Nebraska ran the ball 54 times in its season-ending loss to Iowa in 2019. That's without two sacks, so the official total reads 56. Neither was the high on the season. The Huskers ran it 62 times, not including sacks, against Illinois and 56 times against Maryland.
But that was against Illinois and Maryland, not Iowa, a team that is typically stout against the run. Nebraska's 54 carries were the most against a Hawkeye defense since Minnesota ran it 58 times while getting blown out 51-14 in 2014.
Had Greg Austin been then what he is now––Nebraska's run-game coordinator––things might have been different. Not necessarily more rushes, not necessarily fewer. Just different.
"You look at the Iowa game, we need to run the ball at them not try to run around them," Austin said this week while trying to explain some of what his new role will involve. "Let’s attack them. Let’s get vertical.”
The Huskers struggled to do that in the 27-24 Black Friday loss. Nebraska's success rate on rushing plays against Iowa––a measure of how often those plays kept the offense on schedule––was the third-lowest of the season. Because of that, the value those runs were adding to drives, as measured by predicted points added, was low. Negative, in fact. The average Nebraska run in that game decreased the expected value of the drive. There were only two other games last year where that number was worse.
A banged-up Nebraska team leaned heavily on the run on the last day of the season––Dedrick Mills and Adrian Martinez had season-highs in carries that day––and it almost worked, even though a lot of the runs weren't actually working all that well.
Part of Austin's new job is to make sure the Huskers are choosing what works for them in the run game. That starts long before game day with a renewed focus on what Nebraska practices and how. It will carry over to game-planning. When Nebraska's coaches talk about how they want to run the ball against a particular opponent, Austin's the starting point.
And once the game starts and all those best-laid plans are altered by what's actually happening on the field?
"Now the onus is, ‘G, what are we calling?' And then I better be prepared to have that call on the end of my lips," Austin said.
He's not daunted by that. The former Nebraska offensive lineman, and still the Huskers' o-line coach, is honored.
"It’s a big deal to me," Austin said. "I mean, just generally being here, but being the run-game coordinator is big for me because it gives me the opportunity to speak on what I believe philosophy-wise. It tells me, this is your baby. You’ve got it. It’s on your shoulders.
"It has nothing to do with ego or anything else like that. I want to get the run-game right, so let’s make sure to listen to the guy that wants to get the run game right."
That's part of an overall offseason assessment of how Nebraska does everything. But running the football still means a little bit more in Lincoln than it would at your average school, and Austin's increased role is of particular interest after the 2019 Huskers ran the ball more often than any Scott-Frost-coached team to date.
Nebraska may run it more often in 2020, it may it run it less often. That's not nearly as important as running it better, and Austin hopes to reach that goal by simplifying.
"There’s a million things to work on. There’s a million ways to run the ball," he said. "But what are you really good at? That’s what you have to determine—what you’re really good at, what your kids are really good at and what you can practice effectively and make that your bread-and-butter.
“Last year we got into the habit of doing this and doing that. Hey, let’s just get really good at doing these few things and then we can have little trinkets, little things off of that, but let’s get really good at this core.”
So, what does a better-optimized run game look like at Nebraska in 2020? Austin, of course, was hesitant to give too many details but he said you'll still see zone and power runs. There might be some of the "old-school stuff" the Huskers broke out against Ohio State but "a little more structured."
But if you had to reduce everything Austin hopes to bring to Nebraska's run game down to a line, it would be this: "We’re going to be good at a few things and not average at a whole bunch of things."
The Grab Bag
- Noah Vedral and Brant Banks are playing basketball now (for now). Here’s how Vedral got ready for emergency duty in the Big Ten Tournament.
- Nebraska announced a ground-breaking partnership with Opendorse on Tuesday that should put the Huskers at the forefront of the imminent name, image and likeness revolution.
- Jacob Padilla offers some key storylines to watch for the Nebraska Boys State Basketball Tournament. (Premium)
- Greg Smith caught up with Kearney Catholic QB Heinrich Haarberg after his visit for Monday’s practice. Also, here’s Smith’s March ranking of the top Nebraska targets.
Today’s Song of Today