LINCOLN — Nebraska offensive line coach John Garrison has a quick smile, a good haircut and even better jokes, but he looked as if he'd aged a year during Nebraska's 44-7 win at Purdue.
Some of that weariness traced back to Spencer Long's knee injury, which, if as bad as feared, is as significant as Baker Steinkuhler's knee injury at Iowa last year, even if Nebraska has more time and depth to adjust for it. Long had become a vocal leader — a guy who'd keep the linemen behind for an extra pep talk after Garrison had left the meeting room — to pair with his steady play. Now, vocal leader may be Long's only role. Garrison's face wore the hurt of that potential reality.
But the game had also been a bear for him. Purdue, its season lost to a first-year coach making first-year coaching mistakes like giant player manuals, had jumbled its defensive formations during a bye week. If NU wanted to run the ball, it would fall on Garrison to explain the blocking scheme to his linemen. He was drawing for them after every drive. Purdue's Purdue — which means it has many fewer good players than Nebraska — so it all worked out OK with 251 yards on the ground.
Garrison was also focused on another problem: creating more depth in Long's absence. He mentioned sophomores Givens Price and Ryne Reeves.
“It looks like we got a little tired,” Garrison said. “We gotta work on that. The bye week. Going into this thing, I thought the bye week was a bad deal, having two bye weeks almost back-to-back. But this is a critical time that we have that. There's been guys in the rotation, ready to go, but to really solidify it, we gotta get another guard in that rotation — permanently. A guy we can count on.”
Garrison's tutelage and motivation already helped spur junior Mike Moudy — who'd played sparingly in his first three years despite being a sought-after recruit — to push his way into the left guard rotation with Jake Cotton, a fierce run blocker who's become more polished protecting the passers.
Cotton and Moudy will now almost certainly be the top two guards, with Reeves and Price battling behind them.
And Garrison had already pushed the right buttons with tackle Andrew Rodriguez — big, talented and somewhat disappointing until this year — to find his groove as a senior and become a vocal leader in his own right. Rodriguez, among others, was clearly fired up in the huddle right after Long's injury. Garrison also landed the best offensive line recruiting class of the Pelini era in 2013, persuading tackle David Knevel to spurn Alabama and Dwayne Johnson to spurn Oklahoma. Those are recruiting battles NU used to win.
But losing Long — shaped and molded by Barney Cotton before his shift to coaching tight ends — is an entirely different challenge for Garrison. Long was a precise puller, a guy who factored heavily into the Huskers' power game, and he rarely whiffed on a block. Jake Cotton blasts guys better, but Long was the unit's technician, befitting his personality. He was a rock, a Rex Burkhead of the trenches.
Little has changed in my outlook on the success of the offense: It resides in the running game. Since it's now clear — or should be — that quarterback Taylor Martinez is still Nebraska's best running quarterback by some margin. His eventual return, nagging turf toe aside, should help. His speed can erase blocking errors.
But the five teams that await NU in November — Northwestern, Michigan, Michigan State, Penn State and Iowa — will be seeing Martinez and his receivers for the third time. That points to trench fights, and that points to Garrison, now taking the slings and arrows Cotton often did. An injury to Long should soften fans' expectation of the line, but this is Nebraska, Garrison noted last week.
“They know good offensive line play,” said Garrison, a former Husker center. “I know what the standard is here and what they expect out of offensive linemen around here. We're striving to match it.”
On with the Rewind.
I see you
» Running back Ameer Abdullah: Quiet 126 yards. That means you're pretty good.
» Defensive end Randy Gregory: Stymied early, he found his way through Purdue's offensive line once it got tired. Now — time for a Blackshirt.
» Quarterback Ron Kellogg: He can zip that post pass over the middle, and he did so repeatedly on third down. Nice work when the Husker offense needed it.
» Long: Whatever the severity of the injury, the right guard has earned a good look from the NFL. You know he'll rehab well. He built himself from the ground up into an all-conference lineman.
» Martinez: If you looked just beyond the group of Husker players and coaches talking to reporters, there he was, sitting on a little stone terrace, watching the entire thing. He could have boarded the bus and talked on his phone. The quarterback often notices more than he lets on.
» Cornerback Josh Mitchell: He held up well, especially after Stanley Jean-Baptiste's iffy ejection. Mitchell's pass interference flag was far more bogus.
» Linebacker David Santos: Putting it together when he had several excuses earlier this year to shut it down. Just five tackles, but Santos ran the defense well.
» Wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp: Best hands on the team. Ask any of the players or coaches. Or watch him actually field — cleanly! — NU punts.
» Purdue defensive tackle Bruce Gaston: Excellent player for the Boilermakers with six tackles and a day's worth of disruption. Cornerback Ricardo Allen, too, played aggressively. Both have NFL futures.
» The ejection piece of the targeting rule: There's no bigger punishment than an ejection, and “targeting” what amounts to a split-second tackling decision for ejection is too severe a price. When there's clear intent — a desire to injure, which could include cutting another player's knees out when he doesn't expect it — ejection is worthy of review.
In other news, hockey players must watch football and grin a gap-toothed smile.
» Offensive injuries piling up: For good chunks of Saturday's game, Nebraska played without four of its opening-day starters: Martinez, Spencer Long, tight end Jake Long and slot receiver Jamal Turner, who left the game early, apparently reinjuring that strained hamstring.
» More Big Ten irrelevance: Two league teams — Ohio State at No. 4 and Wisconsin at No. 25 — are ranked in this week's Associated Press poll, and there's not a truly “big” game in sight until Michigan- Michigan State on Nov. 2. The SEC has eight ranked teams. As more voters — including myself — start judging teams more on what they've accomplished than reputations alone, the Big Ten will continue to suffer from MAC-laden schedules in September.
» 18.6: Yards allowed per kickoff return, good for 21st in the nation. The Huskers are tied for third in the nation in touchbacks with 28.
» 42.7: Points per game, good for 12th nationally. I like even more the 50 percent third-down conversion rate (tied for 18th nationally) and 74.19 percent red zone touchdown rate (15th nationally).
» 17: Sacks through six games, good for 2.83 per game. That's 17th nationally. NU's 1.83 interceptions per game is tied for fifth, and the 6.67 tackles for loss is 35th.
» 3: Sacks allowed by NU's offensive line. That's tied for first in the nation. That stat will get tested in Long's absence.
» 13.3: Yards per attempt on third down this year for Kellogg. Without his laser shots against Purdue's gambling defense, Nebraska's stuck shaking the Boilermakers loose for four quarters. Kellogg didn't exactly “rescue” the Huskers Saturday — two touchdowns were enough — but he proved a point to critics wondering why he was still splitting time with Armstrong.
|BIG RED TODAY ON FACEBOOK|
|Join the conversation on the Big Red Today Facebook page.|
On my World-Herald Facebook page, I'll ask fans to submit comments after each game and post select responses here.
“Best thing about this game is that everyone can settle down with comparing Armstrong to Tommie Frazier. This team needs Martinez back at full strength if it wants to navigate a tough November stretch. Also — Randy Gregory is a beast.”
— Brian Parsons
“Reminded me of the Iowa State games of old. Huskers are clearly the better team, but the games always seemed disjointed and never found a rhythm.”
— Joe Petsick
“Not to excuse Pelini or the coaching staff, but if Long is out for good, he joins a laundry list of all-conference caliber players that have missed extended periods of time since 2011. All teams have injuries, but I'm not sure any B1G teams have lost their all-conference QB, RB, DT, CB, and now OG for multiple weeks over the last 3 years.”
— John Rino
Michigan State's defense showed a bit of vulnerability in a 42-21 win over Indiana — but MSU gained 473 yards as quarterback Connor Cook continues to take baby steps. The Spartans, along with Nebraska, are the co-favorites in the Legends Division.
That's because Michigan lost to Penn State 43-40 in four overtimes, missing three field goals, including two in extra time. The Wolverines played exceedingly, almost embarrassingly safe, setting up for a 40-yard field goal in the first overtime instead of going for the touchdown. Toward the end of regulation, Michigan led 34-27 with three minutes left at the PSU 28. Michigan ran three times for minus-2 yards, had a delay of game penalty and punted.
A week of necessary healing for Martinez. It'd be good for Nebraska if he were back by the Minnesota game.
* * *
Video: NU coach Bo Pelini after the Purdue game:
Video: Postgame analysis with Sam McKewon:
Video: Husker fans at Purdue: