LUKE MULLIN Lincoln Journal Star
When Scott Frost took over as Nebraska’s head coach after the 2017 season, there was no question he was bringing Erik Chinander with him.
Sure, Frost brought his entire staff from UCF to Nebraska, but his defensive coordinator was perhaps the most deserving of all. That’s because Chinander’s 2016 defense forced 26 turnovers and his 2017 group finished No. 2 nationally with a whopping 32 turnovers.
Chinander’s aggressive defense may not have led the NCAA in yards allowed, but the extra possessions it generated for Frost’s rushing attack were critical to UCF’s undefeated season.
The duo aimed to bring the same style of football to Nebraska, hoping to build a competitive defense that could continue to force turnovers at a high level.
“I’ve been in a lot of places where you blitz and coach after the quarterback on third down, but when it comes time to actually do it, play it safe,” Chinander told the Journal Star in 2018. “No I don’t think you can do it if you really want to generate business volumes.”
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More than four years later, and it’s clear that Chinander’s vision never quite translated into NU’s performance on the field. A performance of 21 sales in 2019 was the best of Chinander’s tenure, but it was still not enough to earn a positive turnover margin.
To be fair to Chinander, NU’s turnover issues run much deeper than a man or even a decade.
Since 2002, Nebraska has finished with a positive turnover differential just three times (2003, 2009 and 2016). The Huskers have also finished even twice (2006, 2019), but that leaves 15 seasons and counting where NU’s opponents came away with more turnovers than the Huskers.
Since 2002, Nebraska has lost 236 fumbles and recovered just 142; interceptions are more evenly matched, with Nebraska throwing 251 and forcing 267 over that span. That’s a turnover differential of -78 over the last 20 years, including seven seasons in which NU finished the season with a margin of -10 or worse.
Early in Chinander’s time as Nebraska’s defensive coordinator, the Huskers weren’t far from where they wanted to be. The 2018 defense ranked No. 57 nationally with 20 forced turnovers, and the 2019 group jumped up to No. 34 with 21 forced turnovers. The Huskers still finished with a -2 turnover margin in 2018 before finishing even in 2019, but NU regressed in the turnover department in subsequent seasons.
During the 2020 season shortened by COVID-19, Nebraska ranked 103rd nationally with seven forced fumbles, and even a veteran group with several NFL talents couldn’t change that in 2021. Nebraska forced 13 turnovers last season, good for 104th in the country.
Heading into the 2022 season, Chinander knew that had to change.
“We’ve got to get a few more sacks and we’ve got to get a few more turnovers,” Chinander said in late July. “I’d like a lot more and a lot more, though, if we get one more sack per game, one more turnover per game. We did a good job intercepting the ball last year. We didn’t have enough punts. and enough fumbles fumble, so we’re really focusing on that as we start fall camp.”
Still, Nebraska has won turnover differential in just one of its four games so far this year, posting a season total of -2 in turnover differential. The Huskers currently rank No. 48 nationally with five forced turnovers, which was certainly a factor in interim head coach Mickey Joseph’s decision to fire Chinander.
“Chinander is a good man and a good coach, but the numbers don’t add up,” Joseph said. “I didn’t see us improving. For four weeks, I didn’t see us improve from week one to week four.
The fact that NU is in the bottom five nationally in total defense is no accident either. Even teams that might not be able to stop their opponents from driving 60 or 70 yards down the field can make life easier by producing turnovers, something NU has struggled with for years.
As Bill Busch takes the reins of the Husker defense, there are many different areas that require his attention.
Asked Tuesday what type of defense he wanted to see for the rest of the season, Joseph didn’t immediately jump to the losses.
“A defense that stops the run and stops the pass and shuts people out; it’s good defense,” Joseph said.
But the numbers don’t lie: Nebraska’s turnover woes have largely contributed to a five-season losing streak.
For all his success at UCF, Chinander was unable to remedy this situation. Whether or not Busch can manage it in the final eight games of the season, these issues have plagued Nebraska through the coaching staff, defensive schemes and conferences.
With a trend this deep, it will take more than a week or two to fix itself.