In Nebraska’s first win under interim head coach Mickey Joseph, there were notable changes in areas the team had struggled.
The defense, one of the worst in the nation coming into the day, held strong against Indiana. The special teams unit continued to show how much it has improved since last season, blocking a punt and returning it for a touchdown.
The offensive line, however, turned in a less definitive performance on paper. The Huskers gave up four sacks for the second straight game, and averaged a season-low 2.3 yards per carry. Turner Corcoran was ejected after back-to-back unsportsmanlike conduct penalties.
Despite those numbers, Joseph’s report on the group was one of positivity.
“I think they’re doing a great job of run blocking right now,” Joseph said. “We got to work on our pass pro, but I think when you shuffle them in and out, you got to get your best five on the field. Right now I think it’s not where we want them at, but they’re getting better every day in practice.”
As Joseph suggested, the run game has been successful. Lead back Anthony Grant had his fourth game of 100-plus yards against the Hoosiers, averaging 4.3 yards per carry on 32 rushes. The team’s yards per carry number was brought down by the sacks, as the running backs averaged four yards a rush.
Nebraska has allowed at least two sacks in every game so far this year, and the 15 total on the season rank last in the Big Ten. Casey Thompson took three against the Hoosiers — two on intentional grounding calls, and one where offensive coordinator Mark Whipple subsequently ripped into him on the sideline and he was pulled for a drive. The starting quarterback felt his line held up well.
“This past game, they were actually pretty good,” Thompson said. “We rotate a lot of guys, but I feel like they gave me good time in the pocket this week. I took a couple hits but I think I had a pretty clean pocket.”
The sentiment was similar from Ethan Piper, who is one of the many linemen who’ve gotten the chance to see the field. He said postgame Saturday that his group has been taking criticism well, studying and slowly finding a rhythm. It doesn’t matter who the linemen are on the field, either.
“As an O-line room, we’re a brotherhood,” Piper said. “We love everybody. And whoever is playing out there, we have full confidence they’re gonna do their job and literally, it didn’t matter who was out there, we were one unit, one heartbeat.”
Communication between the line and quarterback was a point of emphasis heading into the game. Thompson said he likes to focus on motivating and encouraging his blockers, rather than criticizing them heavily.
“I talked to coach Joseph during the bye week and we kind of talked about ways to approach the offensive line,” he said. “It’s easier to tell the offensive line and my teammates what to do or what I need instead of telling them what not to do. I think that helps for sure.”
That can take shape in a variety of ways. If he feels like the offense has an opportunity for a big play, Thompson might tell his linemen that they just need to give him two or three seconds. In another situation, he’ll ask his tackles to work “inside-out,” forcing rushers around the edge so he has the opportunity to step up in the pocket.
Given the fast pace of game situations, this isn’t something that happens every big play. For example, Thompson said he didn’t tell the O-line anything before his 71-yard touchdown pass to Trey Palmer. There, and much of the time, the quarterback just made sure his teammates were properly lined up.
Joseph has also challenged his quarterback to be more demanding, especially throughout the week in practice so they’re used to it on game day.
“(Joseph) said when he used to play quarterback he used to make comments like, when you get knocked down to the ground and the O-line comes to help pick you up, he goes, ‘Tell them that you shouldn’t be on the ground in the first place,’” Thompson said. “He wants me to say things like that.”
Thompson said he isn’t the type of player who screams at teammates or cusses them out, but he’ll be more demanding in his own way.
While he works on that on the field, he’ll take time to celebrate off of it with the offensive line before a Friday night game against Rutgers. Thompson said when the team wins and the offensive line does well, they want to be rewarded, and that’ll likely happen at MoMo Pizzeria this week.
“I congratulated the O-line, and they’re excited to go out to eat for the first time in a long time,” Thompson said. “So we’re going to go to MoMo’s pizza at some point this week, and then they wanna go eat again after Friday’s game to celebrate as well.”