Nebraska Football Players at Game Against Iowa
Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Nebraska Has Something Going on the Ground; It Needs to Keep Going

November 25, 2019

All the offseason love, all the preseason posturing, all the early year tormenting, all the mid-year lamenting. All of those things can get wiped away in one week. That’s what this upcoming week’s Black Friday game can do for Nebraska. Not to be overly dramatic, but this Husker team has a lot to gain against Iowa and probably even more to lose.   

Because these are the last four meetings:

  Nebraska Iowa
Points per play 0.252 0.630
Avg. rushing attempts 30.8 41.8
Avg. rushing yards 108.5 249.0
Avg. yards per carry 3.52 5.96
Rushing touchdowns 3 15
Tackles for loss 23 15
Sacks 2 5

Iowa has sacked Nebraska’s quarterbacks more times in the last four years than Nebraska has scored rushing touchdowns against the Hawkeyes. 

“I’ve had the chance to watch Iowa,” head coach Scott Frost said Saturday night. “They’re one of the best teams in the league.”

Iowa’s 102nd in scoring offense on the year and tied for 91st in points per play, so I’m going to go ahead and assume when Frost looks at the Hawkeyes, he appreciates the physicality and the defense. Which is nothing new, that’s what Iowa has been known for now for the two-decades-long Kirk Ferentz tenure. 

Nebraska is starting to find itself a little more on offense. Quarterback Adrian Martinez completed 64% of his attempts against Maryland this past weekend and has run up 597 yards of total offense in his last two games. The Huskers have 14 red zone trips over that same time period and 11 scores. 

Frost has been able to crank up the creativity in recent weeks as his group has upped the execution. 

He used that exact same play a year ago when the Huskers nearly up-ended Ohio State. It went to Austin Allen then, too, and Allen bit off 40 yards. It’s made possible by a legitimate run game. The thing that feels at the center of all of this is Nebraska’s finally-legit-again running game. Against Wisconsin and Maryland, Nebraska has run the ball 86 times for 625 yards. That’s 7.3 yards a carry. 

In the previous four games combined Nebraska had 673 yards on 161 carries. 

“But it’s Maryland!” True. But Purdue has the worst run defense in the Big Ten, not Maryland. Maryland is 11th in yards per carry allowed. Nebraska is 12th. Something. Also, uh, Wisconsin?

In the last two games, Nebraska has 25 explosive run plays. (That’s a third of its runs by the way.) Nebraska had only 24 of those in its previous five games before the Badgers came to town. 

The mid-zone has become one of those replicable staples Nebraska can actually rely on. Frost was searching for something. Remember the “back to basics” tagline post-Minnesota? A bulk of practice the ensuing week was inside zone. Nebraska wanted anything

Now it has a few things. 

Dedrick Mills is running hard and patient. Martinez is running smarter. Freshman Rahmir Johnson is contributing. (I don’t expect Nebraska to do this, but I would say, at this point, play Johnson against Iowa as a change-of-pace to Mills and then you can get him invaluable experience in a bowl game.) Luke McCaffrey is a serious read-option threat. The offensive line is blocking as well as it has all season. 

On the flip side, Nebraska had six sacks against Maryland. That’s not nothing, even considering how awful the Terps’ offensive line is. That’s pass-rushing confidence. The Hawkeyes rank 45th nationally in sack rate allowed on passing downs and 73rd on standard downs; quarterback Nate Stanley isn’t under lock and key back there. 

They’ve also forced six fumbles in two weeks. Can’t do that unless you hit. Tackling cost Nebraska a lot against the Badgers. Tackling has been a sore spot against the Hawkeyes. The Huskers need to hope a strong showing against Maryland was the start of an upward trend and not an outlier.

This should and probably will, as is usually the case with most Big Ten rock fights, come down to who wins at the point of attack. 

The answer to that question for four straight years has been definitively yellow. 

That can’t be the case this year. Not if Nebraska wants to extend its season. 

That shouldn’t be the case this year.

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