Nebraska Roster Reset: Offensive Backfield
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Big Ten Success Requires a Reliable Run Game

December 30, 2019

As part of our Year in Review series we're taking a close look at why the 2019 Nebraska football season went the way it did. The series originally appeared in the December issue of Hail Varsity. Make sure you don’t miss more stories like this by subscribing today.

Previous stories in the series included a look at Nebraska’s leadership, the in-season recruiting strategymissed tackles and run defense.

To quote pro wrestler Ric Flair: “To be the man, you gotta beat the man.”

And you might want to add a: “Woooo!”

That sort of reflects the situation in which Nebraska finds itself two seasons into the Scott Frost era. In order to be the team in the Big Ten’s West Division, the Huskers have to beat the team that controls the division—or teams, if you prefer, because Nebraska has been looking up at more than one.

But let’s use this season’s division winner, Wisconsin, as “the” team to beat. In over-simple terms, perhaps, the way to the top of the West Division requires playing as the Badgers play, which means being physical and, the focus here, being able to run the football.

To quote Tom Osborne: “A rushing yard is worth more than a passing yard.”

And you won’t need to add an exclamation.

Granted, Wisconsin’s running game was built around a special ball carrier, Jonathan Taylor. Nevertheless, a well-developed system, with a physical, fundamentally sound offensive line, can produce running backs comparable to Taylor—or Ohio State’s J.K. Dobbins.

They were featured on the Big Ten’s top rushing teams. Ohio State led the conference, averaging 280.6 yards per game during the regular season. Wisconsin averaged 243.9 yards. Only one other Big Ten team averaged more than 200 rushing yards per game, Nebraska (203.3).

The Huskers’ average was down slightly from 2018’s 209 rushing yards. But their percentage of running plays compared to passes was higher, increasing from 53.3 to 62.7 percent.

Presumably, Osborne would appreciate that.

And Nebraska’s featured running back, as it turned out, was junior transfer Dedrick Mills.

To quote the transfer from Georgia Tech by way of Garden City Community College, in late August: “My expectation for yards this season are probably up to 1,500 or more.”

That was contingent on “the help of the o-line and my quarterback,” he said.

Confidence is important to success. So the inclusion of that quote at this point isn’t meant to disrespect Mills. But he managed half that predicted total, 745 yards to be exact, to lead the Huskers. He carried 143 times and scored a team-high 10 touchdowns. He also caught 15 passes for 123 yards.

To quote Frost after the Wisconsin game: “I’m tired of looking for silver linings.”

Frost was responding to a question about Mills’ play in the 37-21 loss to the Badgers. He carried 17 times for 188 yards and a touchdown, an average of 11.1 yards per carry.

The Badgers finished the regular season ranked second in the Big Ten in both total defense and rushing defense. So for Mills to have the best day of his short Nebraska career against them was no small matter, even if the Huskers had arguably self-destructed in a game they possibly could have won.

“I just got the opportunity to get out there and run the ball,” Mills said afterward. 

The 17 carries were a season-high to that point. He carried 24 times in the final game against Iowa, for 94 yards. Only five of the carries, for 20 yards, came in the first half. And though he didn’t quite average 4 yards a carry, Iowa’s defense was stacked against him.

Before the Wisconsin game, Mills’ best game, or at least his most productive, was against Northern Illinois. He carried 11 times for 116 yards and two touchdowns. But he ran even better two games later against Ohio State, gaining 67 yards and scoring a touchdown on 11 carries.

The point buried in all these numbers and a handful of quotes is the development of Mills, who began the season sharing time with Maurice Washington—a running back excluded from this conversation for reasons that should be apparent.

Quentin Lueninghoener
This story originally appeared in the Dec. 2019 issue of Hail Varsity

Mills wasn’t exactly version II of Devine Ozigbo, whose emergence was dramatic under running backs coach Ryan Held. Consider that although Ozigbo had been Nebraska’s leading rusher as a junior in 2017, he had started only three games and averaged only 3.8 yards per carry in an offense that averaged just 107.5 yards per game—and 3.5 yards per carry. So Ozigbo was slightly better than the average.

He began his senior season as a back-up to junior college transfer Greg Bell. But when Bell left after four games, Ozigbo took charge, rushing for 1,082 yards and 12 touchdowns on 155 carries (7.0 yards per carry) to earn third-team All-Big Ten recognition.

Mills received all-conference honorable mention. That despite his carrying only 23 times combined against Minnesota, Indiana and Purdue—for 76 yards and a couple of touchdowns. And he managed just 26 yards on 10 carries against Northwestern, meaning he was impressive in five Big Ten games.

Freshman Wan’Dale Robinson was featured during the stretch when Mills wasn’t. But with Washington out of the picture, Nebraska didn’t have much depth at running back. Senior Wyatt Mazour and redshirt freshmen Brody Belt took some snaps, while freshman Rahmir Johnson was limited to four games to preserve a redshirt. 

Three of the four games in which Johnson “played” were essentially non-involvement. He carried a team-high 18 times at Maryland, gaining 55 yards and scoring a touchdown. In retrospect, perhaps, he should’ve played the entire season—in place of Washington.

Ronald Thompkins, the other scholarship freshman, was limited by injury and redshirted. And sophomore Jaylin Bradley was nowhere to be seen until two carries at Maryland.

Mills’ 1,500-yard prediction was predicated on help from the offensive line and the quarterback. The offensive line included a new center and left guard, redshirt freshman Cam Jurgens and sophomore Trent Hixson, both of whom endured growing pains. 

But there was evidence of offensive-line development in the Wisconsin game. The holes “were the biggest I’ve seen all season,” said Mills. And Nebraska rushed for 273 yards.

Adrian Martinez wasn’t completely healthy, as Frost finally acknowledged following the Iowa game, even though his rushing numbers were the same as during his freshman season. His passing numbers were down, however, and the receiving threats were limited with the departure of Stanley Morgan Jr., which meant added pressure on the running game.

Nebraska’s back-in-the-day success under Osborne illustrates the value of a solid running game, not only offensively but defensively, from having to line up against it in practice. Osborne went away from a pass-oriented offense, featuring quarterbacks such as Dave Humm and Vince Ferragamo, to an option offense like Oklahoma played, a change that would contribute to three national championships.

At the time Osborne made the change, Oklahoma dominated the Big Eight. Nebraska began playing the way the Sooners played. And when Colorado rose to a national championship contender in the late 1980s, it did so with a running game that produced the 1994 Heisman Trophy winner, Rashan Salaam. 

“To be the man, you gotta beat the man.”

And to beat the man, you gotta do what the man does.


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