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Nebraska Football

Nebraska's Ground Game Looks Closer to Taking Off

September 15, 2019
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Here’s a Monday column on a Sunday night. Five things from the week that was in Nebraska athletics; four of them are good things.

Cleared for Takeoff

There was a lot of hand-wringing over the Huskers’ interior running game over the first two weeks. Nebraska, after two games, was averaging 3.08 yards per run, a major far cry from the 5.41 it averaged a year ago, the 16th-best mark in college football. Through two games, the Huskers had bitten off 20 yards on a single rushing play just one time, and it was from Maurice Washington making something happen off the edge against Colorado. Going between the hashes was an adventure.

“It was one guy was off for whatever reason,” captain and starting right tackle Matt Farniok said last Monday. “One guy just didn’t quite get their job done, didn’t quite get to the standard that we preach. When one guy fails, we all fail.”

Which could be taken as straight coachspeak — “I know who messed up, but I’m not going to call him out” — but on the offensive line one misstep of six inches is the difference between a defensive lineman getting past you or you holding your ground. That unit has to be in sync and through the first two games it wasn’t.

“It’s that one step,” Farniok said. “We’re so close to breaking [Dedrick Mills] away because we see those break-away runs, we see him getting through the gaps. For whatever reason, we’re just one step short and, honestly, it’s on the offensive line. When the run fails let’s just put it on the offensive line. That’s on us. Regardless of however it is, whatever happens, as an offensive line we just have to find a way to make it work. Regardless if the play is a horrible play or not. We have to find a way to make it work.”

Nebraska’s opportunity rate on the ground through two games was at 48.1%, according to FootballOutsiders.com. That ranked 70th nationally. (Remember, 130 teams, so being middle of the pack isn’t terrible, but it’s not great; Nebraska’s peers were UCLA and Kansas among others.) If you’re asking yourself what opportunity rate is, it’s the percentage of times the offense picks up 4 yards when 4 yards are made available. Simply put, it’s one of the better metrics to isolate offensive line success on the ground. 

Nebraska was average.

Makes sense why the coaching staff wasn’t sounding the alarm while those outside Memorial Stadium were starting to feel kinda queasy. 

So how do you go about fixing it? Well, for starters, the interior of the line has to play better. Boe Wilson was just sort of sharpied in at right guard at some point this offseason because who was else was going to take his spot? (If you say Matt Farniok you will be asked to leave.) Trent Hixson’s a great walk-on success story but he’s also a redshirt sophomore walk-on-turned-scholarship guy starting for the first time. 

Wilson didn’t have the best game against Colorado and Hixson is slowly growing into that spot. 

But a running play works because 11 guys executed the right way, not just because five linemen leveled people. Mills, the guy who opened the year with the title of “short-yardage power back” for the Huskers, needed to see things a little better as well. 

His position coach, Ryan Held, stressed it would take time. Mills was a triple-option running back at Georgia Tech and then a downhill runner at the JUCO level. What Nebraska was and is asking of him is different from any other place he’s been. 

In short, he just wasn’t seeing the field. 

Go off Brenden Jaimes’ backside and inside of Austin Allen’s block of the backside linebacker and Mills walks in for six. Instead, he just doesn’t see it and plows ahead for a yard. 

(Side bar: After that first week, I incorrectly called this a read play. It’s not. It’s a split zone dive. I asked a member of the offensive coaching staff, “Well how do I know from rewatch which plays Martinez has the option to keep and which plays he doesn’t?” The coach just smiled at me.)

Jump ahead two weeks and take this from the second drive against Northern Illinois:

He saw the cutback lane! Mills went for 116 yards and a score on 11 carries. “The first couple weeks I was just rushing, just rushing the run instead of being patient and slowing down, finding the right holes and making the right cuts,” Mills said. That was the emphasis in practice this week. Mohamed Barry, Nebraska’s inside linebacker captain and Georgia native, loves Mills. After the game, he said the key was Mills’ head was up.

“He looked similar to Devine [Ozigbo] today and I loved it,” Barry said. Wouldn’t that be something if the comparison held up the rest of the season? 

The offensive line can’t be forgotten about, though. Hixson, in particular, shows up a handful of times on the big runs. The Huskers had three of them that gained 20 yards against NIU, including a 24-yard score up the guy from Mills in the second quarter. Specifically, direct your eyeballs to No. 75.

On runs classified as “up the middle” in the final box score for the game, Nebraska averaged 4.6 yards a carry on 19 attempts. (Mills’ 61-yarder wasn’t classified as up the middle, for whatever reason; if you add that in, the average jumps to 7.5.) The Huskers averaged 2.5 on 22 such runs in Week 1.

Northern Illinois hadn’t given up a 100-yard rusher in 18 games. Mills got to the century mark mostly by going up the gut. That’s promising. 

I asked Held during the week if this running game is sequential, if Frost is sometimes fine with a 3-yard gain up the gut because that specific play at that specific time isn’t about gaining 15 yards, it’s about setting something else up later?

“The 3-yard gains, if it’s in the first quarter, we want those as we keep pounding and pounding it, to become 7, 8, 9, 10-yard plays. Being more physical early on and then that wear and tear over time, with our tempo, we hope those become bigger plays as the game goes on. That’s what it was for 100 years around here. You might run the fullback for 3 yards but then in the fourth quarter that fullback same play was 30 yards, and that’s what we’ve got to get to.”

Those words were bouncing around inside my head Saturday night when the Huskers opened a fourth-quarter drive at their own 1, ran up the middle for 3 yards on first down, ran up the middle again for 3 yards on second down, then gashed NIU for 11 yards up the middle on third and another 11 yards up the middle on the very next play. 

In a number of ways, this 44-8 win felt like a watershed moment for this Nebraska football team. The run game was one of those ways. Mills’ inside ground-and-pound game finally perfectly complimented Washington’s speed game and Nebraska rolled up a season-high 238 rushing yards as a result.

“I feel like we can do some amazing things in the backfield between me and Maurice,” Mills said. “We both did that today, and we will continue to do that the rest of the season.”

Are the Blackshirts Actually Great?

The ’85 Bears.

The ’09 Suhskers.

The ’11 Crimson Tide.

The ’19 Week 3 Temple Owls.

The ’19 Blackshirts

OK, probably getting ahead of ourselves — probably. Nebraska has played: 

  • An offense in South Alabama that ended last year ranked 101st in Bill Connelly’s S&P+ and lost its quarterback. . .
  • An offense in Colorado that ended last year ranked 85th in S&P+ and so far has been averagely efficient and relatively inexplosive. . .
  • . . .And now an offense in Northern Illinois that ended last year ranked 117th in S&P+ and replaced both a quarterback and a system. 

Lots of moving pieces. But still, these guys are balling out. Converted corners are playing well at safety, walk-ons are filling in and holding their own (ahem, Eli Sullivan), JoJo Domann has his own spot on the depth chart to showcase his role, the three-man rotation at linebacker looks like one of the best in the conference and the defensive line is wrecking folks. 

Which metric do we want to look at?

In holding NIU to eight points Saturday night, the Blackshirts held their opponent out of the end zone for the second time in their last five games. Before Scott Frost’s arrival, that had been done once (Illinois in 2017) over the previous seven seasons. Nebraska is up to 29th in opponent points per play after ranking 87th in the same stat last year (0.255 vs. 0.434).

In holding NIU under 100 rushing yards, the Blackshirts made it three straight games to open the season of keeping the opponent under the century mark on the ground. That had been done twice last year. It’s the first time they’ve had a three-game stretch like this since that 2009 defense held Baylor, Oklahoma and Kansas to 233 yards on the ground from late-October to mid-November.

In forcing two NIU turnovers, the defense has now taken the ball away from the opposition nine times through three games. That’s tied for the fifth-best mark in college football. Only two programs have more interceptions. Nebraska is a game away, given the current pace, of equaling 2017’s season-long turnover production. 

Everyone has been good. Senior corner Lamar Jackson leads the country in passes defensed. Barry is third in the Big Ten in total tackles but junior inside ‘backer Will Honas is also tied for 10th. The defensive line has helped the Huskers into a tie for 11th nationally in tackles for loss and 23rd in sacks. 

“When we came into the season, we wanted to be an elite defense and that’s what we strive to do,” Barry said after Saturday’s game. “We want to stop them. We’re trying to be an elite defense. Not just a defense that counts on the offense to win games, we’re trying to win games for this team.

“You see those big monsters up front? No lineman can block them. It makes it easy on us. [Deontre Thomas], Carlos [Davis], Khalil [Davis], Darrion [Daniels], they’re in there. They’re making TFLs. They’re getting in there. No one can run the ball on our front and I think we’re going to prove that this year. I can’t wait to go against the Wisconsins and Iowas and see how we match up with them.”

Nebraska’s defense stonewalled NIU from the goal line Saturday. Twice. 

“It was good, but believe it or not, that was not up to our standard,” Daniels said. “Our first turnover came in the fourth quarter. We want to produce more than that. We [gave up] over 200 yards passing. The defensive line, we’ve got to do a better job getting a rush and getting our hands up and getting some balls down. 

“It makes us feel some type of way when we even let them get a field goal. That was one of our mindsets coming into this game, trying to keep them off the scoreboard.”

These guys are on a mission. Darrion Daniels coming over from Oklahoma State has a lot to do with this turnaround because a lot of the overall turnaround has to do with dominance up front. First-year defensive line coach Tony Tuioti deserves credit, too. Defensive coordinator Erik Chinander has his unit playing like terrors right now. 

Nebraska’s overall unit doesn’t have the talent in Year 2 that it will when this thing is officially up and running, so from a 50,000 feet view, this thing is still building. But effort and intensity, as I’ve said many times already this season, can cover up warts. If this is something that can hold up against the Ohio States and Wisconsins and Iowas of the Big Ten, Nebraska can still have a special season.

RICK ROSS COMING

I still can’t believe Nebraska will have Rick Ross for the Husker Hoops Opening Night event. The Fred Hoiberg era is beginning in style. 

In more ways than one, though. 

The new Nebrasketball court inside Pinnacle Bank Arena can only be classified as an unequivocal success and if you want to argue you can get all the way out of here.

Blackshorts

In keeping with today’s partial theme of great defense, head volleyball coach John Cook has a pretty special defense of his own. 

So he’s rewarding it. 

And we’re all better for it. 

Black is now officially a primary school color. Adjust your closets accordingly.

Just Enjoy College Football

Apparently there were people complaining on the World Wide Web (shocker) that Week 3’s slate of games was weak. There were no ranked-on-ranked matchups blah, blah, blah. 

We do this every year. We complain about not having any college football at all for what feels like 76 months, then when we get it back in our lives for 15 beautifully-fleeting weeks, we complain about the quality of the games. First of all, stop it. 

My advice on a lot of things is to be more like Hail Varsity’s fearless leader Brandon Vogel. Lacking in the cool cardigan department? Be more like BV. Not sure whether to hit send on that snarky tweet? Be more like BV. (Yes, I’m working on this.) Brandon just loves college football for what it is. Be more like BV. (He’s probably not going to like this section but YOLO.)

Because if you were, and you decided to watch Maryland-Temple or Michigan State-Arizona State or the CyHawk mess that spanned pretty much all of Saturday, then you would be happy right now. 

Herm Edwards is now the President of Michigan State University. USC was back for a week and then lost to BYU who actually looks really good. Temple looked like it has a defense ready for Tua Tagovailoa. Iowa State was like the horrific train wreck you can’t look away from.

Week 3 was awesome. 

Now, who’s ready for Nebraska-Illinois under the lights? (Ducks)

 
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