In the visitor’s locker room of TCF Bank Stadium two Saturdays ago, head coach Scott Frost told his team to go home and stay away from the football facilities for a few days. They’d have Sunday and Monday off, but when they came back Tuesday they needed to be ready. The basics of what they try and do on offense had eroded. A Frost offense had scored 27 points in 12 quarters. He told the team if he needed to call inside zone 50 straight times in a live, ones-on-ones period he would.
And so he did.
“Most of our team periods, probably 90% of them, were base run—base inside zone, base mid-zone,” said tight end Austin Allen Monday morning at the Huskers’ weekly press conference.
“Getting back to the basics, doing our fundamental things the right way rather than trying to do all of these extraordinary things,” added redshirt freshman running back Brody Belt. “We have to be able to do our normal inside zone before we can try and branch out.”
Last week’s practices had a fall camp feel. Basic stuff. First-team offense against the first-team defense without the bells and whistles of the Oregon and UCF offenses that littered preseason dreams.
Nebraska’s reality right now, at 4-3 on the year and 2-2 in-conference, is that of a group in need of a reset. Inside zone is about as basic as this scheme can get. One man’s best against the guy’s opposite him. “Iron sharpens iron,” Belt said.
Talking about great practices will not serve the Huskers this week. Those haven’t translated to Saturdays. Talking about taking things one day at a time won’t serve the Huskers this week either.
Intensity was a clearly-important talking point Monday morning from everyone that came up to the sixth floor of West Stadium. Do your job and do it better than the other guys at your spot. Nebraska’s offense is currently missing that.
Every-down success is hard to come by. From an efficiency standpoint, the team is sputtering. Nebraska was 20th in yards per play nationally last season, at 6.31 a pop. This year, the number is at 5.65 and the ranking is at 75. Sack-adjusted running numbers paint the same number. It’s supposed to go the other way with more time in the system.
So these last few days have been about stripping away the extra stuff and seeing who can execute the technique and the details the right way. On how much emphasis was placed on just running the ball better in practice, Frost said “a bunch.”
“Overall I think we need to be more physical, particularly on offense,” he continued. “We worked the heck out of that last week. A lot of fundamentals, a lot of simple things, and hopefully it'll make a difference.”
With the status of starting quarterback Adrian Martinez and star playmaker Wan’Dale Robinson both up in the air, being able to execute the simple stuff will go a long way.
Nebraska won't have one of its top rushers this week, either. Maurice Washington—with two first-half suspensions in-season, a summer citation for possession of drug paraphernalia, and felony child pornography charges hanging over him for the greater part of this 2019 calendar year—will not play against Indiana on Saturday after another off-the-field issue seemingly pushed Frost over the edge. So, the Huskers will be down their leading running back.
That means Dedrick Mills, a junior college transfer in his first year with the program, will step to the plate. Mills is averaging an average-looking 4.6 yards per carry this season, but he has seven touchdowns in seven games. He hasn’t yet been an every-down back.
Inside zone, however, compliments him.
“I’m ready to carry the ball, that’s all,” Mills said. “Just running the ball hard and running through tacklers.”
Iron sharpens iron.
“All I want is to face physical downhill backs, whether it’s the scout team running that way, or it’s a new one running in practice that way, it’s good for the team,” linebacker Mohamed Barry said. “It’s going to be good for our running backs. It’s going to be good for our linemen knowing that the running back is going to make one cut and go upfield. It’s going to be good for our linebackers and DB’s tackling that kind of run style in practice.”
Indiana’s defense gives up 3.76 yards per carry. The only real time the run defense hasn’t been an unqualified strength this season for head coach Tom Allen was against Ohio State, and you can pretty much throw out that game if you aren’t competing for a CFP berth; Ohio State is going to do that to anyone and everyone outside the top 1% of college football.
Nebraska will hope it can replicate the same kind of success Maryland found last week, though, when the Terps went for 173 yards and two scores. Javon Leake, a 6-foot, 206-pound tailback, provided 158 of those yards and both of those scores.
Maybe a better way of phrasing that last bit: Nebraska will hope to find the same success, but the process will almost assuredly have to be different.
Nebraska’s offense right now exists in a state of tension.
Frost’s success has come from blistering 11-man units that out-tempo teams to death and create explosive plays that crack defenses. This Husker group is having to grind instead. The tempo isn’t where Frost wants it. But neither is the physicality. It’s proving to be arduous. “We don’t generate enough big plays,” Frost said last Tuesday, “to make mistakes and [still] be able to sustain drives.”
You also can’t generate big plays if your bread and butter, the foundation upon which everything else is built, isn’t working.
“I think us getting back to running inside zone is going to help us in the long run,” Belt said.
“We need to get on guys and move them instead of just occupying,” Frost said of the blocking up front. “There haven't been a lot of mental breakdowns, it's just been technique-related, finishing blocks, maybe being a little more physical and nasty up front so that we can count on the holes being there a little more often.
“I think Lou Holtz said it, if a dog won't bite when it's a pup, it probably won't bite when it's grown, and there's some truth to that, too. And I think as a team, it's got to be the culture. It's just got to be what's expected. It's got to be a standard that's non-negotiable. We're working toward that.”
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.