LINCOLN — Ben Stille woke up Monday morning a little sore. Carlos Davis wasn't exactly feeling spry either.
But by the end of Tuesday's practice around noon, Nebraska's top contributing defensive linemen had all emerged none the worse for wear from their highest usage of the season.
"Just getting moving again, I think that's the key," said Stille, a junior defensive end who saw a career-high and team-high 70 snaps against Northwestern. "Just getting your body moving, getting back in the routine. I'm good now."
Darrion Daniels (60 snaps) and Carlos Davis (51) also saw extra action with starter Khalil Davis serving a one-game suspension. Deontre Thomas (28) and Damion Daniels (7) also saw more time while redshirt freshman Casey Rogers (7) played his first meaningful snaps as a Husker early in the third quarter of a one-score game.
D-line coach Tony Tuioti said he usually likes to put his players on a pitch count of sorts. But the group rose to the occasion in a key Big Ten West game.
"I know if I need it, they're definitely able to step up and do that," Tuioti said. "And they were able to do to do that with Khalil being down."
Nebraska coaches want to get Rogers as much field time as possible, and found some plays Saturday. The 6-foot-4, 300-pounder said he knew when the Khalil Davis suspension was announced midweek that he could be a factor. He's spent much of the season learning from his outspoken roommate and NU co-captain, Darrion Daniels.
"It could be tough for a guy in my position where they're not getting a lot of time and they have a lot of guys ahead of them," Rogers said. "Some guys might take it as an insult that they're not playing. I'm kind of taking it as a 'Hey, this is my year to learn.'"
The line's top priority this week, Tuioti said, is to limit Minnesota on first and second downs. The Gophers make that tough with a pair of tight ends in Jake Paulson (6-5, 270) and Ko Kieft (6-4, 255) who Tuioti likened to a pair of defensive ends. Running back Rodney Smith has benefited, rushing at a clip of 5.4 yards per carry for 536 overall with three scores.
"When you have outside linebackers or smaller guys lined up in front of them, that's a big advantage to them," Tuioti said. "So we got a big challenge ahead of us in making sure we can be as stout as we can against those big tight ends."
Improvements and struggles
Looking for a sign of improvement from Nebraska's defense? How about a glaring struggle?
Defensive coordinator Erik Chinander can point to examples of both from the second half against Northwestern.
The big positive was "getting a turnover when things matter." Lamar Jackson intercepted a pass in the final minutes of a tied game and the Huskers took the ball down the field for a winning field goal.
"That's a huge play in the growth of a team and a defense to make a big play when it really matters, not just make one when you're up 43-8 or whatever," Chinander said Tuesday. "There's a lot of growth within the unit and a lot of growth within the team."
But problems persist coming out of halftime. Nebraska is being outscored 55-41 in the third quarter this season — the only period in which it's being outscored through six games. Northwestern befuddled the Huskers with zone-read looks on its only touchdown drive spanning six plays and 58 yards out of the break that tied the game.
Chinander said players need to understand they will likely see something different on an opening possession out of the half.
"That probably falls on me to get those guys ready for 'We'll make some adjustments, let's get this thing rolling,'" Chinander said. "But I haven't exactly figured it out yet."
McCaffrey ready for anything
Luke McCaffery wasn’t quite sure what the plan was.
He and Andrew Bunch looked at each other as Noah Vedral ran off the field, helmet in hand. Adrian Martinez was in the medical tent getting his knee looked at.
“Coach said, ‘Luke, go,’” McCaffrey said. “And I got all juiced up and ran out there.”
He ran a draw to the left for three yards, the true freshman’s first play as a Husker. It took one game off his four-game redshirt plan, to the annoyance of Scott Frost. McCaffrey now finds himself in a risky position as Vedral’s backup this week. Martinez’s status is unknown, but as the week goes on, it looks more and more likely Vedral will be the guy. Meaning one rolled ankle or one loose Helmet and McCaffrey is Nebraska’s next man up.
“Yeah I’d feel very prepared,” McCaffrey said. “That’s what our whole team does all week in practice, we prepare for game day and that’s what our coaches do such a good job doing day in and day out is getting us prepared for game day.”
McCaffrey was a four-star recruit out of Colorado who chose Nebraska in part because they wanted him to play quarterback and not become a receiver or running back. His brother, Christian, is having a breakout season with the Carolina Panthers this year with 587 rushing yards and six touchdowns in five games.
In scout team, the youngest McCaffrey isn’t doing so bad.
“McCaffrey’s fast man,” linebacker Mohamed Barry said. “He’s a guy, as soon as he pulls the ball, you gotta hold your breath because he’s gonna make people miss. He’s a burner.”
McCaffrey said if he’s thrown out in a game to be a decoy or run the ball, he’s more than happy to contribute. And his preparation for this week won’t change due to the uncertain circumstances.
“It’s how every week is,” McCaffrey said. “Every week is an opportunity to practice and go get better on your craft and prepare like you’re the guy.”
Getting to five wins
This isn’t what Nebraska fans want to hear, but Barry wanted to say it anyway.
“We have a tremendous opportunity,” Barry said. “Five wins. Last time you could say that it was a few seasons ago. So it’s gonna be a tremendous thing when we get to five wins.”
Nebraska — currently 4-2 — hasn’t won more than four games since 2016. NU began that season 7-0, then lost four of the final six games. Then came the two 4-8 seasons.
“I know nobody wants to hear that at Nebraska, ‘Oh we’re excited to win five games,’” Barry said. “But to be honest, it’s been a long time, so that’s what we’re trying to do.”
» Though Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck has often called his offense one of the youngest in the country, Chinander said the flip side of that is the Gophers are good. He said they will present a challenge to Big Ten defenses for years to come.
» Redshirt freshman defensive back Braxton Clark will continue to see time in sub packages this season, Chinander said. Clark played a few snaps at corner last week against Northwestern as Dicaprio Bootle defended the slot. Clark has appeared in every game this year and also plays on special teams.