EUGENE, Ore. — If a casual observer of Saturday’s clash between Oregon and Nebraska didn’t know any better, it might seem plausible that the Husker defense trotted a completely different set of players onto the field in the second half.
The difference in success was so striking — the Blackshirts allowed 409 total yards and 42 points before halftime, 157 and 0 after — the game’s tenor change so radical, that what else could explain it?
Listen to the NU coaches and players shortly after the conclusion of the 42-35 loss to the Ducks at Autzen Stadium, and they all insist that nothing changed — except, of course, the on-field results.
Sure, some veteran players addressed the team at halftime. And yes, defensive coordinator Bob Diaco and his staff made adjustments in the locker room, just as nearly every college football team does every week.
But there was no overhaul and no panic, or at least not that anybody was willing to reveal.
“I think we were just in that much better position to make some plays,” coach Mike Riley said. “Either it was the smoke screens on the outside, the real quick hitters, we played that a little tighter and tougher. And we were in way better position on the post routes that they were killing us on earlier in the game.
“Sometimes it’s just a little bit better position like that and all the sudden it doesn’t make that throw so easy.”
Positioning, of course, is not the only thing that went wrong for the Huskers in the first half. It did play a significant role, however.
Communication from the sideline between plays helps players figure out their alignments and assignments efficiently, and it’s fair to wonder whether the Ducks’ slower tempo in the second half made that process — and, thus, NU’s ability to be in the right place — easier.
Still, the results were clear. For the Blackshirts, "right place, right time," is more than a happy coincidence, the way the phrase is usually used. It's critical to success.
On Oregon’s final score in the first half, receiver Dillon Mitchell ran a post against zone coverage from NU. He found a window behind linebacker Marcus Newby’s drop area and in front of junior safety Antonio Reed. Reed broke late on the throw and appeared to float too far outside. Newby was a long way from inside linebacker Chris Weber, leaving a big hole for Justin Herbert to throw into.
Later on, though, Reed and fellow safety Aaron Williams played a post pattern perfectly, resulting in a Williams interception.
“It’s really small,” redshirt freshman Dicaprio Bootle said of the margin between being in the right spot and the wrong. “You’ve just got to be on your toes at all times, read all your keys and do what you have to do and not put yourself in bad position. It’s a very fine line that you have to walk, and we’ve just got to do some things better.”
On Oregon’s next possession following the interception, Ducks coach Willie Taggart decided to try to convert a fourth-and-3 at the Huskers’ 31 instead of attempting a long field goal. Herbert threw for Ryan Bay up the right side, but the pass fell incomplete. Senior linebacker Chris Weber didn’t get credit with a break-up — he didn’t really make a play on the ball — but his positioning took away everything but an absolutely perfect throw from Herbert. Those are odds many defenses can live with. If Weber had been a step behind, the Ducks may have scored or almost certainly would have been knocking on the door.
“It’s tiny and that’s what we’ve got to understand is that little of an adjustment can make a world of difference,” outside linebacker Luke Gifford said. “I think, obviously, we kind of figured that out in the second half. We’ve just got to do it in the first half, too.”
There are examples of other factors costing big plays. Linebacker Mohamed Barry should not be expected to keep up in vertical coverage with senior UO wide receiver Charles Nelson, one of the fastest players the Huskers will see this season. That matchup resulted in 43 first-quarter yards. Ducks freshman receiver Johnny Johnson just beat Lamar Jackson by a step on a deep ball in the second quarter for 51 more.
But Diaco has time and again stressed the importance of alignment in his defensive system. If one player is out of place, then 10 others in the right place don’t always compensate. As he said Saturday, one mistake can result in a “sequential mess.”
Nebraska’s first half on the West Coast was nothing if not a mess. Its second was promising, but is it sustainable? How much impact did Oregon’s change in pace have? Arkansas State and the Ducks are certainly not the only up-tempo situations the Blackshirts will face this year.
“I just liked how our coaches came in and addressed us in the locker room (at halftime),” Barry said. “It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, y’all doing all this,’ and yelling and all that. They kept their composure, which made us keep our composure and focus on our alignments and our assignments in the second half.”
Being in the right place at the right time doesn’t ensure success, but it’s a baseline.
“Watch the film and see exactly what it was — it’s hard to say exactly what it was right now,” Gifford said. “And just take that and play with the same mentality and pride that we did play with in the second half. We’re going to get down to business and we’ll get ready.”