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Charting the Run: The Blight of The Nebraska Running Game

Nebraska’s rushing offense was awful against Purdue. Not just this year, but for the past four. Why? Here’s an explanation.

Nebraska v Purdue Photo by Bobby Ellis/Getty Images

I don’t think the anemic Husker running game bears any rehashing, but nevertheless the show must go on, despite the anemic output of 40 yards on 27 attempts against a stout Boilermaker front four. There is no sugarcoating the blight of the Husker run game, although in the spirit of full disclosure, it is important to examine those rushing stats without yards lost on sacks being assessed on the final rushing totals. Without yardage lost on QB sacks assessed, the Huskers fan for...58 yards on 24 carries, an average of 2.41 yards per carry.

While rewatching the game and pouring over the game notes, I noticed a trend had emerged in regards to Purdue’s defensive line and Nebraska’s inability to run consistently against them. In Nebraska’s last four meetings against the Boilermakers Nebraska has not had an average yards per carry higher than the 4.24 ypc in the 2016 match-up.

  • 2014: 51 attempts/179 yards/3.5 ypc
  • 2015: 29 attempts/77 yards/2.65 ypc
  • 2016: 37 attempts/157 yards/4.24 ypc
  • 2017: 27 attempts/40 yards/1.5 ypc

In looking at the rushing yardage totals from the past four games against Purdue, a trend emerges amidst the NSFW offensive line play: the QB run component. It is of no coincidence that the years with higher rushing outputs coincide with the presence of a QB run threat.

So, what made this year’s tilt against Purdue different? Well, this time Nebraska had a proficient passer at the QB position that could stand in the pocket and deliver strikes down field despite getting absolutely zero support from his running game and decidedly leaky (at best) pass protection. Time and again, QB Tanner Lee withstood the Purdue pass rush to go 32-50 (64%) for 431 yards (8.6 ypa) and two touchdowns. Lee’s performance was just another in his upward trajectory post-NIU and this one was damn near a virtuoso. As enjoyable as it is to talk about Lee’s performance, we first have an obligation to fulfill with charting the run concepts used in the tailback run game and runs of less than 4 yards.

Duo: Nebraska’s identity run play, “Csonka” as it’s known in NU’s nomenclature, was ran 4 times for a total of 36 yards, for an average ypc of 9.0 (!). Of these 4 attempts, Jaylin Bradley ripped off runs of 13 yards and 20 yards

Power and Counter: Neither were run against the Boilermakers. In fact, Nebraska did not pull a single offensive lineman in the run game against Purdue

Inside Zone: Nebraska ran Inside Zone 9 times for 5 yards, an average ypc of 0.55 ypc

Draw: The Husker offense ran the Dallas Lead Draw once for a total of 4 yards. 4.0 ypc

Outside Zone: Nebraska’s new wrinkle out of Zip to Bunch was ran 3 times for 9 yards. 3.0 ypc

Ancillary Runs (Fullback Dive): Fullback Luke McNitt carried the ball twice on Fullback Dive plays for a total of 2 yards. 1.0 ypc

Runs less than 4 yards: 11/20 tailback runs netted less than 4 yards

So with these low rushing yields fully charted out, what in the name of Rik Bonness, Dave Rimington, and Dominic Raiola was going on out there? For starters, it is never beneficial to lose multiple starters on the OL in one game, let alone when it is your two best offensive linemen in Michael Decker and Tanner Farmer. The loss of Michael Decker cannot be be overstated, as Decker is responsible for NU’s line calls and has been on point with his line calls since taking over for Cole Conrad on September 23rd. With the loss of Decker, missed line calls once again plagued Nebraska, which were further exacerbated by two more issues: Lorenzo Neal Jr. and Gelen Robinson.

Lorenzo Neal Jr. and Gelen Robinson, both sons of former professional athletes, have effectively owned Nebraska’s offensive line the past two years. Against Nebraska in 2016, Neal racked up 6 tackles (5 solo, 3 TFL) and 1 sack against the Huskers, while Robinson notched 6 tackles (2 solo). In 2017, the son of Big Dog Glenn Robinson wrecked the Husker offensive line to the tune of 9 tackles (7 solo) and 2 sacks; while the son of former Charger fullback Lorenzo Neal Sr. contributed 1 tackle, but made his presence felt in ways that do not show up in the box score.

For context, here’s what Neal showed Nebraska what he was capable of in 2016

While Gelen Robinson provided us with this glimpse of his ability in 2016

With a precedence of play already set by Neal and Robinson, they were two of my chief concerns headed into last Saturday’s game. On the second play of the game Nebraska tried to run Duo to the left behind Jerald Foster and Nick Gates. This left side was also the side that Neal aligned on and Neal quickly closes down the plus side B gap and blows the play up. Jerald Foster gets caught leaning into the block against Neal, with his chest out over his toes; contrary to fundamental offensive line technique. Add in going up against a player of this caliber and more often than not, an offensive lineman with less than adequate technique will not be winning many battles.

After Nebraska inserted freshman tailback Jaylin Bradley into the line-up, offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf again dialed up Duo, again right into the teeth of the Boilermaker defense. This time, however, Bradley was able to bounce the play to the outside thanks to the perimeter blocking by the Bunch receivers. On the play Neal slants into the block of Nick Gates, while the read key for Bradley on this play, the MIKE, looks to plug the minus A gap, suggesting that he was hedging against the Outside Zone weak play from Zip to Bunch that had been ran earlier in the second quarter.

So there you have it, the brief and sad synopsis of the Nebraska rushing attack in West Lafayette.

Nebraska’s run game ails against Purdue stems from the inability to correctly identify who to block (incorrect line calls) and the startling inability to win one-on-one match-ups. The ineffectual offensive line play speaks both to Nebraska’s glaring lack of OL development and to the fact that Purdue has some nice defensive pieces.

The news that center Michael Decker is out long term is particularly troublesome, as Decker is far and away our best offensive lineman both from a mental and physical standpoint. I will be interested to see how Nebraska handles line calls and pre-snap communication going forward, as the miscommunication that occurred earlier this season and once again against Purdue are things that simply cannot happen at any rate.