Behind enemy lines: Nebraska edition

Maryland football will look to end its four-game slide and pick up its first win since Sept. 30 when they travel to Lincoln to take on Nebraska. What we do know is, with both teams entering Saturday 5-4, one team will walk away bowl eligible. Maryland remains a slight favorite heading into Saturday’s kickoff, but what should Maryland fans expect from the Huskers? How do the two teams matchup and what are the strengths and weaknesses for Nebraska in Matt Rhule’s first season as head coach with the program? To learn more, we go behind enemy lines with Dave Feit of Husker Max to learn more.

IBG: The season started slow, but Matt Rhule has been able to lead his team to find success over the last six weeks. While Nebraska is coming off a loss, what’s gone right in Rhule’s first season in Lincoln?

DF: Matt Rhule has done an excellent job of flipping Nebraska’s culture.  The Huskers were a .500 team in Mike Riley’s three years, but the bottom fell out during Scott Frost’s tenure, with numerous one-score losses where NU shot themselves in the foot.

Despite a host of injuries to offensive starters, Nebraska has gone from a team that expected to lose to one that believes they can win.  They understand their strengths (the defense) and everything they do offensively (run heavy, taking few risks in the passing game) is designed to complement the defense.

IBG: The Huskers made a change at QB, but enter Saturday with one of the top rushing offenses in the country. What is it about the Haarberg/Grant duo that’s made the ground game so successful? Is Nebraska capable of showing balance between the run and pass game?

DF: Nebraska might be capable of showing balance, but it’s not what they want to do offensively.  Heinrich Haarberg has a strong arm, but he lacks accuracy (50% completions on the year) and struggles reading defenses (7 TDs to 6 INTS). He’s much better as a runner (9th in the Big Ten).

Since the season opener, Nebraska has lost their top two running backs, two top wide receivers, and two offensive linemen to season-ending injuries. It has been an all-hands-on-deck situation, with Nebraska incorporating some old-school option plays to move the ball.

Anthony Grant is still the second-leading rusher on the team (behind Haarberg), but his carries have gone down due to ball security issues. Redshirt freshman Emmett Johnson (who started the season a distant fourth on the depth chart) is getting most of the carries. Joshua Fleeks (who started the year at wide receiver) splits carries with Grant.

IBG: Nebraska’s front seven is the reason why the run defense has been stout through 2023. What’s jumped out through the first two months of the season?

DF: Nebraska’s defensive improvement and development under coordinator Tony White has been impressive. A year ago, the Blackshirts ranked 13th in the league in rush defense, giving up 189 yards per game. This year, they’re 2nd (77 yards per game).

A big reason for the improvement has been the play of the line.  Nash Hutmacher (0) is a beast at defensive tackle. Ty Robinson (9) is also having a stand-out season. But the Huskers run a deep rotation with eight linemen getting regular snaps.  This has allowed the big boys to play at max effort instead of pacing themselves over the course of a game.

Linebackers Nick Henrich (3) and Luke Reimer (4) have anchored Nebraska’s defense for several seasons. With the D-Line controlling blockers, they can move and make plays.

IBG: Maryland will look to create big plays through the air this weekend and the Huskers sit near the bottom of the Big Ten in pass defense and interceptions. How would you assess Nebraska’s secondary into November?

DF: This is the matchup that concerns me the most. I like Nebraska’s talent in the secondary.  Quinton Newsome (6) should be a Sunday player. Safety Isaac Gifford (2) plays like a DB/LB hybrid.

But the Huskers line up in very soft coverage – they’re almost always 10 yards off the receivers – and have given up several big plays in the passing game. They really haven’t been tested since Colorado in Week 2.

Nebraska’s pass rush (28 sacks on the season) accounts for most of the big plays in pass defense.  When Nebraska intercepts a pass (only seven this year) it’s usually because the quarterback made a horrible throw instead of the defensive back making a great play.

IBG: One thing Nebraska needs to do to win is…

DF: Limit the damage from their turnovers.

You’ll notice I didn’t say “avoid turnovers”, or even “win the turnover battle”.  The Huskers are -12 in turnover margin on the year.  The offense fumbles a lot (26, with 12 lost) and has more thrown more interceptions than Maryland (10 to 8) despite having 160 fewer passing attempts.

As well as the defense has played this season, they’re not generating a ton of turnovers (just 10 in nine games). But the defense has been good at getting stops after turnovers, even when the ball is turned over deep in Nebraska’s territory.

Nebraska overcame turnover troubles in wins against Purdue, Northwestern, and Illinois.  But it cost them dearly in losses at Minnesota and Michigan State.  Most Husker fans will take their chances against Maryland if the Nebraska can end up -1 in turnover margin.  Beyond that, it could be a long day.

IBG: Score and prediction

DF: Nebraska 28, Maryland 27.  I believe Taulia Tagovailoa will put on a show, passing for 300 yards and three touchdowns.

But Nebraska’s defense will get some stops and allow the offense to do just enough to hold on.

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