Nebraska Position Previews By the Numbers: Offensive Line
Photo Credit: Aaron Babcock

For Huskers’ O-Line, NIU Was the Turning Point, Wisconsin is the Test

October 03, 2017

In the locker room following the Huskers’ 21-17 home loss to Northern Illinois on Sep. 16, guard Jerald Foster had seen enough.

“I was one of the front runners on [saying] we need to change it up,” Foster said. “We all pretty much had the same ‘that wasn’t good enough’ speech coming out.”

The Huskers ran for just 85 yards on 36 carries. Yeah, that’s a 2.4 yards-per-carry average, by far the worst Nebraska has had in five games this season. In the first quarter, with the Huskers trying to establish their offense, the running room just wasn’t there – eight carries yielded 19 yards. In the fourth quarter, with what was a 14-point deficit cut to just four and Nebraska able to go back to its game plan, eight carries netted a total of 9 yards.

Due to the score and the line’s ineffectiveness, Nebraska grew one-dimensional and relied on the pass. Northern Illinois knew it, sat on it and made the Huskers pay.

“It was an eye-opening moment,” Foster said. “We understood that – at least, we thought – this was on us. That loss was on the offensive line. We pulled together and just said we need to be better, we need to raise the bar.”

Foster is well aware of the tradition at Nebraska. He knows it has been built, in part, by some of the best offensive lines in college football. Dave Rimington, an All-American and trophy namesake, coming into the fold at Nebraska serves as another reminder of that fact. He also knows that through the first half of the Huskers season, the current line didn’t live up to expectations.

“We’re pushing forward to be the team that we wanted to be and the core that we wanted to be,” he said. “Through our adversity, through our problems that we’ve been having, it was either a make or break situation.”

Early returns say the line made it. Since the Northern Illinois contest, the Huskers have piled up 362 rushing yards on a 4.26 average, a bump from the 4.07 average over the first three weeks.  They’ve also allowed only two sacks in the last two games after giving up seven (17.5 tackles for loss to boot) through the first three weeks.

Rutgers and Illinois are no world-beaters, but maybe the improvement stems from another area. This two-week window also coincides with the entrance of sophomore Michael Decker at center and true freshman Brenden Jaimes at right tackle.

Head coach Mike Riley has been more than pleased with Jaimes’ play on the edge since his insertion into the starting group. Despite David Knevel, the start at right tackle for the opener, being back at practice, Riley said Monday morning that if the Wisconsin game was played now, Jaimes would be the guy who got the nod.

Perhaps Knevel isn’t quite healthy enough to return, but perhaps Riley just likes what he’s seen from the freshman. His comments alluded to that Monday.

“We really appreciate both players and we’re thankful that your team can get sometimes stronger even though the injuries can be devastating,” Riley said. “You lose Knevel, you lose [center Cole] Conrad, if those other guys can go in and play better, then your team, when the other guys get back, will be stronger.”

As for Decker, he’s been lauded for the cerebral approach he brings to the position and his communication skills already, but Foster said Decker is playing with a chip on his shoulder after getting beat out for the starting position in camp by Conrad.

“He understands when it’s your time to shine,” Foster said. “I can definitely see Decker playing with a chip on his shoulder just because this is his opportunity and you’ve got to take those when you get them.”

Whatever the cause for the uptick in the line play over the last two weeks, the Huskers know they need to take it up a notch against Wisconsin.

“This is always going to be a big game for us,” Foster said. “I love their program, they bring it every single game. At Nebraska, we do the same thing. I can’t stop smiling about it because I know it’s going to be a hard-nosed game. We’re going to have to grind every single play if we want to win.”

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