The Nebraska offense was dealt a significant blow a couple weeks before the season began when starting left guard Jerald Foster tore his MCL. Foster and Gates projected to give Nebraska a dominant left side on the offensive line but that never materialized when the Huskers lost Foster for what was presumed to be the entire season. That presumption was wrong.
“I always thought I was going to be able to get back,” Foster said. “That was definitely my goal for the year … I didn’t want to have any negative thoughts rolling through this whole injury and the whole rehab and progressions on getting back. My mind has always been on trying to make it back.”
It turns out that Foster was correct as after missing the first nine games, Foster not only returned to the field but he also made the first start of his career against Minnesota. After nearly three full years of waiting, the Lincoln native finally made his debut as the starting left guard for Nebraska.
“It was great, definitely,” Foster said. “It was a whole lot of fun, being able to play football and give somebody else that hit and being able to work your technique on guys that aren’t your teammate.”
The Huskers didn’t really have any definite idea of how much Foster would play, and Coach Mike Riley had expressed concern during the week about where his conditioning was at after missing so much time.
“We didn’t really know, we were just going to let it ride and see how he did and we were going to give him a break if he needed it,” Riley said.
He never did. Foster played every snap on offense as the Huskers took down the Gophers 24-17. Let’s take a look at a few plays to show what Foster brings to the table.
First Quarter, First Drive, QB Draw
Trailing 7-0 during their first drive after Minnesota ate up nearly half the quarter during its first possession, Nebraska faced a third-and-3 at the Minnesota 41-yard line. Nebraska lines up with trips to the right and one receiver to the left with running back Terrell Newby lining up next to quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr.
The Gophers only rush four anticipating a pass based on the Nebraska formation.
Right guard Tanner Farmer and center Dylan Utter double-team one of the defensive tackles, leaving the other three linemen, including Foster, one on one. The other tackle tries to cross in front of Foster to get in the backfield, but the powerful sophomore gets his hands on him and pushes him wide. Meanwhile, Armstrong drops back then takes off running for the quarterback draw.
See how far Foster has driven his defender back? He’s completely washed him out of the play and in the process gets in the way of the far defensive lineman who was trying to get back in the play. Foster basically blocked two guys, opening up the cut-back lane for Armstrong.
Tight end Cethan Carter is out in front setting a block and Armstrong has plenty of turf in front of him.
The defense finally closed in on Armstrong, but not before he picked up 19 yards and moved the chains.
This play demonstrates the sheer power Foster is capable of mustering as he drove his man a good 7 to 10 yards across the field and set a key block in the process.
Third Quarter, First Drive, RB Screen
This next play demonstrates Foster’s athleticism and mobility, which should have been apparent on the special teams tackle he made as a redshirt freshman last year.
It’s first-and-10 at the Minnesota 31-yard line. The Huskers line up with trips left, a single receiver right and Newby in the backfield with Armstrong. The play is a screen to Newby to the right side.
This particular screen is a hide screen, as Newby originally shows block in the scrum then sneaks out into the flat. Utter gets to the second level to pick off the defender rushing forward, while Foster gets down field to block as well.
Newby catches the ball just outside the hash marks, while Utter gets just enough of No. 13, Jonathan Celestin, to let Newby catch and run. Foster continues on.
Newby takes off, and Foster gets there in time to pick off Celestin again, preventing him from making a play from behind Newby and allowing Newby to take on the defenders ahead of him.
Newby threw a vicious stiff arm and put his first would-be tackler into the turf then continues on.
The receiver, Brandon Reilly, cracks back and blocks a defender from the side while Newby runs through an arm tackle by another Gopher.
After breaking that tackle, it’s nothing but open turf in front of him and Newby cruises into the end zone.
There’s no guaranteeing Celestin would have been able to catch up to Newby, but even so Foster’s hustle coming all the way from the other side of the field to make a block completely removed the linebacker from the equation and let Newby do the rest.
Fourth Quarter, First Drive, RB Screen
Nebraska went back to the hide screen for Newby again at midfield early in the fourth quarter. On first-and-10, the linebacker over the left side approaches the line and shows blitz.
Farmer takes on that linebacker, fullback Luke McNitt picks up the inside pressure, Utter leaks out to get ahead of the play and Newby escapes out into the left flat. Foster makes a block, shoves his defender to the ground and takes off downfield as well.
Nebraska is in good shape here for a good gain with blockers for every free defender.
Foster sets a nice block to clear a hole and Newby cuts up field instead of trying to bounce it outside.
The only problem is Foster was called for a hold. Take a look at this screen shot and notice Foster’s position as the flag flies. The official literally threw the flag before Foster made contact, and Foster made nothing but a clean block after the flag flew too.
Regardless, a defender did fly in from the secondary to make a play but Newby still managed to pick up 7 yards, a win on first down in any coach’s book.
I asked Foster what happened on that play.
“Somebody threw a flag; they didn’t pick it up,” Foster said.
He actually went on to make a salient point in that he may not have held on that play, but there was probably at least one other play in the game where he did hold but didn’t get caught, so it evens out. Still, Foster performed his job very well and just got some bad luck.
Fourth Quarter, Second Drive, Inside Run
This play didn’t produce a huge gain and Minnesota was more than content to give Nebraska a short run on third-and-18. Even so, Foster executes well.
Minnesota rushes four, and once again the tackle across from Foster tries to cross in front of his face to attack the A gap.
Just like on the first play above, Foster washes the tackle out of the play with a strong push as Ryker Fyfe hands off to Newby.
Foster’s block cleared a big hole up the middle and Newby shoots through it. However, as you can see here, the defensive end, Gaelin Elmore, manages to disengage from right tackle Cole Conrad.
Elmore dives at Newby and takes him down, limiting him to a gain of 4. Coaches love offensive linemen that finish blocks, and as you can see in the bottom left corner of the frame, Foster is still finishing his block as Newby is getting tackled.
Foster played every snap in his return to the field and held up quite well, helping the offense rack up 374 yards at 6.2 per play.
“He did a great job. … Him, Utter and Nick [Gates] bring the attitude to that offensive line,” Armstrong said about Foster’s performance. “Having him back kind of drives that offensive line to just go out there and do what they do. They’ve been missing that guy. Sam did a great job of filling in for him and they did a great job of rotating [in practice] and making sure that Jerald was getting into the mix. I think he did a great job. he had my back at certain times.”
Sam Hahn has filled in admirably at left guard as a 6-foot-7 walk-on tackle, but Foster brings some things to the table that Hahn simply can’t match and Foster should only get better with each game he plays.
Nebraska has had some very poor luck with injuries this season, but Foster’s return is one pleasant surprise that should inspire confidence for the stretch run.