LINCOLN — It’s Wednesday of Nebraska football’s bye week, and two players, on opposite ends of the Hawks Championship Center, represent key reasons for the Huskers’ 5-0 start.
One is sophomore left tackle Nick Gates. NU’s best lineman, he stands against a wall, phone dwarfed by his giant hand as he conducts an out-of-town interview. He nods at a teammate who walks by with a joke. Gates is part of an offense that, headed into NU’s bye week, led the Big Ten with the most fourth-quarter rushing yards.
The other player is junior cornerback Chris Jones, who, perhaps 50 yards away, repeats the same drill for several minutes. Quick backpedal. Stop. Plant. Burst forward. Catch a ball. He works alone, drenched in sweat. Jones is part of a secondary that has nine interceptions and is giving up just 6.1 yards per completion.
Run the ball. Stop the deep pass.
Coach Mike Riley wanted to improve on his debut 6-7 season in so many ways, such as reducing turnovers and penalties. But few goals were stated more explicitly than his desire to run the ball better — and finish as a top-three rushing team in the Big Ten — and better defend against the pass.
And extra especially when BYU, Illinois and Wisconsin’s offenses quickly passed the ball on the Huskers’ secondary to secure last-second wins.
Run the ball. Stop the deep pass.
It’s just five games. Nebraska’s schedule will get tougher.
But, to this point, they’re the picture of complementary football.
“Those things showing up are good indicators of why we are where we are right at this minute,” Riley said. “We’ve just got to keep going with it.”
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In the minutes after the Foster Farms Bowl win over UCLA, when the Huskers ran for 326 yards, Riley made his proclamation of wanting to be top three in Big Ten rushing this season. It seemed like wishful thinking that Nebraska’s hot-and-cold run game could sustain consistency after averaging 180 yards per game but struggling badly in losses to BYU, Northwestern, Purdue and Iowa.
But so far it has. Nebraska is averaging 234.2 rushing yards per game — third in the Big Ten before Saturday’s games. The 4.94 yards per carry ranked fifth in the league. The 14 rushing touchdowns ranked second. Most notably, the 47.4 attempts per game ranked second, as well. An average of 15 of those attempts are coming in the fourth quarter. Last season, Nebraska averaged just 8.9 rushing attempts in the fourth quarter.
The Huskers are sticking with the run even if it doesn’t work as well early in games. Nebraska’s first-half run game — 4.36 yards per carry, 15 runs of 10 or more yards — is pedestrian. Its second-half run game — 5.38 yards per carry, 20 runs of 10 or more yards — is among the nation’s best.
“It’s exciting,” Gates said. “We definitely like to run the ball and being physical up in there, and it helps. You can see in the fourth quarter we’re scoring and it’s wearing on teams.”
Gates said he appreciated the coaching staff’s emphasis on the run game.
“They’ve put their belief on us, put it on our backs,” he said. “It definitely helps us, that they trust us to get the job done.”
Offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf, the man responsible for calling those run plays, has seen shorter runs in the first half extend into longer ones as the game wears on.
“That’s been good,” Langsdorf said. “I think our guys haven’t blinked when we’ve played close games. We’ve just played and made some halftime adjustments where we can keep executing and take that right through to the fourth quarter.”
The more Nebraska runs the ball well, the less pressure quarterback Tommy Armstrong has to win games with his arm. Perfectly placed fourth-quarter touchdown passes in wins over Fresno State and Wyoming certainly helped, but the senior is averaging 7.7 fewer pass attempts this season than in 2015.
Defensive coordinator Mark Banker added that Nebraska’s run game on offense also keeps the defense fresh by helping the Huskers possess the ball for nearly 35 minutes per game.
The defense has responded by playing much better against the pass than in 2015.
It would have been hard for the Huskers to be much worse. A year ago, they gave up 290.5 yards passing per game. They allowed an eye-popping 26 pass plays of 30 or more yards. They were spun like tops by Miami’s receivers.
“There were some things that we looked absolutely foolish in,” Banker said, “and there was no reason.”
Good cornerbacks are like gold, Riley has said, and Nebraska didn’t get consistent play at that spot for much of last year.
But toward the end of 2015, Banker saw Jones and fellow junior Joshua Kalu emerging. Nebraska’s pass defense was better — not perfect, but better — against Rutgers, Iowa and UCLA at the end of last season. This summer, players focused on improving technique through drills. Sometimes those sessions were led by cornerbacks coach Brian Stewart. Other times, Jones said, players led them.
The biggest change, Jones said, was understanding how a corner needs to break on the ball. There’s a difference between taking a step and bursting forward with that step. If you’ve seen Nebraska’s corners seem more aggressive on shorter passes, there’s a reason — they’re better at changing direction and reaching the receiver.
“All that work we did in the summer getting our feet right is really paying off,” Jones said. As a result, the defense and the cornerbacks are playing like “a different group.” NU has given up just three passes of 30 or more yards this season.
“We’ve set up some standards before the season started,” Jones said, “and we’ve been living up to those standards.”
Riley likes the mental toughness of Kalu and Jones. Coupled with canny play from safeties Nate Gerry, Kieron Williams and Aaron Williams, Nebraska’s pass defense, for now, is more in line with where it stood in the Bo Pelini era. Pelini’s defense was geared to shut down the deep pass. Banker’s scheme asks a little more of the corners, but, thus far, it’s holding up.
Of course, the better Nebraska runs the ball, the more likely the Huskers’ defense will hold up. There are exceptions to the rule, but within Power Five conferences, the best running teams aren’t easy to beat. When Nebraska runs for 200 yards, it hasn’t lost since the 2013 Capital One Bowl.
“We run the ball well, we win,” Riley said. “So we have made a concerted effort to make that part of the identity.”