Offensive Line Love
Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Offensive Line Love, Needing Specialists, and Basketball Ceilings

November 18, 2019

It’s Sunday night. So time for a Monday column. Back to the “multiple things” format we go, as this one will cross a couple of sports. 

Offensive Line

The Minnesota game feels like ages ago. Now that I’m thinking about it, I’m remembering sitting in the small photo workroom in the bowels of TCF Bank Stadium that gets repurposed as the visiting team’s press conference area after games. I’m remembering sitting in the front row, watching Scott Frost fiddle with a hand-warmer underneath the table, speaking into a microphone on the tabletop and telling the world he’s not used to be out-muscled in games. 

Nebraska got pushed around that day, Frost thought initially. Now, he walked some of that sentiment back after watching tape, but Nebraska lost 34-7 and was held to 4.2 yards per play (the worst non-Ohio State output of the year). That doesn’t happen if all things are equal at the line of scrimmage. 

That game was a month ago. The first loss in this slide. Saturday represented the fourth straight. But if you’re looking in the trenches (on the offensive side, don’t look at the defensive side, just don’t do it), there has been improvement even if the win-loss column doesn’t show it. 

Frost says he’s tired of looking for silver linings, which is fine—he’s the coach, he’s supposed to say that—but the offensive line gashing Wisconsin, of all teams, the way it did Saturday represents a pretty darn important “feel good” topic

Dedrick Mills ran wild. To the tune of 188 yards. He single-handedly out-ran eight of the nine other teams Wisconsin has faced this season. 

He did so thanks to the offensive line. 

“[Holes] were the biggest I’ve seen all season,” Mills said. “I felt good for the offensive line because they really blocked their tail off today.”

Nebraska created a gameplan that attacked Wisconsin’s weakness. 

“We ran mids a lot today, and that’s what you see, I was breaking it every time,” Mills said. “That is pretty much a common weakness of their defense. They can’t hold the mid zone, can’t fill gaps, but we just hit the holes really hard and just ran to give a second effort and not letting one person make a tackle.”

Mills gets a lot of the credit for breaking arm tackles (not exactly a how-to kind of day for tackling from either side), but when that dude is going against linebackers and defensive backs he should be breaking arm tackles. 

“I thought those guys probably had their best run-blocking game of the year,” Frost said.

Much of the issue this season has been getting all five guys on the same page on any given play, and having all five consistently execute. The thing about Saturday was that Nebraska would have one guy stand out from the pack, but it would finally be in a positive way. When Nebraska had a positive play, or a chunk play (13 of those on the ground, just absurd given who they were playing and what we’d seen to this point), or a momentum play, Trent Hixson or Boe Wilson or Cam Jurgens was usually involved in some way, shape or form. 

Here’s Hixson, creating space. 

Here’s Jurgens, recovering and creating a lane for his quarterback. 

Here’s Wilson, taking his man right out of the play.

Here’s Hixson again, pulling and absolutely stonewalling a dude.

And here’s Wilson taking his man out of the play and Hixson giving his quarterback a lane. (And Brenden Jaimes getting lucky.)

Nebraska obviously wasn’t perfect. It wasn’t even good enough. The offense had 21 points to show for all its goodness. There are a number of times—fourth-and-3 for a loss of 1, fourth-and-4 where Martinez is flushed and only gets 2, fourth-and-goal from the four all come to mind—where Nebraska needed more space than it was given. Or just simply space where there was none created. 

The Huskers have made a habit of losing games when they approach the 500-yard threshold as an offense and that’s remarkable in its own right. 

But the offensive line not just being physical enough to meet the challenge that was a top-10 Badger defense in a number of physicality-based metrics, but win their one-on-ones is worth giving a little love to. 

It certainly felt a lot different than it did in Minneapolis. 

Kicker, Needed Desperately

Nebraska has had 14 drives this season end inside the opponent’s 25-yard-line with zero points. 

Nebraska is 127th out of 130 FBS programs in field goal efficiency, connecting on just seven of its 15 attempts this season. 

Nebraska is 122nd out of 130 FBS programs in red zone scoring efficiency, getting points on 28 of 40 trips. (Twelve freaking trips inside the opposing team’s 20-yard-line have come up empty.)

Nebraska is 99th out of 130 FBS programs in touchback percentage on kickoffs. But it has kicked two out of bounds. The ones that stay in average 21 yards a return.

Barret Pickering missed the first seven games this season with an undisclosed injury that seemingly agitated Frost more with each passing week. Since he’s come back, he hasn’t been the same automatic threat he was to close out his freshman season. 

Nebraska also doesn’t have a kickoff specialist. That guy was Caleb Lightbourn last year, but after being run out of town, Nebraska planned to turn to Pickering and ended up piecing together a rotation of punters Isaac Armstrong and William Przystup. Neither was supposed to have the job, so, as expected, neither has been particularly great at it. 

The momentum-destroying kickoff return Wisconsin got right after Nebraska’s opening score only traveled 89 yards. The kickoff was that shallow. 

Nebraska needs a kicker. 

How many points have been left on the board this season because Nebraska either missed a kick or didn’t even attempt one because it was more likely to convert a fourth-and-6 than it was to make a 35-yard kick?

The answer is too many. Too many for a team with this fine a margin for error. Too many for a team that has been outscored by 41 points total this season. (The Ohio State margin was 41 points, you can and should throw that game out.)

Kicker is a position of interest on the recruiting trail, though Nebraska doesn’t really want to have two scholarship kickers on the roster at the same time when it has other non-contributing scholarships. So maybe that means adding a walk-on who specializes in kickoffs. Maybe that means getting the old Pickering back. Improving the kicking game should be a priority, whatever form that takes. Saturday was the latest example of why.

Kevin Cross

I’m a pretty big fan of Kevin Cross. 

A reader responded with Cam Mack as a rebuttal, which is honestly probably the answer to that semi-posed question. The point guard is really, really good. But he’s a 6-foot-2 guard who sort of is what he is; the shooting can improve and the defense can get a little better, but he’s a fill-the-statsheet kind of guard. 

What on earth could Cross become? 

His first three games:

  • 14 minutes, 1-10 FG, 1-6 3P, four points, three rebounds, two fouls
  • 36 minutes, 8-15 FG, 1-3 3P, 19 points, five rebounds, one block, two turnovers, one foul
  • 17 minutes, 4-5 FG, 1-1 3P, 10 points, two rebounds, two blocks, one turnover, four fouls

Cross has shown the ability and the desire to handle the ball in transition, leading the break. He can, apparently, go behind the back and change directions to shake defenders hanging a little too close. He will let fly from the perimeter if you sag too far into the paint. Or he will just drive into you and hit an off-balance, weird-angled floater. 

In the span of 45 seconds, you get a little bit of everything. Timing as a shot-blocker, defending without fouling, handling, body control to avoid a charge, touch to finish a tough runner, spacing and then more rim protection.

The defense is mostly still a work in progress. 

The body is a work in progress, too. He’s already lost 15 pounds since arriving in Lincoln and the Nebraska roster officially lists him at 6-foot-8, 240. 

The intrigue comes from the fact that I’m not entirely sure what coach Fred Hoiberg wants him to play at. He could lose 20 more pounds and be a ball-handler on the perimeter. Georges Niang interest anyone? I’ve seen Cross throw a backdoor pass. With some work, he’s got the vision to do some of those same things. Or he could just reshape the frame in the weight room, play at 235 and be a pick-and-roll weapon. 

The ceiling seems so high initially because the possibilities seem numerous. Cross has a multi-faceted skillset. It’s why smart basketball minds like Mike Boynton at Oklahoma State and Brad Underwood at Illinois wanted him. He was under-recruited, it seems. 

The freshman forward from Little Rock, Arkansas, is contributing in a way I didn’t really expect to see this early. 

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