LINCOLN, Neb. — From the get-go, coach Mike Riley and offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf have been insistent that this Nebraska team could be special if they could run the ball.
But it isn’t working.
“We’ve taken turns with everybody,” Langsdorf said on Wednesday. “It’s just been that kind of hit and miss.”
Lately, it’s been miss.
Nebraska has run for fewer yards than what the opponents give up on average in three of the past four games, including just 78 yards against Ohio State, who gives up on average 119 yards per game.
Against Wisconsin, Nebraska ran for 152 yards, which was good against a Badger defense that only gives up 101 yards on average, but Nebraska couldn’t run the ball in overtime to win. And against Purdue the week before, Nebraska ran for 157 yards against the worst run defense in the Big Ten, whkch gives up on average 248 yards.
“We really haven’t been consistent running for a few games now,” Langsdorf admitted. There isn’t one source of the problem, he said. It’s been “a lot of stuff.”
The problems? Too often the tailback doesn’t hit the hole at the right time, or someone misses a block. There also have been times where communications is an issue and not everyone is on the same page, he said.
It’s clear that senior running back Terrell Newby, the Cornhuskers’ primary ball-carrier, is not getting enough help.
Nebraska likes using running backs by committee. Early in the season, Newby and sophomore Devine Ozigbo shared carries and were a good one-two punch. But since Ozigbo’s injury in the Illinois game on Oct. 1 — and injuries on the offensive line since then — Nebraska has struggled to find any kind of production to after Newby.
“Early in the year it was good, the rotation that we had, and we haven’t been able to do that with the injuries as much,” Langsdorf said.
Against Ohio State and Wisconsin, Newby ran 30 times and averaged 4.3 yards per carry.
In the 38 other carries among Ozigbo, Mikale Wilbon, Tre Bryant and Tommy Armstrong, they only averaged 2.6 yards per carry.
It must be noted, Langsdorf said, that Ohio State and Wisconsin were two of the top run defense in the conference. But this trend isn’t anything new.
Against Indiana, Newby averaged 4.6 yards per carry, and the 23 other non-Newby carries were for an average 2.1 yards. Against Illinois, Newby ran for 5.1 yards per carry. The rest? Just 2.8 yards per carry.
The other issue is that Nebraska hasn’t been able to find “identity runs.” Riley and Langsdorf talk often about their inability to find a running play that works consistently.
“We’re an inside zone team, and we haven’t been always very good at that,” Langsdorf said. “You’re always looking for that in a game or ‘OK, this has been good’ or ‘let’s get back to that’ or ‘let’s continue to repeat that run,’ and that’s what’s been tough because sometimes we’ve hit something and gotten stuffed a couple times. So you’re kind of looking for that run you can hang your hat on, a go-to call where you’re going to get yards out of it and you’re not going to lose yards.”
Langsdorf and Riley have tried several different runs, including jet sweeps, zone reads and pounding it up the middle. And still nine weeks into the season, Nebraska is still looking for that key run, and it’s not getting any better.
But despite Nebraska’s inability to run, the overall message hasn’t changed. The game plan from week to week, how they’ll run and when, it varies, Langsdorf said. But the mantra that Nebraska will still try to run isn’t going anywhere, he said.
Minnesota, Saturday night’s opponent in Lincoln, has the third best run-defense in the conference and gives up only 119 rushing yards per game. Langsdorf called them solid, from top to bottom. The Gophers, also 7-2 overall and 4-2 in the Big Ten, will be a challenge.
But Nebraska is going to continue to try to run, Langsdorf said. The run game will help out Nebraska’s play-action passing game and will help open up the offense.
“We’re trying. We’re trying every game,” Langsdorf said. “It hasn’t been easy at times, but we’re not abandoning it.”