Fullback rumbles, old-schoolers roar

Senior fullback Andy Janovich entered Saturday’s game with six touches in 40 games for a total of 35 yards. He added six touches for 121 yards against Southern Miss, showing the balance that helped him win two state wrestling titles at Gretna High School.


LINCOLN — Andy Janovich leaned against a red chain-link fence, his beard full of sweat, a dab of blood behind his ear.

He shook hands. He posed for photos. It’s a typical postgame routine for several Huskers, their first chance to see family and friends after a hard day’s work. This time was a little different.

“I was going nuts!” Janovich’s older brother told him.

He wasn’t the only one. On a day when so many other things went wrong for Nebraska, Janovich stirred Memorial Stadium into a frenzy. The senior fullback gave fans a taste of the glorious past — and coaches a potential glimpse of the future.

Chew on this: In 40 career games prior to Southern Miss, Janovich had 35 total yards on six touches. On six touches Saturday, he produced 121.

His 25-yard dash in the second quarter ignited Milt Tenopir in the press box — “Fullback trap! I saw them working on that the other day.” The sideline went nuts, too, receiver Brandon Reilly said.

“I knew he’d break it,” Reilly said. “One guy’s not going to bring him down. Ever. I would never, never get in his way. I would never.”

Forgive Southern Miss defenders if they were a little surprised. A Husker fullback hadn’t carried the ball in three years. Three. Years. In the past decade, Nebraska fullbacks had recorded 16 carries. Total.

Janovich’s only prior carries came in garbage time against Idaho State in 2012. Back then, he looked capable of following the great tradition of Husker fullbacks. Then he disappeared from the offense, a victim of the spread offense era.

“It’s a dinosaur,” offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said of the fullback position. “It’s a dying breed.”

“They’re hard to find because no one uses them, even in high school. ... But we continue to look for them and we want to keep it alive in our system.”

In 2013, 15 Huskers had at least one carry, including Brodrick Nickens and Sam Foltz on fake punts. No fullbacks. Last fall, nine Huskers recorded a carry. No fullbacks. Then out of nowhere Saturday, Janovich exploded.

His role reminded me of the classic “Saturday Night Live” skit featuring cast members portraying the band Blue Oyster Cult. After each cut for “Don’t fear the reaper,” producer Christopher Walken demands “more cowbell.” Without a bell cow in the backfield Saturday, Janovich was the cowbell pounding away. You could sense the crowd demanding more ... more ... more.

At one point, Nebraska shifted Janovich into the tailback spot, behind Imani Cross.

“I heard the crowd freaking out,” said backup fullback Harrison Jordan, who frequently fires up Janovich with — no joke — head butts.

Husker fans needed a few flashbacks to the good ole days because the 2015 edition continues limping along like a team destined for 6-6 or 7-5. Under Bo Pelini, the weak links were pass offense and run defense. Under Mike Riley, it’s totally flipped. You decide which is worse.

The Huskers were outplayed by a wide margin in Saturday’s second half. They’re running out of bodies at linebacker. Their secondary is a mess. And production from the I-backs is inconsistent.

Critics say Nebraska, like the fullback position, is a football dinosaur. And this final score won’t quiet them. But the current state of the program only enhanced the joy of seeing Janovich burst into the open field.

The scene took you back to an era when Nebraska didn’t have to worry about teams like Southern Miss. The Huskers could show up, put up 400 rushing yards and get home in time for supper.

If Janovich had joined the Huskers 20 years ago, he might have been a legend like Rathman and Schlesinger. Instead, he didn’t even get an FBS scholarship offer. His influence has mostly been limited to special teams; Mike Riley calls him one of the best he’s been around.

Maybe he deserves more.

On his 53-yard catch and run in the second quarter, Janovich juked two Southern Miss defensive backs in the open field. It was the longest play from a Husker fullback since Judd Davies in 2000.

On third-and-1 in the third, with the Husker offense struggling, Janovich took a quick hitter for 28 yards, setting up a touchdown.

In the fourth, he busted out of a mob at the line of scrimmage (Makovicka style) and dashed into the end zone. A holding penalty negated the score (and put a damper on Janovich’s Heisman campaign).

Janovich, according to teammates, didn’t say much during Saturday’s game. Nor did he show up for postgame interviews. Fullbacks usually let their shoulder pads do the talking, at least at Nebraska.

Langsdorf knows “a little bit” about the fans’ love affair with fullbacks, but it’s not why he called Janovich’s number so often. The traps looked promising against the Golden Eagles’ 4-3 defense. They don’t work so well against 3-4 fronts like Miami’s, he said.

“We’ve got to do what we’re doing, but there’s some fun to the history of the program and making sure we’re respectful to that,” Langsdorf said.

“I don’t think we’re gonna get into a bunch of triple-option plays, but using the fullback is something that we want to do. We have done it in our past. After Andy’s run, now we have to do more of it.”

No matter how much time passes, no matter how much the game changes, here at Nebraska, they always want more cowbell.

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Dirk writes stories and columns about Husker football in addition to covering general assignments and enterprise for The World-Herald. Follow him on Twitter @dirkchatelain. Phone: 402-444-1062.

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