Photo by Aaron Babcock
Nebraska Football

What's With the Huskers' Thin Red Line

September 16, 2017
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Two nicknames became synonymous with Nebraska football during the glory years: the Blackshirts and the Pipeline. Nebraska built its program on winning in the trenches on both sides of the ball.

No one will mistake the 2017 defense for the ’95 Blackshirts, but for the most part on Saturday, the Huskers got the job done on that end. The Nebraska defense allowed just one touchdown, recorded nine tackles for loss and held Northern Illinois to 3.9 yards per play.

However, the offense was different story.

Quarterback Tanner Lee was dreadful, throwing three interceptions (including two returned for touchdowns) and missing throws throughout the game. His receivers didn’t do him many favors either as a couple of players failed to make catches in big spots that might have changed the course of the game.

That being said, it all starts up front and the offensive line — across the board — failed. Nebraska allowed three sacks, seven quarterback hurries and nine tackles for loss. After the game, offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf was asked about Lee’s confidence.

“When he gets hit or takes a beating like he has, he’s had some hits and pick-sixes off of it, kind of hit while he was throwing, those can rattle you a little bit … I think he would be OK if he wasn’t getting hit as much,” Langsdorf said. “We can help him, we can get quicker throws off. I think that you get into that game and they start jumping stuff and you want to push it down the field a little bit, but our protection at times struggled … 

“You always want the quarterback to be playing with confidence and I think that getting hit and throwing pick sixes hurts you a little bit. So we have to help him, we’ve got to protect better and then put him in a good position to make plays.”

Nebraska’s tackles took turns getting blown by while the interior linemen alternated between committing penalties and getting pushed into the backfield. Whether it be stunts, slants or pure speed rushes off the edge, Nebraska struggled to slow down whatever the Huskies threw their way.

Perhaps the worst offender was redshirt freshman right tackle Matt Farniok. I praised Farniok’s performance in his first start last week and left tackle Nick Gates confirmed that Farniok received the third-highest grade among the offensive linemen when the coaches reviewed the film. However, Saturday was not a good day for the young tackle from South Dakota. 

After the game, Farniok slowly made his way off the field, head down, with senior David Knevel and redshirt sophomore Jalin Barnett on either side seemingly trying to console him.

Farniok was the first of the linemen recruited by Mike Riley’s staff to see the field on offense. The opening-day starting five of Gates, Jerald Foster, Cole Conrad, Tanner Farmer and Knevel were all recruited to Nebraska by the previous coaching staff, and they all played significant minutes last season. With so many starts returning, that line should be one of this team’s strengths. 

However, the Huskers have allowed six sacks and 22 tackles for loss through three weeks. Where is that improvement on a line consisting entirely of upperclassmen? While Farniok’s gaffes stood out most, he was far from the only culprit.

Farniok was the next man up at tackle and filled in admirably against the Ducks, yet he couldn’t figure out how to handle the Huskies. Coaches will normally stick with their guys — and rightfully so — through rough patches, but this was more than a rough patch. Was there no one available who could have spelled Farniok rather than throwing the redshirt freshman out there again and again to have his confidence repeatedly trampled?

The only substitution the Huskers made on the line in this game was replacing a hobbled Conrad at center with redshirt sophomore Michael Decker, but that only lasted a couple of plays until Conrad was ready to return.

Who is the next tackle up after Farniok? Where is back-up right guard Boe Wilson? John Raridon, the back-up left guard, checked in briefly the previous week as Foster had to leave the field for a play in Eugene and promptly got beat off the snap on third down.

Physical domination was the calling card of the Pipeline, but what is also worth noting is that those teams rotated linemen in and out throughout the game. Nebraska’s second unit was better than some starters in those days.

Offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh chooses not to rotate his linemen, and that is fine. My point isn’t the rotation but the fact that those reserves were ready to play when called upon and were constantly pushing the starters. 

Now, the coaches seemingly don’t trust the reserves to see the field, regardless of how much the starters struggle.

Cavanaugh and company have recruited (or rather, affirmed commitments by in the case of Decker and Christian Gaylord) 11 scholarship linemen since they arrived in Lincoln, and Farniok is the only one that has seen the field to any significant degree (and by significant, I mean more than one or two plays). That is understandable when you have a reliable starting group. 

But that has not seemed to be the case this year. Combine that with the fact that when injuries hit last season that walk-ons — ones recruited by the previous staff — and a scholarship senior with three previous appearances under his belt were the next men up, and it leads one to question what kind of development is happening both with the first string and with those behind them.

With a pocket passer at quarterback and a group of talented young pass-catchers either already on campus or en route for 2018, Nebraska is morphing into a Mike Riley team. However, none of that will matter if the offensive line doesn’t step it up and start to make some progress.

Credit goes to Foster, a redshirt junior and team captain, who was first among the players to step to the press conference podium following the loss. Foster acknowledged his unit's struggles but promised that they would improve.

"There is a lot that we are going to look at and we are going to improve, definitely," Foster said. "We are going to figure out our problems. We are going to take initiative in finding our solutions. So both run and pass, we have problems, we are going to figure it out.”

Nebraska fans better hope Foster's words ring true. Northern Illinois was a formidable pass-rushing team with plenty of speed off the edges, but things are not going to get any easier in the Big Ten with the likes of Iowa, Ohio State, Penn State and Wisconsin waiting.

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What's With the Huskers' Thin Red Line

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