Nebraska has had a rough go of it in the trenches over the last couple of weeks, including the 56-10 loss to Michigan on Saturday.
Offensively, the Huskers allowed four sacks and 14 tackles for loss and only mustered 39 yards on the ground and 132 yards overall which included some stat-padding with reserves in for both teams late.
“In some form or fashion, it was a reflection of guys knowing and being able to communicate their defense, in a few cases, better than we knew and could communicate our offense,” offensive line coach Greg Austin said. “In those situations with the defense they play and how they run to the ball and how physical they are, you have to be at the top of your game. Our guys were ready to play. We had some unfortunate things, an early tipped ball and some protection miscommunication issues. The guys were ready to go, they just didn’t execute.
“It was not just on us, it was a reflection on everybody involved. Pick a play: the offensive line screws up on this play, the running back screws up on this play, the quarterback doesn’t change the protection on this play, we don’t change the protection like we’re supposed to on this play, and it just starts snowballing and that’s what happened.”
Nebraska’s struggles weren’t too surprising considering the amount of talent Michigan has in its front seven with the likes of linemen Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich and linebacker Devin Bush, and Austin wasn’t shying away from the fact that the Huskers simply couldn’t stack up at times physically.
“Some of them were talent; I’m not going to sugarcoat it,” Austin said. “You know, the one-on-one matchup. As a coach, you can talk until you’re blue in the face about what a guy should do better, but at the end of the day, that guy’s just better than the guy. We have to continue to build this program and build this roster up to where we can compete.”
Still, Austin said he hasn’t seen a hangover from the Michigan game in practice this week. He said they’ve been some of the best yet. Despite the 0-3 start what seemed to be regression from week one to weeks two and three, Austin said he is seeing improvement in his room.
“I’ve seen progress, progress in their technique,” Austin said. “We came into Troy playing kind of an unusual defense with movement and that challenged our thinking, so to speak, a little bit. But I’ve seen progress; I can tell you definitively I’ve seen progress. The good things about Colorado is they play a defense that is very similar to ours, so there wasn’t a whole bunch of learning they had to do throughout the week whereas now you’re playing a different-structured defense; now, different guys have to communicate and the chain of command has to be reinforced.
“Those are in some cases a reflection of insecurity as to whether the guy to the right and to the left of me is going to be in the right spot from time to time. It’s that jelling that these guys are continually working on in terms of the scheme and the techniques and the calls and everything associated.”
Austin gave praise to the tackles in particular, both of whom are sophomores.
“Mainly the tackles, honestly, in terms of their communication and being accountable to the communication and taking it upon themselves, especially this week, of doing a really good job of communicating with the center and knowing what the center called and how their job is affected by that call and also communicating to the guards,” Austin said. “Those guys coming together and knowing what step to take and knowing how they need to fit the block and knowing where their eyes have to be on each given play based on the look.”
The one bright spot from the lopsided result against Michigan was that it provided Austin a chance to get some of his reserves into the game after he had rolled solely with a six-lineman rotation in the first two games.
“Later on in the game, we had an opportunity to get some new bodies in there,” Austin said. “Trent Hixson, he was one particular guy we put in there and he didn’t do a bad job; we’re excited about his future. Hunter Miller stepped in there as well and Matt Sichterman got an opportunity to play on Saturday. All guys that have bright futures ahead of them; it was really good to get those guys game reps although I don’t like the situation; I’d rather be up a lot to get those guys game reps.”
Hixson is a 6-foot-4, 300-pound walk-on out of Omaha Skutt who stepped in at left guard on Saturday as part of the second-string offensive line.
“I’ve been just doing what I’m supposed to do and Coach G has been amazing,” Hixson said. “I’m just working every day to get better … I wish the circumstances were different but getting some snaps in was amazing to me.”
Miller is a walk-on as well who drew some praise during spring ball for his play at center while Sichterman is a redshirt freshman right tackle. At this point, and despite the starters’ struggles so far this season, Austin said “It’s too early to tell” if any of the second-unit guys are close to legitimately pushing for a starting job.
“Right now those guys have a lot of snaps, the guys that we’re playing have a lot of snaps with the exception of Boe Wilson,” Austin said. “Those guys have some snaps under their belt and they are more seasoned, whereas those other guys got an opportunity to get in there in live bullets and it was good to get them that game experience so that they can understand what it takes going forward to get in the games and the situations that they’re going to be placed in so that they can function in the fog.
"We always talk about functioning in the fog, the fog of the game, the fog of drives when there’s a 10-play drive and you’re not at the energy system that you were on play one or two. That was the good thing about getting those guys is they got an opportunity to taste that.”
If Nebraska is going to get things turned around this season, it is going to start up front in the trenches. Austin said he’s seen progress, but that progress needs to start showing up in the form of production and results sooner rather than later.
Jacob Padilla has been writing for Hail Varsity since 2015. He covers football, volleyball men’s basketball and prep sports. He also co-hosts the Nebraska Preps Postgame and Nebraska Shootaround podcasts for the Hurrdat Media and Hail Varsity podcast networks. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.