LINCOLN — At the end of a game full of tough sledding, Nebraska running back Terrell Newby took a shotgun handoff, swept to his right, found a perfect block from right tackle Cole Conrad, cut slightly right just after clearing Conrad’s rear end, then back left, splitting two defenders as he accelerated for a 63-yard touchdown.
That fourth-quarter play against Illinois was NU’s best run of the season, and after the Huskers finished their 31-16 win over the Illini, they had to like where they stood in the run game heading into a bye week.
“That’s the thing we always say: Those short runs will turn into long runs at the end of the game,” Newby said afterward. “We keep at it and keep at it. It’s good it paid off.”
At that moment, Nebraska was averaging 234.2 yards per game on the ground and 4.94 yards per carry — right on track to fulfill coach Mike Riley’s goal of finishing top three in the Big Ten in rushing.
After that bye week, the NU train veered well off that track.
Nebraska averaged 138.1 yards per game and 3.75 yards per carry over the final seven games. That’s nearly 100 fewer yards per game and more than 1 less yard per carry. NU also carried the ball more than 10 fewer times per game over the last seven contests than it did in the first five.
Before Saturday night’s Big Ten championship, Nebraska ranked seventh in the Big Ten in yards per game, ninth in yards per carry, and 10th in yards per carry for conference games.
NU didn’t clear 200 yards rushing one time in the last seven games.
Right now, Nebraska averages fewer rushing yards per game — 178.17 — than it did last season at 180 yards, when most coaches, players, pundits and fans agreed NU didn’t run it well or often enough.
A variety of things. Injuries. Less efficiency. Some predictability. Less talent. More injuries. Better defenses. In a couple of situations, better offenses that taxed NU’s defense. Here’s a rundown of some of the ways Nebraska struggled over the last half of the year with its running game:
» A constantly jumbled offensive line in practice and in games. Offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh has preached the value of chemistry among linemen since he arrived. It’s one of the reasons he likes to set a starting five before the season and not deviate much from it unless the score gets out of hand. But Nebraska lost starting left guard Jerald Foster before the season to a knee injury, forcing Cavanaugh to move walk-on Sam Hahn from tackle to guard to preserve the redshirt of true freshman Boe Wilson.
By the end of the Illinois game, two more backups — right guard Corey Whitaker and right tackle Conrad — were playing in the game.
Then, at Indiana, left tackle Nick Gates badly hurt his ankle. He didn’t leave the game, but David Knevel, who also hurt his ankle, did, prompting another appearance by Conrad. Then center Dylan Utter dislocated a finger, which meant NU had to use, for a few snaps, Whitaker, who hadn’t played center in a while.
“So I was just like, ‘OK, I hope we’re in (shotgun) because I need to get some under-center practice snaps with you,’ ” quarterback Tommy Armstrong said of the situation in late October.
Some weeks, NU starters wouldn’t practice for some or almost all of the week and then try to play. By season’s end, Foster had surprisingly rehabbed his torn MCL to the point where he could return. He played the bulk of the last three games at left guard, next to Gates.
Cavanaugh tended to field a handful of questions each week from reporters, rarely giving long, in-depth answers about the line’s depth and injury woes. Self-pity wasn’t and isn’t Cavanaugh’s style.
“You wish it wouldn’t happen, but that’s the cards you’ve been dealt,” Cavanaugh said.
Still, it was a constant juggling act. By season’s end, Conrad had seemingly wrested the right tackle job away from Knevel, only to go down briefly against Iowa and have Knevel come in for him. The cycle kept spinning.
» The lack of explosive runs, which usually means average second-level and downfield blocking. Nebraska did not break a run longer than 25 yards over the last seven games. Even against Iowa, where NU didn’t have a run longer than 11 yards, offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf thought NU was “really close” to breaking a few with true freshman Tre Bryant and senior Newby.
“There were 2-yard gains that could have easily been big ones,” Langsdorf said. “... We were able to hit some of the outside runs. The inside stuff was tough.”
Thus far, Nebraska is far less effective at those runs this season. The Husker wideouts and tight ends have carried the ball 31 times for 181 yards — or 5.83 yards per carry — compared to 34 times for 254 yards (7.47 yards per carry) last season.
Riley was frustrated by two fly sweeps against Indiana that didn’t bust free for big yards.
“We had a couple fly sweeps that I thought we could score on,” Riley said. “We just didn’t execute as well as we need to, so I went back and we talked with our coaching staff this morning about the blocking of that play, the running pattern of that play, and why we failed on it. Get that information. We can’t give up points like that.”
» The opposing defenses got better. In the final seven games, NU played the Nos. 3, 15 and 19 rush defenses in Wisconsin, Ohio State and Minnesota. Although the Huskers had a decent night against the Gophers — 32 carries for 157 yards — they struggled on the ground against Wisconsin (44 carries, 152 yards) and Ohio State (24 carries, 78 yards).
Some of the run defenses NU faced in the early part of the schedule — No. 123 Fresno State, No. 121 Oregon, No. 104 Illinois and No. 87 Wyoming — weren’t as good, although the same can be said of No. 101 Maryland and No. 115 Purdue, which Nebraska faced in the final seven games.
Defenses generally tried to stuff the box with players and force the Huskers to hit perimeter passes. In the last three games, especially against Maryland, Nebraska checked at the line of scrimmage to some short, quick screen passes, which Langsdorf refers to as “long handoffs.”
» Injuries finally caught up to Armstrong, as they annually seem to do. After last season, one critique of Nebraska’s coaches was that they didn’t tailor the offense specifically to Armstrong’s biggest strengths — his running ability. This season, Armstrong has carried the ball more often — roughly twice more per game — but his production tailed off a bit in the last four games.
Though Armstrong enjoyed strong games against Minnesota (nine carries, 61 yards) and Purdue (10 carries, 51 yards), he gained just 39 yards on 13 carries at Wisconsin and, with a strained hamstring, just 13 yards on six carries at Iowa. He missed half of a game at Ohio State with a concussion and an entire game against Maryland dealing with the hamstring issue.
Armstrong has struggled running the ball at the end of each of his four seasons at NU, in part because of injuries. In the final four regular-season games of each season, Armstrong has averaged less than 5 yards per carry:
2013: 18 carries/23 yards
Cumulatively, Armstrong averaged three yards per carry during the final third of those seasons.
Because of injuries, Armstrong played in just 13 of those 16 games — missing the 2013 Iowa game, the 2015 Purdue game and the 2016 Maryland game — and effectively played in closer to 11½ games, since he missed most of the 2013 Penn State game and half of the 2016 Ohio State game.
Before the Iowa game, Riley said he’d be comfortable with Armstrong remaining in the pocket as a passer.
“Even if he can’t be everything Tommy always is,” Riley said.
In the 40-10 loss, Armstrong amassed 138 total yards on 41 total attempts — 35 passes and six runs. It was his worst game of the season from a yards-per-attempt perspective.
» Nebraska didn’t hit enough passes to loosen up opposing defenses. The Huskers made Indiana and Purdue pay just enough. Armstrong hit passes of 45 and 72 yards against the Hoosiers, and passes of 40, 28 and 28 against Purdue. Three of those five were the kind of man-to-man fade pass plays that NU either makes to extend a drive or doesn’t. The Huskers couldn’t find the target on those against Wisconsin — when Armstrong threw an early interception on such a play — and especially not at Ohio State, where deep pass after deep pass from Armstrong and Ryker Fyfe went incomplete. Nebraska coaches believed that, at some point, an offense has to hit one or two of those to back off a defense.
Without them, a defense can stack the box against the run and better guard against short passing routes.
“We had to play some one-on-one shots that we had open,” Langsdorf said after the Iowa game. NU didn’t hit any deep passes in that game, either, although wideout De’Mornay Pierson-El drew a pass interference penalty. “... You’ve got to be able to hit some of those to loosen them up, get them off you a little bit, change your coverage looks. If they’re having success, you’re just going to keep getting it. You have to make them pay for it.”
Too often, NU didn’t.
» No Andy Janovich. Last season, NU’s fullback had 265 yards on 42 carries and, what’s more, was a good enough lead blocker to become a Day One NFL starter for the Broncos. Janovich’s replacement, Luke McNitt, had two carries for 4 yards and, while being a solid lead blocker, was not — and was not expected to be — the caliber of Janovich.
Nebraska thinks enough of the fullback position to offer a scholarship to Ben Miles — who committed over the summer and is one of the nation’s top prospects at that position. Miles could push McNitt for a starting job next season.
» The commitment to the run. Through 12 games, Nebraska has 495 running plays and 358 passing plays. That’s a 58/42 run/pass split.
When NU was tied, or trailed by any margin, that split dipped to 53.6/46.4.
When NU trailed by any margin that split became 50.4/49.6.
It’s common for most teams not named Georgia Tech or Navy to throw more once behind, but NU was a poor throwing team when trailing — completing just 46.4 percent of its passes at 5.89 yards per attempt. Last season, Nebraska was much better — 55.2 percent at 7.74 yards per attempt — in those categories, though it trailed more often.
This season, the Huskers’ passing game lacked efficiency and general explosiveness and yet took up half of NU’s plays in losing situations.
Against Iowa, Riley said, Nebraska “fell into the proverbial trap” of trying to get big chunks of yards through the air instead of consistently moving the chains.
A bowl game remains, and it’s possible that game — much like the 2015 Foster Farms Bowl — resets Nebraska’s run attack and propels it forward into 2017.
As it stands, NU will have to gain north of 180 yards — probably against an SEC defense — to meet last season’s yards-per-game total. The Huskers’ yards-per-carry tally is currently at 4.32, which is the lowest since 2009 and third-lowest in the decade.
That’s not exactly what Riley had planned.