LINCOLN, Neb. — There are a few things that, no matter what your background is, you must do if you’re a football coach at Nebraska.
The first is to realize that the 1990s, and the aura of Tom Osborne, still strongly resonate around the state and that will never change. And the second is if you want to keep your seat cold and the fans pleased, you need to throw away whatever offensive plans you have and do like Dr. Tom did and run the damn ball.
Offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf gets that. And he laughs when he thinks about it.
“It’s a huge thing,” he said of the fans’ need for the run game. “In (Nebraska’s) tradition and history of the program it’s very important, and it’s important to us, too.”
This season, it appears, known quarterback gurus Mike Riley and Langsdorf are pushing aside their personal history for Nebraska’s, and reaching back to the Huskers’ roots to try to find a new offensive identity to redeem last season’s disappointing 6-7 season.
In Nebraska’s 43-10 win over Fresno State last Saturday, 20 of Nebraska’s first 21 offensive plays were runs. Five of Nebraska’s six touchdowns came on the ground. The Huskers ran the ball 87 percent of the time on first down, 81 percent on second down, and on 51 out of 63 total offensive plays.
Which is vastly different than their usual pass-heavy schemes at Oregon State, or even Nebraska’s first game in 2015, when Riley and Langsdorf called for 41 pass plays and just 37 runs.
In the glory days, Osborne ran the ball until it hurt. The Huskers ran for more than 4,000 yards in Nebraska’s 1995 and 1997 championship years. In both seasons, Nebraska averaged more than 390 yards per game on the ground. Osborne called 672 run plays in 1995 and 755 in 1997. Riley called 496 last year.
Historically, even the best years for former coaches Frank Solich and Bo Pelini at Nebraska came when they ran the ball. In 2001, when Nebraska played Miami in the national championship game under Solich, the Huskers ran 473 more run plays than pass plays, 672 rushes in total. In 2012, when Nebraska lost to Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game under Pelini, the Huskers ran 439 more run plays than pass plays, 662 rushes in total.
Meanwhile, Riley and Langsdorf made their living throwing the ball. In 1997, while Osborne’s rushing attack wore out Big 12 defenses, Riley and Oregon State ran just 376 total times, half as much as the national champions. In 2012, not much had changed. Riley and Oregon State threw 504 times that year, more than any time in the Bill Callahan, Pelini, Solich or Osborne eras.
Riley said in fall camp his teams historically are better when they run the ball effectively. Langsdorf said after practice on Wednesday what they’ve really done in the past is just try to play to the strengths of what they have.
“You know in our history we’ve really worked to play to the strengths of our players and not be something we might not be,” Langsdorf said.
In the past, that’s meant an emphasis on quarterback play.
But now things have changed a bit, Langsdorf said. They’re in the Midwest, not the Pacific Northwest, so their scheme has to adapt.
“I think we have some strengths in running the ball, and in this kind of conference and the weather and all those things that come into it, I think you have to be able to do that,” Langsdorf said.
Not only that, but with the personnel currently on Nebraska’s roster, Langsdorf still isn’t very comfortable with the pass game. After practice on Wednesday he said he’s still not happy with the accuracy of senior QB Tommy Armstrong’s throws or the spacing in the wide receivers’ routes. So the run game is still their best option.
“I don’t think we probably are, nor do we want to be, a real heavy passing team with our personnel with our quarterback, with our receivers,” Langsdorf said.
Riley and Langsdorf have adapted their offense from pass-heavy to run-heavy between seasons before.
In 2006, Oregon State won 10 games, including an upset win over then-No. 3 USC. The Beavers threw for 3,393 yards that season and called 60 more pass plays than run plays.
Just a year later, in 2007, Riley flipped the script and called 174 more run plays than pass plays. The Beavers threw for just 2,557 yards, and Oregon State went 9-4 that year, with an upset win at then-No. 2 California.
Langsdorf doesn’t want to run as much as Nebraska did against Fresno State. He’d rather run it 60 percent of the time instead of 80 percent. And he does still want to throw the ball effectively. To win the Big Ten, he said, that’s crucial.
He said he doesn’t want to put an exact number on how often he wants to run, because it’ll change game by game. But regardless, he likes the personnel for the run game, and he’s going to try to play to that strength.
Which is more than OK with sophomore running back Devine Ozigbo, who had 17 carries, 103 yards and two touchdowns on Saturday.
The history of Nebraska’s rushing attack is part of why he came to Lincoln, he said.
“I know that’s something that the fans love to see and something we used to do a lot,” Ozigbo said on Wednesday. “So that’s definitely something that I hope we can bring back.”
After the game on Saturday, Ozigbo said he got some fan reaction on Twitter.
“They said like ‘happy to see us back to running it’ and things like that,” Ozigbo said, laughing. “Everybody’s having a good feeling about it right now.”