Huskers can’t win big unless they run better

Terrell Newby and Nebraska’s other I-backs combined to average slightly less than 4 yards a carry. Offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said the backs struggled to find a rhythm and said the staff would re-evaluate its rotation.

LINCOLN — It’s a college football fact as old and true as your grandma’s rhubarb pie recipe: In the Midwest, you’re going to have to run the ball with grit, spit and wit to win anything.

There’s never been a great Nebraska team for which that wasn’t so, and there haven’t been many teams in the region — regardless of league — that threw the ball 40 times per game in the hot winds and cold sleets and won a conference title.

Tom Osborne knew it intrinsically. Bill Snyder figured it out. Barry Alvarez figured it out. Bill McCartney, that old Colorado frenemy, figured it out. Bill Callahan never quite did and Bo Pelini, aided by a succession of NFL-caliber running backs, embraced it.

Now it’s Mike Riley’s turn. He and offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf know they, the Huskers’ offensive line and running backs will have to do better after their offense couldn’t close the deal and gave BYU chance after chance in the fourth quarter. The Cougars finally cashed in on the Hail Mary. It shouldn’t have come to that. Not when NU had third-and-1, third-and-1 and third-and-3.

But it did, and even if the Huskers’ offense generally looked better than the Huskers’ porous defense, the unit still stalled when it counted most.

Riley said he wanted all of the calls back on those three plays. Langsdorf pointed specifically to the third-and-3 jet sweep, which resulted in a 2-yard loss for wideout Jamal Turner.

“Bad call,” Langsdorf said. “My fault. I had a better thought later. We got hit on a pressure. They had an extra guy there. It just wasn’t a good call.”

Agreed. It was a tough situation, because third-and-3 is often a passing down. But Nebraska wanted to burn more time off the game clock with a running play. And two previous power plays had been stuffed. So Langsdorf dialed up a sweep into the teeth of the defense.

The two third-and-1 plays were less understandable. They were disasters. Starting with a no-huddle sneak. On that one, Langsdorf hoped Nebraska could line up quickly and catch BYU off-guard. But an official stood over the ball for several extra seconds. The Cougars lined up and stuffed quarterback Tommy Armstrong for no gain.

“It wasn’t a substitution deal, so it was kind of funny,” Langsdorf said of the official holding up the snap. “They usually hold it a little longer with a sub. I actually thought we had a little bit better spot than we got. I thought we had some pretty good push on it.”

Third-and-1, Part II. Langsdorf called for a stretch play to the left. BYU blasted it with a blitz that overwhelmed Nebraska’s line and running back Terrell Newby. The jet sweep call came a few minutes later. That had Memorial Stadium in the collective murmur it had reserved for previous offensive coordinators Tim Beck and Shawn Watson.

That capped a poor day on the ground. Nebraska’s longest tote was a 15-yard scramble by Armstrong. The longest designed runs were 14-yarders from Newby and Imani Cross. Both need big holes to do their damage. Neither showed great vision or shiftiness. Mikale Wilbon did, but exchange issues between him and Armstrong also accounted for a fumble and a 7-yard loss.

“When you’re playing a lot of them, it’s a little bit harder to get a guy in a rhythm,” Langsdorf said. “So we’re going to have to look at that a little more. We’ve been kind of prepping for some guys to do some things well, but, at the same time, you don’t get a guy into a rhythm. It’s just like a quarterback. So we’ll take a look at that and really grade these guys.”

Langsdorf is a creative, exciting playcaller. I liked all the motion, the screens, the variety. It just didn’t produce much of a running game. NU’s offense apparently needs to perfect its game because the defense wasn’t ready to hold up its end, especially in the first half. BYU wideouts often got free runs into the secondary. Why? Was that the scheme, to let three giants get a full head of steam?

Twice, BYU was pinned inside its own 15-yard line after punts. Twice, BYU escaped on the first play of the ensuing drive.

Mark Banker’s bunch allowed 7.1 yards per play. Nine times in the Pelini era, Nebraska’s defense allowed 7 yards per play. The Huskers lost eight of those. Their only win? Wyoming in 2013.

It’s not a recipe for long-term success. Neither is a below-average running game. Neither are two misses from the field goal kicker. Neither are all the injuries and suspensions that hampered the Huskers in their season opener.

Riley and his staff have a lot to clean up in a week.

On with the Rewind.

I see you

» Armstrong: Didn’t get a ton of help from his offensive line, but still made some clutch, hard throws on third down. He threw to his left better, as well. Armstrong looks like a better quarterback than he was last year.

» Wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp: He’ll get close to 1,000 receiving yards this year and may eclipse it. School records are in reach.

» Wilbon: He needs to play more. He has some shiftiness and escape talents that the Huskers sorely need in their offense.

» Wide receiver Alonzo Moore: Best game of his career. Ran the ball on the jet sweep twice, made a nice stutter-step on his 22-yard touchdown reception and blocked passably.

» Linebacker Dedrick Young: The true freshman lost contain of quarterback Tanner Mangum on that fourth-down play, but Young otherwise hung in there for a first start. He’s going to be really good by season’s end.

» BYU defensive lineman Bronson Kaufusi: Best lineman Saturday — either team, either side of the ball. Had a sack for 14 yards.

» BYU quarterback Taysom Hill: Nice player, better runner. I didn’t find him that much more impressive than his backup, Mangum. Hill didn’t always process NU’s defenses that well, which is why press coverage would have been better.

» BYU receivers: Have fun covering those giants. That said, why didn’t Nebraska jam those guys more at the line of scrimmage? Banker made it too easy.

» Kicker Drew Brown: Owned up to his two devastating missed field goals by talking to the press. That’s integrity.

Three concerns

» Too many Husker players on the turf: This is a continuation of a problem we saw in recent years. Nebraska’s guys were often the ones writhing on the field in cramp pain or injury pain. Tight end David Sutton’s and punter Sam Foltz’s injuries aside — they were hit in defenseless positions — it didn’t appear Nebraska’s players had many contact injury plays. They just seemed susceptible to the heat and cumulative stress of the game.

» Pass rush and quarterback contain: Few of Nebraska’s opponents have mobile quarterbacks, so the Huskers won’t be as hurt as they were against BYU, but NU’s defensive line struggled getting off blocks and getting around the corner of BYU’s tackles. Nebraska’s ends, especially, need work; they’re not great at changing direction. Can the Huskers really afford to keep all four of their true freshman defensive linemen as redshirts?

» Punt return adventures: Nebraska looked very tentative fielding rugby punts from BYU’s Jonny Linehan. Even if the Huskers wisely put a second return man deep — freshman receiver Stanley Morgan — Morgan appeared to want little part of the punt he returned for 5 yards. De’Mornay Pierson-El was sorely missed.

Five stats

» 5.05: Nebraska yards per play on first down. Considering the Huskers averaged 5.7 yards per play for the game, the first-down rate wasn’t pretty. It was especially anemic in the first half: 20 plays, 88 yards. And 61 of those 88 yards came on three plays. The other 17 first-down plays in the first half? Twenty-seven yards. That won’t do. BYU averaged 6.4 yards per play on first down.

» 3.65: Yards per carry on first-down rushes. That won’t do, either. For reference, NU averaged 6.21 yards per carry on first down last season, 5.70 in 2013, 5.64 in 2012 and 5.08 in 2011.

» 50 percent: Nebraska’s completion rate on first down. Also won’t do. Armstrong completed 7 of 14 passes. The first-down rate needs to be north of 60 percent in an offense like this — and preferably north of 65 percent.

» Six: Straight losses when Nebraska is outrushed by its opponent. Those losses were to BYU this year, USC, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan State last year, and Iowa in 2013. Nebraska beat Penn State and Northwestern in 2013 while getting outrushed, but you recall the zaniness of those two games.

» One: Game in which Armstrong threw for more yards than he did against BYU — that would be the Holiday Bowl — and one game in which he rushed for fewer, which would be the 2013 Penn State game when he left with an injury after one carry for 1 yard. Armstrong threw for 319 and rushed for 2 yards Saturday.

Opponent watch

Northwestern’s 16-6 smothering of ranked Stanford was the Big Ten’s big win of the weekend. And while the Wildcats’ defense was stout, it’s not uncommon for Stanford’s somewhat primordial offense to struggle early.

But it’s very uncommon for Stanford’s defense to give up 225 rushing yards. That’s happened five other times in five years — three times to Oregon. That’s the real story — Northwestern’s stout offensive line play and the dogged toughness of running back Justin Jackson, who ran for 134 yards. Jackson may be the Big Ten’s second-best back behind Ohio State’s Zeke Elliott. He also could have been at Nebraska; he took a trip to Lincoln on his own dime, looking for an offer. The Huskers never obliged.

Iowa looked decent in its 31-14 win over Illinois State, which appeared overmatched at the point of attack. I’m predicting the Hawkeyes will lose this week to Iowa State, a better team than some think.

Minnesota’s defense played out of its mind against an elite TCU offense that will average close to 50 points this season. The Gophers have better athleticism and quickness on defense than Nebraska. Their quarterback, Mitch Leidner, isn’t there yet as a thrower.

Facebook Feedback

Each week, I ask readers on my Facebook page to give their thoughts on the previous game. Selected and edited responses follow.

Jared Clanton: “Disappointed to lose that way, but encouraged by a lot of things. Secondary was overmatched, but their was a noticeable upgrade in tackling. Feels like running the football is going to be a year long project.”

Danny Gutknecht: “The coaches must adjust to Nebraska football culture if they are to have any success. Downhill running, mobile QBs and aggressive defense. None of that was anywhere to be seen. Pelini self destructed but got culture. Callahan recruited well but was not in tune to culture. Doesn’t look like Riley gets culture. We will see adjustments or we will be wondering how the next guy does.”

Kord Brashear: “Tommy Armstrong looked quite improved. Tackling looked much better. Concerned that the run game didn’t have much punch to it. And don’t think a completely new team (coaches and players) was well-suited to manage the situation at the end.”

Chad Stu: “We really need to find defensive ends on the roster. I will be floored if we don’t see changes to the depth chart at DE. Absolutely non factors, even on plays they were unblocked they missed tackles over and over.

Marcus Williams: “How do you use two time outs and not sub in your WR’s in at safety for a Hail Mary? They have taller wide receiver than Tim Miles does at power forward, and no substitutes. Say what you want about Bo, he would have won this game.”

John Allen: “The way we came out and played after the half was all I wanted to see from this game. Showed me so much promise from the staff and player leadership.”

Forecast

A little heat.

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