Things finally clicked for the Nebraska offense in its 53-28 win against Minnesota last Saturday, and that included 100-yard rushing days by both of its running backs, senior Devine Ozigbo (153 yards) and freshman Maurice Washington (109).
After Washington received his clearance from the NCAA and arrived on campus, the Huskers had four backs that were battling for snaps: Ozigbo, Washington, Trey Bryant and Greg Bell. However, since then, Bryant had to retire from football and Bell chose to transfer after losing his starting spot, leaving two men left standing.
“At the end of the day, we dealt with what we dealt with at the beginning trying to get the right rotation,” running backs coach Ryan Held said. “Sometimes it takes a little time to get it right. Obviously it just happened the way it did and now we have a really good two-man rotation with Wyatt [Mazour] and [Mikale] Wilbon as the next guys up. We’ve got a nice little one-two punch going and they compliment each other — different styles but at the end of the day they’ve been running hard and we’ve got to continue to keep getting better.”
With 600 yards in seven games, Ozigbo is well on his way to becoming the first Nebraska running back to surpass 1,000 rushing yards in a season since Ameer Abdullah in 2014. Prior to 2015, Nebraska had a back crack 1,000 in six straight seasons. That is the standard Held is trying to establish in Lincoln once again.
“When we took this job and Coach Frost wanted me to be the running backs coach, I know what that position entails historically here, obviously a lot of great players and a lot to uphold,” Held said. “One of the first things was we have to get that position back where it is a strength on this football team. It’d be hard to argue I think right now that both those guys are playing at a high level in terms of working hard and doing everything they can to help our football team. They know that. We’re going to continue to push them. We’re not satisfied with anything and Devine knows and Mo knows and all of them know that when that clock hits zero then it starts over for the next week because you’re only as good as your last game.”
The final score against the Gophers looks like a blowout, but there was a point in the game where it looked to be very much in doubt despite a 28-0 start by the Huskers. Minnesota stormed back to make it a one-score game in the third quarter, but instead of crumbling like they did the previous week in Evanston, the Huskers answered to took control once again.
“Every time we go out there is another opportunity with our guys to go through all the scenarios that can happen with a game,” Held said. “We obviously got up 28-nothing or whatever it was and they kind of came back, got it to 28-22, and I think right now, our carpe diem moment was that drive when we went down and scored again when they had just scored to make it 28-22. It could have been, well, here we go again: 3-0, they get the ball and go score and now they take the lead. We just said, ‘You know what? We’re not going to let it happen. We’re going to take this thing and control it and that’s what our guys did and it paid off. We’re going to be in a lot of different scenarios the last part of this season so every scenario we get with our guys is awesome because it’s another teachable moment.”
The response was a four-play drive that included runs off 22 yards and 11 yards by the freshman Washington sandwiched between receptions by senior wideout Stanley Morgan Jr. for 6 yards and 35 yards.
“I looked at him and I said, ‘All right, let’s go. I need a play,’” Held said about trusting his young back in a crucial spot. “The first play was our mid-zone play where he ripped it for 25 yards or whatever it was. Him and Devine, they’re ready for the moment whenever it is. For him to be a freshman and play at that level, and he just keeps getting better and better and better. It just takes time; he wasn’t here in the summer and we’ve just kind of built him up. He’s an asset to us, obviously, moving forward.”
The success on the ground isn’t all on the backs, however. Nebraska’s offensive line has had its fair share of struggles, but Held made sure to give that unit credit for the progress it has made in recent weeks.
“Any time you have success on offense, it starts with the offensive line and Coach [Greg] Austin and Coach [Frank] Verducci have done an unbelievable job with those guys,” Held said. “They’re getting better week-by-week and it just takes time for that to jell. But you can see when we get it rolling how thins thing can go. We’re obviously not satisfied with anything because we have a lot of really tough games down the stretch, but you know what? We’re just going to take it week-by-week. Bethune’s next and let’s keep this thing rolling and keep getting better.”
The offensive line isn’t the only one responsible for blocking. For the running backs to rip off big runs, it needs blocking down the field from the receivers and tight ends, and for a mobile quarterback like Adrian Martinez to get loose (he had 125 yards against the Gophers as well), the backs in Scott Frost’s offense have to get involved in the blocking as well. Washington may be slight (listed at 190 pounds at 6-foot-1), but he isn’t afraid to throw his body around.
“He loves football and he’s tough,” Held said. “He’s not the weight that he will be some day, but he packs a good punch for where he’s at. He’s not going to back down from anybody so when he gets a chance to get block for whatever, he’s not going to shy from it. Obviously we have to keep working on technique and fundamentals of pass pro just like we do with all our guys but when I saw that live, it didn’t surprise me because I just know he loves to play and he’s going to protect his teammates and do everything he can to help out to get us scores.”
On one play in particular during the second quarter, Martinez showed off his speed and elusiveness on a 22-yard scramble, and Washington showed off his physicality with a crushing block that got Martinez an extra 7 yards.
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After the play, the freshman popped up and celebrated more than he had after any of his own runs.
“I think when you have guys that love to block for their teammates, that’s the mark of us building a championship program, not worrying about their stats; if I can help my quarterback and get a big block and be excited over it?” Held said. “That’s where we want to get to. I saw it from the side — and it was over, obviously, on the other side — and I saw their guy go flying and I’m like, ‘OK, that’s what we want.’ We talk about that all the time …
“It was fun to see and he got excited and that’s what we need; we need guys that are passionate, that love the game of football.”