LINCOLN — All the practice time that Nebraska's defense devoted to preparing for the ways Minnesota might try to establish its ground game ended up paying off Saturday, when the Gophers showed just about every possible method of attack.
Designed quarterbacks runs, like draws or bootlegs. And zone read options out of the shotgun, where a quarterback either hands off or fakes the exchange with a running back or late-motioning wide receiver. And traditional downhill style rushes, with two tight ends and a fullback on the field.
The Gophers called at least one of each in the first half Saturday. They totaled 20 yards on 10 carries.
“Probably as good as we've played the run as a whole,” defensive coordinator John Papuchis said after NU's 38-14 win.
It's because the Huskers were locked in all afternoon.
Gone was the occasional hint of overeagerness — characterized at times by Bo Pelini as an “undisciplined approach.” Because Nebraska asks its defenders to occupy potential rushing lanes, one player's mistake can fracture the entire run support scheme.
Those types of breakdowns popped up against Michigan State on Nov. 3, when the Huskers gave up runs of 40, 26, 23 and 21. And again a week later when Penn State's Zach Zwinak went 50 yards on the fourth play of the game.
The message last week was to learn from those mistakes, defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski said.
“We haven't been as consistent as we'd like to be,” Kaczenski told his players. “We've kind of been feast or famine. Let's get back on the feast side.”
Nebraska's allowing 171.5 yards per game on the ground (77th-best nationally), giving up 4.3 yards per carry (69th). But NU's faced six of the nation's top 36 rush offenses this year, and lately, Kaczenski said, the NU defenders have been responding better to their opponent's strategy.
Against Minnesota, the Huskers surrendered 87 rushing yards, and 44 of those came in the fourth quarter.
Credit the players' focus in practice and in the film room, Kaczenski said. Nebraska's game plan, which often featured extra defenders assigned to stopping the run, seemed to help as well.
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Defensive end Cameron Meredith said the Huskers rarely were caught off-balance Saturday.
“We knew how we could play these blocks. We knew where we needed to fit,” Meredith said. “And I think it really helped us out.”
Nebraska actually expected to see a few trick plays Saturday, junior defensive back Ciante Evans said. Or maybe MarQueis Gray, a quarterback-turned-receiver, taking snaps in a Wildcat-like formation (he did when the game was out of hand in the fourth quarter).
At the very least, NU figured it would have to defend more plays like the one Minnesota called to begin the game, when it split four receivers out wide and then had quarterback Philip Nelson keep on an inside zone read option. He gained 9 yards. Papuchis didn't want to blitz Minnesota because he worried about the possible consequences.
“Our assumption going in was that the quarterback run game was going to be a bigger part,” he said. “You can get outnumbered in a hurry with the quarterback run when you pressure.”
But the Gophers instead chose to mix it up. And Nebraska responded.
The NU coaches told their players all week that stuffing Minnesota's rushing plays would likely keep the Gophers from getting any mileage out of their play-action looks and place an overwhelming amount of pressure on a true freshman quarterback while a banged-up and inexperienced offensive line struggled to pass protect.
The game unfolded much like the Huskers had predicted.
“We knew they were going to try to establish the run game and the play-action off it,” Kaczenski said. “We made a point of it all week — these guys are going to come in and run the ball. I think our guys really did a good job.”
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