Physicality is one thing. Interim head coach Mickey Joseph challenged the Huskers to meet their opponents’ physicality going into the final stretch of the season. Offensive coordinator Mark Whipple on Wednesday said physicality is a part of the offense’s next step. But it’s not the unit’s sole focus.
“To me it’s about scoring points,” Whipple said. “I don’t think anybody comes out of a game saying ‘Geez, we were more physical.’ They have a scoreboard for a reason. I haven’t seen a tally for physicality on there. That’s what it comes down to but that’s part of it, yeah.”
Joseph said the team needs to re-establish the run game and get leading rusher Anthony Grant going again. Whipple admitted he’d like to see Grant return to the form he showed earlier in the season.
Grant ran for at least 101 yards in all but one (No. 6 Oklahoma) of the Huskers’ first five games. But lately he’s struggled to find that same consistency. Rutgers held him to 47 rushing yards and Purdue limited him to 35. Of course, he saw limited carries in that game, staying below 20 in both. But that’s partially because the Huskers didn’t find success on the ground.
Both Joseph and Whipple like Grant’s capabilities and are confident in both Jaquez Yant and Rahmir Johnson, the two definitive No. 2 options with Ajay Allen’s season-ending collarbone surgery and Gabe Ervin Jr. dealing with an injury of his own.
“Stay more balanced and just keep getting better,” Whipple offered media members on how to spark the run game against Illinois. “It’s a combination. The sport dictates a lot of what you have to do. Just got to mix and match, stay on point.”
The Illini’s defense boasts an 81.5% stop rate and limits offenses to just 0.74 points per drive. Illinois plays physical man coverage and its front seven have shut down opposing run games most of the season. Whipple’s seen a spring in the step of the offense after a bye week to rest, even giving quarterback Casey Thompson fewer throwing reps during that week.
Whipple’s system takes time to implement. He reiterated that on Wednesday. He also said that added time and rhythm could be a potential reason why receiver Trey Palmer has emerged as the nation’s leader in receiving yards among Power Five programs. Through more reps they’ve built more precise timing and trust. Palmer and Grant are the offense’s two most prominent playmakers, Whipple said, and he wants to get the ball to playmakers.
With timing limitations comes personnel loss. Nebraska’s offensive line has struggled at times this year. Whipple pointed out the unit has already lost three players to injury since he arrived in the spring.
“We’ve just got to keep moving some guys around and building depth, which the off week helped, Whipple said. “Guys are going to get hurt you know, it’s an unfortunate part of the game. Building depth isn’t the easiest thing in the first year because you don’t get a chance to recruit.”
The offensive coordinator said Illinois’ personnel has bought into their coach’s plan. Their ability to run the ball––Chase Brown is the top rusher in the country––shortens games and helps the defense. In response, Nebraska has to make the most of its offensive possessions and improve on third down to get first downs and extend drives.