LINCOLN, Neb. — Despite the harping from head coach Mike Riley and offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf all season about the importance of a run game, the Huskers rushing attack in 2016 was, frankly, pitiful.
When it came to running the ball, the Huskers took a step back in almost every statistical category in Riley’s second season in Lincoln. Fewer yards on more attempts, and another year without a 1,000-yard rusher.
Fast forward to 2017. With a new offense behind redshirt junior QB Tanner Lee, Nebraska’s run game will need to be revamped completely. It will be a tall order.
Just about everyone knows about the problems with the offensive line. And it’s tough to forget Riley’s quotes from this spring about the rushing attack, including “we have to be very, very concerned and thoughtful about our growth and make sure that’s happening.”
What gets overshadowed, however, is this quote from the same day:
“Frankly, up until a few days ago, there wasn’t a real good identity [in the running game] as to ‘wow, we’re good at this play,’ ” Riley said.
A good chunk of the run game falls on the offensive line’s shoulders. But heading into the summer, there should be equal interest in the Huskers who carry the ball.
The leader in the clubhouse for the starting spot after the spring is sophomore Tre Bryant. Riley said throughout the spring it was between Bryant and junior Mikale Wilbon for the starting spot. Bryant took a vast majority of the first-team snaps in scrimmage situations.
But that begs the question: Where is junior Devine Ozigbo in all this?
Some might forget that Ozigbo led the team in rushing attempts and rushing yards through four games in 2016. But an ankle injury in October derailed his season and he’s struggled to get onto the field since.
Ozigbo has been cleared to play, but coaches have said he’s still struggling with an injury (though they won’t really say what injury he’s dealing with). The whole thing is a little shady — and only makes the questions surrounding the backs pile up. Is Bryant really ready for the starting spot? If Ozigbo is healthy, is he a legitimate candidate? And if he isn’t, is he really the third-string running back?
The reason why this is so important is because a successful running game will lead to more success throwing the ball. Particularly with a struggling offensive line.
It is a balance Nebraska didn’t have in 2016.
Lost in the brutal 2015 season in which Nebraska finished 6-7 is the fact that the Huskers actually had the second-best offense in the Big Ten. They were the second-best passing offense and sixth-best rushing offense in the conference. And the success in the passing game was at least in part due to the fact Nebraska ran the ball much, much better in Riley’s first season. The Huskers averaged more yards per carry and more yards per game in 2015 than in 2016.
There is no easy fix here. Riley and his coaching staff have been doing their best with the roster it was dealt the last two years.
But now in his third season, 2017 is make or break for Riley. And if he wants to finally incorporate the pro-style passing attack he had at Oregon State with Lee, it might hinge on the run game, which needs some serious cleaning up.