August 31, 2008

Huskers know running game must improve

It could have been because Western Michigan was stacking the box with eight and sometimes nine players. It also could've been because of Nebraska's reshuffled offensive line was pieced together seemingly just hours before kickoff.

However you want to try and explain it, though, the fact of the matter was that the Huskers simply could not run the football in their 47-24 win over the Broncos on Saturday.

Heading into the season, NU's stable of running backs and deep offensive line had been built up to be two of the strengths of the team's offense this season. On Saturday, the Huskers amassed just 138 yards on 31 carries, a number that's somewhat deceiving because 58 of those yards came off 12 carries during fourth-quarter mop-up duty.

Nebraska certainly had some good runs in the game, but as far as getting the consistency it had hoped for coming into the contest, the running game failed to impress.

"We knew they didn't want us to run on them, because everybody knows we can run the ball," redshirt freshman Marcel Jones said. "I'll have to give it to them, they did a pretty good job at stuffing the run… There's a lot of things that we need to fix, because we really did want to pound the rock and show everybody that we can run the ball and be physical. We didn't really do that this game.

"We did OK, I guess. A win's a win. But still, we want to do it great."

Jones was one of primary example of Nebraska's last minute shuffling along the offensive line, as he was moved up to the starting right tackle after senior Lydon Murtha was ruled out prior to the game.

Along with Jones, sophomore Mike Smith made his first start at left tackle. Smith got the start over sophomore Jaivorio Burkes, who moved from right tackle to left but saw limited playing time after missing the majority of fall camp with high blood pressure.

Sophomore guard Keith Williams saw extensive playing time while filling in for senior Mike Huff, who was temporarily knocked out of the game with an injury.

The Huskers were fortunate in the fact that they spent the majority of spring and fall practice rotating their offensive linemen in a number of different combinations so they were experienced at different positions and sides on the line.

Even so, both players and coaches admitted that some chemistry might have been lacking within the unit they sent out against the Broncos.

"We've had to play with several different combinations over the past couple days, and there's a degree of that that does wear on you, or does play into that," offensive coordinator Shawn Watson said. "But yet the same time, because we have worked with several combinations, we're getting experience with some of those guys. Down the road I think it'll help us out in the end."

The other potential reason for NU's lack of production on the ground had more to do with Western Michigan than the Huskers themselves.

The Broncos undoubtedly made it their defensive game plan to shut down the run, and they kept at least two linebackers and sometimes even a safety guarding the line of scrimmage almost all game to make sure they accomplished it.

As a result, the Huskers were able to utilize the play-action pass to perfection and put up huge numbers in the passing game and points on the scoreboard.

"It was pretty obvious standing on the sideline that those safeties were committed to the run," offensive line coach Barney Cotton said. "When you're outnumbered by one or two on most of your runs, you gotta take what they give you."

Said Watson: "They were loading the box up on us big time. I think they came here knowing that we had a good offensive line and good backs, and that's why you had the play action game. If you take something away, you're giving something up. That's why we had the big passes on them we did."

Jones said the Broncos also used a variety of stunts along the defensive line and different blitz packages to help crowd the line of scrimmage and confuse blocking assignments.

Even so, the Huskers felt they should have been able to establish themselves better up front and have more of a balanced offensive attack. Last season, the Broncos ranked 83rd nationally in rush defense, allowing nearly 180 yards a game.

Whatever the excuse, Nebraska knows it will have to run the football a whole lot better by the time the Big 12 Conference schedule starts.

"We know we can run the ball," sophomore running back Quentin Castille said. "I guess we just got out of our game a little bit. Coach (Cotton) preached about it at halftime because Coach Cotton knows his offensive line, and I know the offensive line too. Coach Cotton was like, 'Aw man, we should be running the ball like 300 times.'

"He knows. Our whole offense knows that we should be running the ball more."

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