LINCOLN — As Miami enters its bye week, it must be rather pleased with its run defense. Including sacks, the Hurricanes have held five opponents to less than 100 yards on the ground. Last week’s foe, North Carolina, logged all of 6 rushing yards.
There are two anomalies on Miami’s slate. One is Georgia Tech, the only Power Five conference team running the wingbone triple option as its base offense. The other is Nebraska, which gouged Miami for 343 yards, or 2.6 times what Miami gives up in a normal game.
That night in late September, Nebraska’s nicks in the Miami line became gashes. Gashes became gallops. One week later, NU pulled the same trick on Illinois, plowing out 458 yards. Ameer Abdullah had back-to-back 200-yard games.
Why was Nebraska so dominant on both of those nights?
“We were just calling plays, lining up and going,” guard Mike Moudy said after Saturday’s 35-14 win over Purdue.
When Nebraska’s running game is humming, it transitions from brutality to a breakaway run in a matter of seconds. It moves chains and pushes piles. Offensive coordinator Tim Beck calls the same plays out of slightly different sets, and the Huskers move at a quick pace.
The quick pace, Beck said on the Tuesday before the Purdue game, is crucial, especially with a simplified offense designed to cut down players’ learning curves. Running plays as fast as possible reduces the number of gimmicks a defense can try. It may catch the defense in bad personnel groupings it can’t escape without a timeout. It may speed up, and thus erode, the defense’s execution.
“So what you would hope as a coach, is that it kind of dumbs people down, to a point where they say, ‘We can’t do a lot because we’ve got to line up, make sure we line up,’ ” Beck said. “And you have a short amount of time to make sure you’re sound, to not give up a big play. But sometimes that’s why we get some big plays.”
Because defenses are staying in their base?
“Yeah — or you get them,” Beck said. “Because they are being complex and they’re two guys in one gap and nobody in another gap ... that’s part of the tempo, as well.”
It’s a tempo Nebraska lost, Moudy said, in the Purdue game. The Huskers also lost Abdullah in the first quarter. But Abdullah hadn’t had much success running the ball before he strained the MCL in his left knee. Beck said that even if Abdullah had stayed in the game, Purdue would have been successful stuffing the run because it shot gaps and was winning the line of scrimmage.
“They were better than we were down on the goal line,” Beck said Saturday of a botched series in the first quarter, the same series in which Abdullah got hurt trying to recover a fumbled snap. “We had three shots from one yard and couldn’t get it in.”
Nebraska did OK on goal-line plays at Michigan State, but the night as a whole was far worse. The Huskers ran for 47 yards, the lowest total in the Bo Pelini era. The 1.27 yards per carry was the lowest total of the Pelini era, too. It was only the second time in Beck’s offensive coordinator tenure, which began in 2011, that the Huskers were held to fewer than 100 yards rushing.
Moudy attributed the Huskers’ rally to a faster tempo after the Huskers had spent much of the night running play clock, trying to fit plays to the Spartans’ defensive looks.
“We went back to our tempo ... we got them on their heels,” Moudy said. By that time, Nebraska was passing the ball on many downs, trying to come back from a 27-3 deficit.
When Beck talked about the Michigan State game a few days later, he affirmed Nebraska’s need to have confidence.
“We gotta play fast and play hard,” Beck said on Oct. 7. “If you try not to make a mistake, you usually do. There’s an old saying: ‘Those who hesitate are lost.’ That’s kind of what happened in the game.”
Nebraska appeared to suffer from the same hesitation against Purdue. There were stretches when NU appeared back on track — an eight-play, 65-yard touchdown drive in the second quarter featured seven runs and a pitch pass that functioned like a jet sweep — but the Huskers rushed for only 53 yards on 24 carries in the second half.
Moudy said the Huskers didn’t change their game plan much when backup I-backs Imani Cross and Terrell Newby spelled Abdullah.
“We still did our outside zone and inside zone,” Moudy said. “Not too much change. I suppose the only difference — and this is minimal — is sustaining blocks for a half-second longer. But we need to be finishing anyway. So it doesn’t make a difference.”
What the Huskers lost — and will seek to regain in preparing for Wisconsin — is the rhythm and tempo that they enjoyed for the first half of the season.
“We need to maintain that consistent play-calling, in the essence that we’re trying to get lined up as fast as possible and just go,” Moudy said. “Yeah, (defenders) are going to move on you. But we have rules for that. We have gaps for that.”
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