LINCOLN — A seemingly harmless question on the topic of improvement struck an emotional chord with Nebraska defensive coordinator Mark Banker.
As the director of a defensive unit that has been maligned routinely throughout the course of the Cornhuskers’ 5-7 regular season, Banker said he was inspired by the improvement the Blackshirts displayed in the past few weeks. One game after limiting Rutgers to 259 total yards, Nebraska held No. 3-ranked Iowa to 250 yards in a 28-20 loss to the Hawkeyes on Friday at Memorial Stadium.
“These guys fought all the way through,” Banker said after taking a moment to compose himself. “We improved a ton. They grasped the system. They did everything we asked them to do and these last three games have been fun.
“They’ve been a lot of fun.”
Looking at the final statistics, Nebraska’s defense played well enough to give it a chance to beat undefeated Iowa (12-0). Not only did the Hawkeyes finish with 97 yards passing, but they were also 0-of-9 on third-down conversions.
Much of Iowa’s offensive output was the result of two running plays. After breaking a 29-yard touchdown run to put the Hawkeyes ahead 21-10 with 12:17 remaining in the third quarter, running back Jordan Canzeri answered a Nebraska TD with a 68-yard scoring run, accounting for 97 of his team’s 153 yards rushing on two snaps.
“We gave up two plays,” Banker said. “And that was something that plagued us throughout the course of the year: Big plays.
“That’s what they got us on. We kept a good football team to 250 yards. They were 0-for-9 on third down. That was it.”
While the two TD runs by Canzeri might have looked identical, Banker said the scores were the result of two totally different sets of circumstances.
“The first one, they ran their basic stretch play,” Banker said. “We got a little wide on the leverage, got knocked off at the point of attack — (linebacker) wasn’t able to scrape over the top and that was it.
“The second play, I got us in the wrong defense, period. That was on me. We didn’t cover down correctly on it and they scored.”
Nebraska’s defensive effort in the second half wasn’t helped by the loss of safety Nate Gerry. The leading tackler for the Huskers this season, Gerry was ejected for targeting with 2:36 remaining in the second quarter.
“Just like anything, during the course of the year, we played without everybody (at different times),” Banker said. “What you lose is you lose leadership (and) the emotion the guy brings. But the guys that went in did a good job.”
Gerry was penalized 15 yards for targeting while trying to defend a pass from C.J. Beathard to Tevaun Smith on a third-down play from the Iowa 47. While uncertain if he agreed with the call, Banker said he understands the rationale behind it.
“I don’t know. We could debate it all you want,” Banker said. “There’s so much today in football from the standpoint of concussions and player safety, it’s just tough. You’ve got a guy going hard to the ball and the receiver ducks his head down and contact was made.”
Banker said Nebraska’s defensive improvement in November meant a lot to him, especially after the disappointing start the Huskers got off to.
“We came in here as a staff and a team, expecting to carry on this great tradition here at Nebraska — and you add on to that the tradition of the Blackshirts,” Banker said. “It’s just a great atmosphere with the fans, the expectation of the fans, the administration (and) the support they give you.
“The players are a good group of dudes — just loved being around them.”
Nebraska senior defensive end Jack Gangwish said he was proud of the way the defense progressed.
“These guys came together. Brand-new system, new coaches, a whole new set of challenges and these guys bought in really well,” Gangwish said. “They learned the defenses, they learned the offenses and they really did a good job. The dedication a lot of our guys showed really allowed us to pick up this new system and hit the ground running.”
Despite the struggles and a losing regular-season record, Banker said he likes what he’s seen from the Huskers. He said the window to his office faces Nebraska’s weight room and he’s been impressed seeing groups of players there early each day for morning workouts.
“Everybody’s in it (and) everybody’s doing everything they can to get everybody prepared — staff (and) players — for the upcoming game,” Banker said. “It’s just a real good situation we’ve got here and we need to make it better from a standpoint of wins and losses and just the way we play.”