford and Antonio Reed each logged interceptions in Rutgers’ final four possessions. RU's other nine plays yielded just 19 yards and one first down.
“You learn from that moment that you have a chance to get off the field and you have to be perfect in those critical situations,” Diaco said. “It’s like flying the space shuttle on third down and in the low red zone and those critical situations — two-minute drill.”
There’s no perfect metric. For instance, neither NIU or Rutgers — or Oregon in the second half, for that matter — used tempo to stress NU’s communication and alignment. But the Blackshirts have moved from No. 122 out of 130 Football Bowl Subdivision schools in total defense after two games to No. 57 after four. They’re 29th in the nation in run defense, up 40 spots. They’re ranked No. 30 in red zone defense.
Take away 30 non-offensive points for opponents in three games at Memorial Stadium — a punt return touchdown, a safety and three interceptions returned for touchdowns — and NU is allowing 14.7 points per game at home.
“The measuring stick of it, I can’t quantify that,” Diaco said. “We’re getting better every day and we’re going to do the same thing tomorrow.”