With the Huskers preparing for Northwestern on Saturday, the talk of the town has been focused on the Wildcats’ defensive front and run-stuffing prowess.
“My dad told me ‘you block with your feet, not with your hands,’ so I told our guys that,” offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said after practice Monday. “They are physical and fast. We’re going to have to do a great job … I think it’s just a matter of really working hard on the fundamentals with good technique and then continuing to change it up on them. They’ve got a very stout run defense, that’s been evident watching their games.”
Northwestern has held its last four opponents under 100 yards rushing – including Maryland (fifth in the Big Ten in rushing) and Penn State (Saquon Barkley… duh) – and Langsdorf, just like head coach Mike Riley this morning, said the Huskers are going to need better blocking up front.
“I just don’t think we’ve finished very well,” he said. “We have not always been technique sound. I think we’ve gotten beat on some one-on-ones.
“We have to find a way against those good run defenses to find some holes. It’s important to us. You don’t want to get behind and become one-dimensional and we don’t want to get falling behind early and get in that kind of game. We have to be able to sustain drives and running is a big part of that.”
In lieu of running the ball last Saturday against Purdue, Nebraska running backs got involved through the pass game. Starter Devine Ozigbo had a season-high six catches out of the backfield for 39 yards. Freshman Jaylin Bradley caught three balls for 31 yards and junior Mikale Wilbon had a catch for 12 yards.
“Finding those checkdown throws was great in the game,” Langsdorf said. “They were big plays for us in the course of the game, they were big in the two-minute drive.”
But they can’t completely replace the running game.
“I think you want to be able to stretch them horizontally and vertically too,” Langsdorf said. “I don’t think it’s a replacement for [the run] but you want to get the ball in those guys’ hands. Some of the plays are kind of long handoffs in some situations but it’s not meant to be a replacement by any means, just another way to attack them.”
Langsdorf credited Lee for his willingness to see the coverage downfield, not force a pass and look down to his receiver. That might seem like a routine play a quarterback should make, but when trailing on the road, there’s a tendency to press and try to make a play to get back in the game.
“I think that was a big part of what Tanner did was knowing ‘I don’t have to just chuck this ball down the field, I can check it down and get a great gain,’” Langsdorf said.
Did Langsdorf expect the Huskers’ line to be a little sharper this late in the season? “In some ways, yes,” he said, but injuries to the unit have caused problems. So far this season, Nebraska has suffered injuries to, hold on, this is a long list: its starting center, backup center, starting right guard, starting right tackle and backup left tackle.
“We’ve had to move a guy here and there, but everybody is going to have bumps and bruises, especially this time of year and we’re not signing anybody off the streets,” Langsdorf said. “But I don’t think we’ve played our best game yet.”
Nebraska needs to win two of its next four – with three of those coming against teams above .500 – to reach bowl eligibility. It would be a boost to their chances if that “best game” came sooner rather than later.
Other news and notes
>> Freshman Tyjon Lindsey has just two catches to his credit since Sep. 16. He had three in back-to-back games to begin the season but his production has slowed since. He caught one ball Saturday against Purdue but it was scored as a backwards pass and run.
Don’t be worried.
“He’s good, he’s working and just getting better every day,” wideout coach Keith Williams said. “He’s on track.”
Lindsey entered the season with hype and fanfare, but it’s been a relatively quiet season. Langsdorf said their goal with all freshmen is to keep them engaged, keep their focus sharp and make sure they’re ready to go when called upon. Lindsey’s opportunities have just been limited due to the emergence of redshirt freshman JD Spielman alongside established, veteran guys in Stanley Morgan Jr. and De’Mornay Pierson-El.
>> With sophomore Michael Decker going down for the season against Purdue, Cole Conrad stepped in at center. Conrad had started the season in the No. 1 spot at the position but an injury and then solid play from Decker forced him into a reserve role.
When Decker entered the starting five, his communication skills – both in-game and on the sidelines – were praised. Line coach Mike Cavanaugh said they didn’t miss a beat when Decker went down because he was still talking on the sidelines.
“He was great on the sideline after he got hurt,” Cavanaugh said. “Cole saw some things and did a good job, too. With Deck on the sideline, he saw some things and he’s talking to Cole too and he’ll say ‘hey did you see that?’ It’s good to have him over there.”
Cavanaugh also didn’t notice much of a drop-off Saturday when Conrad took over for Decker. He’s hoping that continues into the Huskers’ matchup with Northwestern.
>> Langsdorf wants to score touchdowns every time the Huskers enter the red zone.
“I don’t think you can be unrealistic,” he said. “I think it’s the mindset that’s got to be a touchdown when we get down there.”
Against Purdue, the Huskers got to the red zone often but failed to capitalize. Six trips yielded four field goals and only one touchdown.
“I think it’s a culmination of things,” he said of what’s causing the problem. “We didn’t run very well last week, we dropped a pass, we got hurried on one. It’s a lot of different things. I think it’s just simple execution and going back to things we’re good at and making sure that we can execute those things.”
He thought back to a drive late in the third quarter when Nebraska had it second-and-goal from the Purdue 5-yard line and Bradley was dropped for a 3-yard loss on a run play. An incomplete pass later and Nebraska was kicking a field goal from inside the 10-yard line.
“Things like that that we can’t have,” he said. “We’ve got to get positive yards, especially running.”
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.