The Thin Red Line
Photo Credit: Eric Francis

The Thin Red Line

October 23, 2016

I thought Nebraska’s path to victory over Purdue was going to be pretty straightforward. Literally. I expected the Huskers to line right up and run right at the Boilermakers. Banged up offensive line or not, this is what undefeated teams do to teams giving up more than 7 yards per carry in conference play.

Unless, I guess, that line is so hobbled that even Purdue — missing it’s best defender, defensive tackle Jack Replogle, right in the heart of the defense – looks unbeatable against the run. It was for much of Saturday.

Nebraska only rushed 37 times in the game, the fewest for a Power 5 opponent against the Boilermakers since the last time these two teams played, and only gained 157 yards, also the fewest for a Power 5 teams since Nebraska went to West Lafayette last year and put up 77 yards in a 55-45 loss.

Even those meager numbers feel like something of a veil over a game where it was quite clear that Nebraska might have reached a breaking point in terms of health on the offensive line.

“We’re pretty thin there right now, but we’re not going to talk about that too much because when we go out there we expect to look better than that and play better than that as a group, have some more consistency,” Coach Mike Riley said. “I’m hoping that we will feel better and get healthier as we go. We’ll have to look at it closely.”

That’s the right sentiment. Talking about injuries – everyone has them at this point in the season – doesn’t get anyone any healthier, but this will be the dominant topic of conversation this week in Nebraska.

For good reason.  Perhaps the best way to illustrate just how much of a struggle Nebraska had on the ground on Saturday is through stuff rate. This is the percentage of a team’s runs that go for zero yards or a loss. The average across all of college football entering Saturday was 18.7 percent according to Football Study Hall. Purdue was at 18.2 percent after six games.

Until Saturday. The Boilermakers stuffed 31.4 percent of all of Nebraska’s runs. Terrell Newby had 22 carries – Mikale Wilbon (one carry for 1 yard was the only other running back with a tote) – and 36.4 percent of those were stuffed. He picked up 68 of his 82 yards on the day on four carries. The other 18 netted 14 yards.

Football Outsiders credits the offensive line with the first 5 yards of any running-back run. Those are “line yards” by their measure, at which point the line has basically “done its job” and the rest is up to the running back. Nineteen of Nebraska’s 23 running back carries never made it to the 5-yard mark.

It’s next to impossible to place the blame on the Huskers’ offensive line itself. Not in this state. Nick Gates didn’t know he was playing until Saturday morning. David Knevel tried to go and dinged up his ankle again. Dylan Utter was playing with a dislocated finger.

“We have what we have on our team,” offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said. “We’re not bringing anybody. We don’t have any free agents … We’ve got some guys that we are going to have to look at. But at the same time, we’re not going to be able to make a bunch of wholesale changes and we’re not burning redshirts or any of that kind of stuff.”

Those are the circumstances, but what will the Huskers’ reaction be going forward?

There is now no bigger question facing the 7-0 Huskers as they turn towards the toughest part of the schedule.

Wisconsin is hell on healthy offensive lines. It held Iowa, the team with the best offensive line in the country if you believe the grades of Pro Football Focus, to 87 yards rushing on 3.1 yards per carry. Ohio State, seventh nationally at 6.03 yards per carry, managed just 4.11 two weeks ago against the Badgers.

Nebraska will head to Madison next week averaging 4.14 yards per carry over its last three games. Being one-dimensional is the one thing a defense like Wisconsin’s wants most.

What can the Huskers do about it? There are no easy or satisfying answers. Be better, somehow.

“Any time you’re not at 100-percent it’s going to affect you, but I don’t want to use it as an excuse,” Langsdorf said. “Guys are going to have to battle through some bumps and bruises and we’re going to have to keep finding ways to run the ball.”

It’s not an excuse. It’s reality for Nebraska right now.

The timing isn’t great, but it will make for a helluva story if somehow, someway, Nebraska can walk out of Wisconsin next week with a win.

Or maybe even run out of there with a win. Stranger things have happened. Purdue looked like one of the Big Ten’s best run defenses for a day. The Chicago Cubs are in the World Series.

You never know when it comes to sports.

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