When considering the offense’s performance in Nebraska’s 30-22 loss to Illinois, sophomore wide receiver Wyatt Liewer wasn’t focused on the team’s shortcomings through the air and the possible receptions he wished he had back.
Instead, the first thing he noted on Monday was the Huskers’ struggles getting the ground game going.
“I feel like we never really established the run game early on and that’s a big part,” he said. “It’s kind of surprising to me because I felt really good about our run game going into it.”
The Husker running backs ran the ball 19 times for 54 yards against Illinois, an average of 2.8 yards per carry. Quarterback Adrian Martinez moved up the overall rushing stats with a 75-yard touchdown run and a 26-yard scramble in the second half, but the team still struggled.
The wide receiver group felt they performed well in the pass game, but that they are just as responsible as anyone else for improving the ground attack.
“As a receiver in the run game, we’re a big part of that too,” Liewer said. “Any play that breaks the line is going to be on us. So that’s something where, if it’s man coverage we got to run guys off and I feel like we did a pretty good job with that.”
Multiple players also commented on how the team went away from the run more in the second half. Between the 10:29 mark of the second quarter and the 0:35 mark in the third, Husker running backs only got one touch. The one run came on the second-to-last play of the first half, right before Martinez was sacked to take the game into the break.
Wide receiver Samori Toure said that the team changed plans once they noticed that what they did early on wasn’t working. Gabe Ervin Jr. averaged 3.4 yards per carry in the first half, with four of his seven touches gaining one yard or less.
“We’re going to run what’s working for us,” Toure said. “…For the most part we couldn’t really get the run game going, so I don’t see why we’d stick with it.”
Offensive lineman Turner Corcoran took a slightly different approach and said the lack of designed run plays in the second half was for situational reasons. The Huskers trailed by two scores when they first got the ball after halftime.
“Can’t really run the damn ball when you have to play a little bit of catch up,” he said.
Seven of the 19 carries by running backs did come on one drive in the fourth quarter with Nebraska down 14. That scoring drive, spanning six minutes and 42 seconds, was the team’s longest of the day and consisted of 19 total plays. Just seven of those plays ended in pass attempts.
Moving into the Fordham game this upcoming weekend, Nebraska will look to come out with a more impressive performance on the ground. Ervin Jr. and Markese Stepp stood out the most among running backs in practice leading up to the game, according to coach Scott Frost, and are solid candidates to continue seeing significant playing time.
For the team to get going on the ground like it wants to, it will have to avoid falling behind early once again.
“We’ve got to be better,” Frost said. “We’ve got to establish the run, we’ve got to be ahead of the game so we can commit to the run. You get behind in the game, then you’re forced to do a few more things.”