LINCOLN, Neb. –– Two coaches have led football teams that have rushed for more than 7 yards per carry on Wisconsin this decade.
Their names are Urban Meyer and Scott Frost.
One of those coaches has been a part of that feat twice. That’s Frost.
As Oregon’s wide receivers coach in 2011, Frost was on the staff as the Ducks went for 8.63 yards per pop in a 45-38 win over the Badgers in the 2012 Rose Bowl. Both teams finished the season 11-2. Meyer’s Buckeyes, on their way to a national championship in 2014, went for 7.92 against Wisconsin.
Then there was 4-5 Nebraska on Saturday, soon to be 4-6, rushing for 7.37. Out of nowhere with basically one running back. Against one of the best rush defenses in the country.
Wisconsin’s almost always a nightmare to run against. (Over that same span, 2010 to now, during which the Badgers are 100-32, they’ve held 49 teams below 3 yards per carry.) But the run defense is particularly ruthless this year. The Badgers’ first six opponents in 2019 combined for 268 yards rushing, 5 yards less then Nebraska had on Saturday.
With sacks included. Take those out, get to just the true rushing attempts, and the Huskers’ were at 307 yards and 9.3 per carry.
If at this point you’re thinking, “So what, still lost by 16,” or “Wisconsin still rushed for more,” I get it. Scott Frost wasn’t in the mood for “looking for silver linings” after this one either.
But this ain’t that kind of season for me. Hasn’t been for a while. At this point in the 2019 campaign, the likelihood of Nebraska putting everything together and doing it well for a game—basically what Wisconsin asks every opponent to do all the time––seemed highly improbable.
I just wanted to see one thing go exceptionally well. Anything. Could the Huskers do that? Show a heartbeat, a pulse, a plan, a roadmap for not the rest of this season but the seasons ahead?
Rushing for 26.4% of all the yards Wisconsin has allowed on the ground this season isn’t just a way to check that box, but probably the best way to check it for Nebraska. If we’re thinking long-term here, and we very much should be.
For all of the talk of tempo and big plays and Duck-Rs, the way this Huskers’ offense really wants to succeed is the way you saw on Saturday. It starts with the run game. During Frost’s four formative years coaching under Chip Kelly at Oregon the Ducks ranked fourth, fourth, first and first nationally in rushing yards per play. During Frost’s three seasons at Nebraska, including his 1995 redshirt season, those Huskers teams ranked second, fourth and first.
Running the ball well is a key part of the plan. The one pin you couldn’t pull for this season to be anywhere close to what some thought it could be was regression in the run game. That happened, and while it doesn’t explain 4-6 on its own, it is a big, big piece of the puzzle.
So, why did it work better than it has all season in the last likely scenario for that sort of breakout? That’s hard to assess on one in-person watch and will require multiple viewings
In the aftermath of this one, Dedrick Mills, the one back Nebraska had at its disposal, said the holes the line opened up were the “biggest he’d seen all season.” Frost credited the offensive coaches with a great game plan and said the offensive line had its “best run-blocking game of the year.”
Fine. Good. True, based on what we saw on the field. “Why?” is an interesting question, and deserves a better answer than postgame comments can offer, but I’m not sure it’s the biggest one.
The biggest question was “can it happen?” before today. Can this group, much of which should return intact a year from now, do it? Can the offensive line provide room to run? Can a running back take advantage of it? Can we see a sign of what people still know this offense can do?
That’s what Saturday offered alongside the maddening doses of self-inflicted stuff and an all-too-common one-sided performance.
But there was at least that glimmer of something. No, not something, the thing. The thing that has to work.
Nebraska’s run game for most of the year has often looked, literally, like striking two stones together and waiting for a spark. This time the spark started to smolder and before long you had a full-fledged fire that even one of the best rush defenses in the country couldn’t put out. The Huskers hit for a gain of 10-plus yards on eight of 10 drives on the day. Five of those eight drives included at least two of them.
A lot of that was thanks to a career day for Mills. He’s never lacked for confidence, though his opportunities this season have been all over the map.
“I couldn’t let No. 23 do better than me today,” Mills said after the game.
No. 23, of course, is Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor. He’s bound for the Heisman Trophy ceremony this year. He went for 204 yards on 25 carries, and surpassed Herschel Walker’s record for rushing yards in the first three seasons of a college a career. Taylor had 204 yards with two touchdowns on 25 carries (8.2 per rush) Saturday.
That’s a little below-average for him against Nebraska—he rushed for 249 in 2017 and 221 in 2018—and makes Mills’ even mentioning it seem somewhat absurd.
But then you look at Mills’ line—188 yards and one touchdown on 17 carries (11.1 per rush). It’s not necessarily better, but . . . it’s really not worse?
Raise you hand if you saw anything like that coming in these short, dark days of November.
It’s a moral victory, a silver lining, sure. But I wasn’t sure even those were available to Nebraska any more in 2019.
It was in a loss, but I’ll raise my hand to say this was at least something.
Brandon is the Managing Editor for Hail Varsity and has covered Nebraska athletics for the magazine and web since 2012, Hail Varsity’s first season on the scene. His sports writing has also been featured by Fox Sports, The Guardian and CBS Sports.