As Nebraska took the field backed up at its own three-yard line with its entire 2017 season potentially on the brink, little did anyone know that a new offensive identity was about to be born.
The Huskers marched 97 yards on 17 plays and ate up more than eight minutes of clock in the process to score a go-ahead touchdown and never looked back in Saturday’s win over Rutgers.
Quarterback Tanner Lee and the passing game had been struggling all day, so NU turned to its offensive line and running backs to get things under control and ran the ball nine times for 41 yards on the drive.
After taking the lead on that possession going into the fourth quarter, Nebraska ended up running it on 20 of its final 22 plays to close out a desperately needed victory.
While head coach Mike Riley said he still wants better balance and more production from Lee and the passing game, he admitted that the Huskers may have found their winning formula from that 97-yard drive on.
“Running the ball to win at the end is a good thing to be able to do,” Riley said. “That mentality as we go forward, if we can build on that and if we can balance it out with not necessarily more often but a more efficient passing game, we’re going to be better and better.”
The adjustment to a power running attack to close out Saturday’s win was especially gratifying for Nebraska’s offensive line and one running back in particular, junior Devine Ozigbo.
The o-line had been the center of criticism the previous week after their lackluster performance in a home loss to Northern Illinois. Ozigbo had hardly been a thought in NU’s running game for the first three weeks of the season.
After rushing 15 times for 75 yards in the first half, the Huskers ran the ball 14 times for 59 yards in the third quarter and then 18 times for 63 yards in the fourth quarter.
Ozigbo’s production directly paralleled that shift in strategy, as he had just five rushes for 16 yards in the first half and then toted the ball 15 times for 62 yards in the fourth quarter alone, finishing with a career-high 24 carries for 101 yards.
“We figured out what was working best for us and we stuck with it,” junior left guard Jerald Foster said. “It’s and simple as that gets. We found out our good plays, went away from the plays that were hurting us, and feel like we definitely found our niche and found our groove.”
One of the more beneficial aspects of establishing a heavy rushing attack was that it took some pressure off Lee’s shoulders. Even though he threw the ball just two times for seven yards in the fourth quarter, Lee said he was all for following that recipe going forward.
“I think it’s important being able to manage the game and control the clock,” Lee said. “Just kind of getting behind the offensive line and let them take over the game, that was huge. Our offensive line has been taking pride in the work that they put in, and that was great to see.”
Riley gives latest on lengthy NU injury report
Riley opened his Monday press conference by going over the status of Nebraska’s injured players entering preparations for Illinois this week.
It was once again a hefty list, but it was still a bit more encouraging than it has been in previous weeks.
Running back Tre Bryant, who has missed the past two games with a knee injury, will try to do a little more work during Monday’s practice, but his availability for Illinois remains questionable.
The same goes for right tackle David Knevel, who’s been out the past three weeks with a foot injury. Riley said Knevel would return to practice on Monday, but like Bryant, his status for Friday is unclear.
Others who were listed under the “questionable” designation were receiver Stanley Morgan (neck), center Cole Conrad (knee), and linebacker Tyrin Ferguson (foot).
Riley said receiver Bryan Reimers suffered a hamstring injury last week and “it’s going to be slow-going this week.” He also ruled out safety Joshua Kalu (hamstring) and linebacker Marcus Newby (hamstring) for Illinois.
The good news was right tackle Matt Farniok would be back in action on Monday after missing last week with a broken bone in his wrist he suffered against Northern Illinois. Farniok will wear a large cast on his left hand.
“He can’t hold,” Riley joked. “That might be a bonus.”
Another positive update was that safety Aaron Williams would be back in the starting lineup this week after apparently hurting himself on the play he was ejected for targeting vs. Rutgers.
Lastly, Riley was asked if there had been any recent discussions with cornerback Chris Jones and when he might be able to return from a knee injury he suffered prior to fall camp.
“I have not had any new discussions with Chris,” Riley said. “I think that when that time might come, that he might be healthy to play, then we’ll have something to talk about. Until he has actually at a point where he may be cleared, which we do not have that point today, there’s no reason for that discussion yet.”
Huskers open to committee approach at running back
Given the success Nebraska had running the football to close out the win over Rutgers, and the fact that it used primarily a two-headed running back rotation to do it, the question going into this week was whether it would stick with a multiple-back approach.
Riley said nothing final has been decided on that yet, but he and his staff have had discussions about splitting the backfield workload between Mikale Wilbon, Ozigbo, and even true freshman Jaylin Bradley.
What will ultimately decide their strategy will be Bryant’s availability, as he will likely go back to his No. 1 workhorse role whenever he returns to the lineup. Until then, though, NU could very well stick with combination effort.
Ozigbo obviously closed out the win over Rutgers in impressive fashion, but Wilbon has also held his own as the starter in Bryant’s absence. After rushing 24 times for 90 yards against NIU, the junior added 78 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries vs. the Scarlet Knights.
“We spent some time last night and this morning talking about those two players and how we’re going right now. We’ll have to see…” Riley said. “But I think if everything is the same and Tre is not involved in this, we’ll probably start Mikale and play those guys pretty evenly this coming week.”
Nebraska adjusts to short week
With a fairly beat up roster coming off an emotionally draining week, Nebraska now must get ready for its first Big Ten road game with one less day of preparation and recovery.
The Huskers will play a weekday regular-season game for the first time since 2010 when they travel to take on Illinois on Friday night.
Riley has stated his preference for not playing on a short week several times, but he said his team would be ready to go regardless of when the game is played.
“We’re not really concerned with it,” Riley said. “We adjusted our day yesterday to be with our players and review the game and to give them a little bit of stretch/weight workout, just to get the previous game out of them a little bit.
“Then we’ll go into pretty much a regular routine. We have to squish today together a little bit… This is our Day 4 practice today; it will be a little longer than our normal Monday workout… We have to get all of the stuff in, so we squished it together a little bit today, and we’ll be on to a normal schedule from here on out.”
***Riley said linebacker Luke Gifford may have played his best game as a Husker vs. Rutgers. He said NU's young linebackers as a whole really stepped up and played well.
***Riley said the "idea of team defense is really catching on", which is a big reason why the defense has played so much better the past few weeks. He also said a lot of new faces are having to step up because of injuries, which is really helping them build depth.
***Riley said better "choices with the football" was maybe the biggest thing Lee needs to work on right now. He also said Lee can't "make a bad play worse" by trying to force passes and doing too much on a play.
***Riley said Antonio Reed is gaining more and more confidence by the week. "I'm really excited about his growth. "I'm not happy about the circumstances (Kalu's injury), but I'm really glad he's playing in the games."
***Riley said "it's been rare in our life" for a true freshman to play as a true freshman. He said Brenden Jaimes has been impressing since the start of fall camp, which is why even though they didn't expect him to play this season, they wanted to keep him with the varsity to continue his development.
***Riley said he "was really impressed" with center Michael Decker. He said Decker was really smart and tough in the game and they're excited about his future.
***Riley said the decision not to pull Lee was primarily made because they valued Lee's experience and think he gives them the best chance to win. However, "we like to keep the door open for competition as it goes."