Photo by Eric Francis
Nebraska Football

Piece-by-Piece Approach Takes Time, Do the Huskers Have It?

October 8, 2017
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After Nebraska’s 38-17 loss to Wisconsin on Saturday night, a game in which Wisconsin ran the ball almost exclusively to close out the game with 21 straight points, team captain Jerald Foster, who is routinely the first Husker to take to the podium after wins and losses alike, was asked about Nebraska’s identity.

More specifically, the junior left guard was asked if what Wisconsin had just done to them was what the Huskers wanted their identity to be. 

His answer won’t exactly make many fans who pine for the style of football that had Nebraska at the top of the college football world in the 1990s happy. Run the Ball guy might want to look away now.

“I don’t want to be Wisconsin,” Foster said. “I’m Nebraska, if that’s simple enough to say. I don’t want to be them. I believe in what we have with our quarterback. He’s a gunslinger, in the sense of him being able to do what he does I don’t want us to be running the ball the whole time. We have great backs, definitely, but being able to have two parts of the game, being able to run it, being able to pass it at the same time is why you become an A list team. I’m not saying Wisconsin’s not, that’s their identity, that’s something they stick to, but what we’re going to stick to is what we’ve had good success with, which is being able to run the ball on the downs we need to run it and trust ourselves in Tanner so he’ll be able to do the big things in the pocket.”

Mike Riley and Danny Langsdorf want a balanced offense, and the players seem to believe in that vision. The Huskers didn’t bring the likes of Tanner Lee, Patrick O’Brien and Tristan Gebbia — highly-touted pocket passers — into the program to be game managers.

The Nebraska offensive reinvention had to wait while Tommy Armstrong Jr. exhausted his eligibility. Instead, the team developed a sort of compromise offense between what the coaches wanted to do and what Armstrong was capable of with both his arm and his legs.

Now, Nebraska is trying to establish the foundation for their brand of football. 

One of the messages the players and coaches issued during the post-game press conference was that despite the final score, they saw progress in some areas of the game. 

Compare and contrast this loss to the Oregon loss for a second. Against the Ducks, Nebraska got blown out early and scrapped its way back into the game to make the final score more respectable. Against Wisconsin, Nebraska battled with the Badgers for two-and-a-half quarters and even outplayed them for stretches. Yet the Huskers couldn’t finish it off as Wisconsin worked its second half magic and ran away from Nebraska. Was that progress? Hard to say.

However, after the week two loss at Oregon, Derek Peterson wrote about how Tanner Lee’s struggles cost the Huskers. On Saturday, Lee was 16-of-32 for 262 yards, one touchdown and one interception (the “ridiculous” pick-six that bounced off Devine Ozigbo’s facemark into the hands of a defender). The 50 percent completion rate is lower than you’d like to see and Lee wasn’t perfect by any means, but drops and missed pass interference penalties contributed to that as well. More importantly, Lee navigated the pocket better than he has all season and when he did get pressure (four recorded hurries for the Badgers) he avoided the rush and made plays.

After the week three loss to Northern Illinois, I wrote about how the team’s struggles all started up front with the offensive line. On Saturday, Nebraska’s line — including two new starters in redshirt sophomore Michael Decker and true freshman Brenden Jaimes — kept Lee clean all day. Wisconsin’s only sack of the game came when redshirt freshman patrick O’Brien checked in for Nebraska’s last drive.

“I feel like we had a good plan coming into it,” Foster said. “We had our ups and downs, but definitely a good plan. It worked out well for us in the sense of keeping Tanner up. Hopefully we will be able to take the pieces we learned from this game and move forward.”

After multiple 40-yard pass games that resulted in losses, Nebraska has committed more to the run despite having to rely on its third-string back in Ozigbo because of injuries to Tre Bryant and Mikale Wilbon. Ozigbo recorded his third straight 100-yard rushing game against the Badgers, becoming the first back at Nebraska to cross the century mark three consecutive times since Ameer Abdullah. Heading into the game, the Badgers were one of the best rush defenses in the country, allowing just 73.3 yards per game on 2.4 yards per carry through four games. Ozigbo finished with 23 carries for 112 yards (4.9 per tote). 

“We knew we could run the ball because we had the offensive linemen and the back to be able to run the ball,” Ozigbo said. “We didn’t feel like running the ball was something that wasn’t an option. We knew we needed to run the ball if we wanted to open up the rest of our offense. We knew they were good and this was a challenge that we had to meet. Overall, when it comes to a specific run game, we did a pretty good job of that.”

In a strange turn of events, just as Riley gets the kind of quarterback he wants behind center the team graduates most of its skill position players, and Nebraska’s passing game has suffered as a result despite the improvement from Lee and the offensive line. Nebraska got zero production out of the tight end position with one catch for no gain on two targets from starter Tyler Hoppes. Redshirt freshman J.D. Spielman had some highlights and finished with six catches and 79 yards, but he also left some yards on the field that Nebraska needed to have and true freshman Tyjon Lindsey wasn’t able to come down with any of his three targets. Even Stanley Morgan Jr., the rock of the unit who scored Nebraska’s only offensive touchdown with an 80-yard catch and run late in the first half, fumbled the ball fighting for extra yards midway through the fourth quarter, essentially ending whatever slim chances Nebraska had at a comeback. 

Greg Smith has written about how the recruiting misses in recent years have hurt the pass-catching unit, and Nebraska is working hard to fix that with commits Joshua Moore and Cameron Brown in town this weekend for their official visits along with a potential target for a flip from Miami in Brian Hightower.

"You know there were parts of it that, for a while in the ballgame, we were doing what we kind of … We did parts of what we needed to do to have a recipe for winning that game,” Riley said. “I don't think Tanner got sacked, am I right about that? I don't think he got sacked and I think we ran OK, not consistently enough, but our production wasn't bad. I think Devine had another 100-yard day. So, in that only — I'm not saying that in total, but in parts of the game that was what we thought we had to do. We had to protect Tanner and we had to run the ball effectively. We didn't expect some of the other parts.”

The “other parts” refer primarily to the run defense, especially in the second half, and finishing off drives with touchdowns. Heck, even stalwart senior kicker Drew Brown missed a 33-yard field goal in the first half. In the end, the struggles in those areas wiped away the progress the team showed in the pass and run game.

The coaches and players see progress, but that progress wasn’t enough to hang with a top-10 Wisconsin team for 60 minutes on Saturday night. We’ve reached the halfway point of the season and Nebraska is sitting at 3-3. Things won’t get any easier next week against Ohio State.

Nebraska is trying to build its own identity, piece by piece. Can this coaching staff complete the puzzle — or show enough progress — to convince the decision-makers that they should be given the opportunity to continue their work? Only time will tell. Beating all of Purdue, Northwestern, Minnesota and Iowa is close to a requirement at this point, and after failing to knock off Wisconsin an upset over Ohio State or Penn State would go a long way to winning the favor of fans and administrators alike.

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