LINCOLN — Nebraska was run-heavy Saturday night, and Mike Riley was talking about better balance Monday, which was understandable after the Huskers threw the football just 13 times against Fresno State.
But the 51 running plays — and 5.7 yards that they netted on average — accomplished something important for a retooled and largely unproven offensive line.
It kick-started some confidence, especially for three players who were making their first career starts.
“Obviously we weren’t perfect, and that’s what we want to be every week,” NU center Dylan Utter said. “But for the most part, with three guys that haven’t seen the field, I thought we did fairly well with a team that brought a lot of pressure.
“We definitely started to feel more comfortable — just getting the game-time experience helps each week — so that will help us in the future.”
How good this unit can be is hard to forecast after just one game.
“What I realize now is what the coaches always talk about: Learning as the game goes on,” junior right tackle David Knevel said. “And I really noticed that as I was going on. I was able to see things coming.”
Nebraska rebuilt the right side of its line with sophomore Tanner Farmer at guard and Knevel at tackle. Sam Hahn moved from No. 2 right tackle to starting left guard on fairly short notice after injuries to Jerald Foster and Corey Whitaker.
Even the Huskers’ two returning starters were settling into new spots Saturday night, with Utter going from right guard to center and sophomore Nick Gates from right tackle to left tackle.
So the value of lining up and seeing things work right away with a punishing run game might have served a purpose, even if unintended.
“It was nice because the coaches put it on us a little bit to rush the ball, so we appreciate that and we always like that,” Hahn said. “It was a good start, (but) definitely a lot of work to do. I know we’re going to learn from the film, because we didn’t play as clean as we should have.”
Nebraska finished with 292 rushing yards and five rushing touchdowns. That followed the Huskers doing heavy ground work against UCLA in the Foster Farms Bowl with 326 rushing yards.
Riley’s comments about balance had to do with the Huskers throwing just 13 passes, and 57 of their 114 passing yards coming on a Tommy Armstrong-to-Alonzo Moore connection starting the fourth quarter.
But most linemen will tell you that they prefer run blocking, so Saturday night was as fun as educational.
“It was awesome,” Knevel said. “I loved it. I’m really proud with how we did as a unit. I think we handled their movement up front. So if you can do that and we can get some yards every time, why not?”
Most final stat sheets won’t look like Saturday night, and more Armstrong passes are coming, but Riley had been talking through the offseason about a commitment to the run game.
“To be a great team, we need to run the rock, and we know that,” Utter said. “The team knows that. So once you establish that, it opens up everything else.”
Nebraska ran the football on 20 of its first 21 snaps. Utter said the Huskers then went to work in the third and fourth quarters with some runs they had saved — and owned the second-half time of possession at 17:33 to 12:27.
“I wouldn’t say we knew that we were going to run that much, but that’s what we were having success with,” Hahn said. “So we just kept pounding away at that. That’s just kind of how it played out.
“That’s Nebraska football, as they call it. So that’s what we like to do around here.”
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