Running game

Minnesota's Antoine Winfield upends Husker running back Dedrick Mills. Scott Frost must find a running game. And a way to stop the run.

MINNEAPOLIS — Scott Frost had one hand in his pocket, and the other one was carrying a playsheet. And nothing was fine for the Nebraska football coach.

His team was in the midst of enduring another rotten third quarter in a nightmarish 34-7 loss to undefeated Minnesota. Frost paced and paced in a roughly 20-yard loop as the quarter unfolded.

Players engaged him in little small talk when, 19 games into the tall task of rebuilding Husker football, he was watching the same mistakes that initially landed NU in the valley. Mistakes that manifest themselves into a physical beating Husker fans are sorely accustomed to seeing on clear days and snowy nights. TCF Bank Stadium — chilled and thrilled for a Gopher chomping — was as good of a place as any for another lesson in physical Big Ten football.

Minnesota ran for 322 yards. Nebraska ran for 151. That’s the game, and Frost — analytical-but-forceful in his postgame comments — didn’t hide from it.

“I don’t like coaching a team that’s not the most physical team, and we weren’t,” Frost said.

The 37-degree temperature didn’t matter, he said. The 17 mph wind? Nope. The game featured 92 runs, and the Gophers’ runs — with backs who gained 139, 99 and 84 yards, respectively — resembled those of an outfit with skilled linemen and patient backs. Nebraska’s running plays looked like dart throws. Roughly as bankable as the fake punt run Nebraska tried but failed to convert.

“We are having to pick and choose run plays and try to scheme too much instead of just winning up front and relying on our run game,” Frost said.

No arguments from right tackle Matt Farniok.

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“We’ve got to get more movement,” he said. “Create bigger holes for running backs … we’ve got to start staying on our blocks. Not just knocking them back — we need to make sure we maintain our blocks and stay on them.”

Minnesota — an outfit that was held under 100 rushing yards by Georgia Southern and Purdue — had no issues with its run game, averaging 6.6 yards per pop on the simplest of zone running plays. Nebraska’s defense — which touted its run-stopping ability earlier this season — couldn’t stop them. Linemen didn’t dislodge themselves from blocks. Linebackers either overran their assignments, creating cutback lanes, or grabbed Gopher backs around the shoulder pads and going for a 3- or 4-yard ride. NU resembled water under Minnesota’s big boat.

Defensive tackle Darrion Daniels said NU’s defense was out of position a lot, not fitting right against a scheme that waits for a hole to emerge because of a defensive error. There are front and back sides to a zone running game, defensive end Ben Stille said, and when NU defended the front side of the play, Minnesota’s patient backs — Rodney Smith, Shannon Brooks and Mohamed Ibrahim — would wait and wait, then cut back. When the backside was solid, Nebraska’s linemen lost on the front side.

“If you do a poor job on the front side of the stretch play, it doesn’t matter what you did on the back side,” Stille said.

And the Huskers (4-3 overall and 2-2 in the Big Ten) needed their defense to carry some of the load, since the offense was shorthanded without starting quarterback Adrian Martinez, and, for much of the second half, receiver Wan’Dale Robinson, who hurt his left foot and spent the second half on the sideline. Backup quarterback Noah Vedral completed 14 of 23 passes for 135 yards and rushed for 49 yards, but NU’s own run game was inconsistent or punchless, leaving Vedral to lead the offense from the pocket in a wintry mix.

All three of Nebraska’s first quarter drives, which went into a wind so stiff the goal posts were moving, reached Minnesota territory, but all of them died without points. NU failed to convert a fourth-and-2 at Minnesota’s 29 on the opening drive; Maurice Washington dropped a screen pass likely headed for failure. Back-to-back sacks thwarted the second drive after Vedral hit JD Spielman for a 51-yard pass. On the third, Kanawai Noa’s block-in-the-back penalty nullified a 32-yard swing pass from Vedral to Robinson.

“The guys would have liked to have finished those,” Vedral said afterward. “I think it might have helped change the game. But things looked clear, we had a good gameplan, and it was working. But you can’t shoot yourself in the foot. Gotta make things count — especially in their territory.”

Meanwhile, Minnesota (6-0 and 3-0) was calling the most basic of shotgun zone running plays. The Gophers’ second touchdown drive was a picture of physical dominance or deference, depending on your side. Three different Minnesota backs combined for runs of 25, 8, 7, 15, 10 and 15 yards, the last of them being an easy touchdown to the pylon around NU’s left flank.

The third quarter? It continues to be Nebraska’s nightmare quarter. Minnesota started it with a 45-yard pass to star receiver Tyler Johnson that set up one touchdown, and punctuated it with a 45-yard touchdown drive full of stiff, plodding runs, full of fiber, like refrigerated oatmeal. Frost kicked at the artificial turf after that drive. Then he called three straight passes. The second of them resulted in a 10-yard sack. Punt Nebraska. Another 45-yard pass to Johnson set up a 1-yard touchdown.

NU’s mistakes — a failed fake punt; an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Khalil Davis, who’d been suspended a week earlier; a muffed punt by Spielman — compounded the ugliness. Frost barked at Davis. After a kickoff that appeared to result in a Maurice Washington fumble — replay overturned it — Frost was irritated with his team’s slowness in running off the field.

Frost had a long talk with his team in the locker room. A frank message.

“He challenged us,” Stille said. “When tough times happen, you can keep going or pack it up.”

Nebraska has a bye week now — one it needs, Frost said. NU has banged up players on offense — Martinez, Robinson and perhaps Vedral, who left the game in the fourth quarter — and it needs to get away from the game after seven weeks of roller coaster football. The Huskers have had highs — the comeback win over Illinois, the gritty last-second win over Northwestern — and blowout losses. A bowl remains in sight. Progress, too. Excellence? Elusive.

Frost just wants to find a running game at this point. And a way to stop the run. They are the must-have accessories for winning in a league full of wintry mixes.

Nebraska’s brand will be rebuilt in a combination of its brawn and brains — of its physical and mental toughness.

“When we come back, the basics of what we do have to be better,” Frost said. “We need to come off the ball better up front, we need to tackle better, we need to block better on the perimeter, we need to run more precise routes. All the little things.

“We can scheme up any offensive or defensive play or call that you want to, and if those things are firing on all cylinders — if we don’t ‘win’ those things — it doesn’t matter what we call.”

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MINNEAPOLIS — Scott Frost had one hand in his pocket, and the other one was carrying a playsheet. And nothing was fine for the Nebraska football coach.

His team was in the midst of enduring another rotten third quarter in a nightmarish 34