MINNEAPOLIS – Nebraska football has plenty to work on during its “off week.”
With a loss like this—34-7 as a touchdown underdog and the score wasn’t as close as it looked—it could be hard to know where to begin. But Scott Frost had one clear idea.
“At the end of the day, if you can rely on a run game you’re going to put your team in good spots and then everything else works,” he said.
Nebraska could not. The Huskers managed a worse than it looks 4.6 yards per carry, sacks not included, but 49 of those yards came from Noah Vedral. Walk-on Brody Belt, who got four carries on the Huskers’ final drive, ranked second on the team with 29.
“We need to have a more reliable run game without having to lean on our quarterback. We have two quarterback nicked up right now and it’s because [those] have been some of our most productive runs. I’m not used to coaching an offense like that.”
That, I think, is the central issue with 4-3 Nebraska right now—the offense isn’t successful at the one thing it has to be successful at. The difference in the run game, this year to last year, was pretty plain to see after six games. It was easy to identify as a potential problem in the offseason, too. Maybe the biggest potential problem.
Regression in the run game was the spike strip that could strand Nebraska’s season and the Huskers definitely hit it somewhere along the way.
“Right now we are having to pick and choose run plays and try to scheme too much instead of just winning upfront and relying on our run game,” Frost said.
Nebraska fans of a certain age don’t need to be reminded of what that looks like, but just in case—the guys in all-maroon did a damn good job of it Saturday night. Minnesota, which rushed for fewer than 3.2 yards per carry in each of its first four games, got loose for 6.4 last week at Illinois then bumped it to 6.6 against the Huskers.
P.J. Fleck said the Gophers thought they could win that way. Frost said the Huskers knew it was coming. That paints a pretty clear picture. Physicality always manifests itself in the run game. That’s been true for the entire 150-year history of this sport.
“I don’t like coaching a team that isn’t the most physical football team,” Frost said, “and we weren’t.”
The Huskers have five games and two bye weeks to figure it out. Frost said it won’t be an easy fix, but that the goal for the off week ahead is to “get really good at something in the run game.”
What might that be?
“Every downhill run,” said right tackle and captain Matt Farniok.
“Just power,” said running back Dedrick Mills. In his one year at Georgia Tech, Mills ran the straight-ahead, win-up-front stuff in the Yellow Jackets’ flexbone plenty. Through seven games with the Huskers this season, Mills is averaging 4.6 yards per carry. Running a bunch of plunges into the line at Georgia Tech as the de facto fullback, he averaged 5.1 as a true freshman.
Those are the right words to say, but the results aren’t following. The Huskers’ lack of success here through seven games is complete and touches every part of the program. Last year Nebraska averaged 6.4 yards per rush and 51.5% of those rushes were successful by success rate.
This year just 42.9% are at 5.0 yards per carry.
Nebraska can’t win that way. It’s not built to win that way. The reason the Huskers have struggled so far in conference play is pretty obvious.
An immediate solution might not be.
Perhaps that’s why offensive line coach Greg Austin huddled his group up before leaving the field. Sophomore Broc Bando, a backup who entered the game at left guard after Trent Hixson struggled, was part of that group chat.
What was the message?
“He told us it was a moment that we need to realize it’s time to either quit or get better,” Bando said, “and I’m going to get better.”
Do more members of this team feel that way?
This was a hurdle many thought the Huskers cleared over a strong second half of the 2018 season.
But now it appears not. Nebraska’s not good at the one thing it absolutely has to be good at for this offense to work the way it’s designed.
That’s a tough fix in the middle of a season, but there’s no other choice, really.
There’s nowhere to run. That’s the problem.
Brandon is the Managing Editor for Hail Varsity and has covered Nebraska athletics for the magazine and web since 2012, Hail Varsity’s first season on the scene. His sports writing has also been featured by Fox Sports, The Guardian and CBS Sports.