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C O M M E N T A R Y
T A D    S T R Y K E R
November 4, 2009

 
It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key.

Not an original line, to be sure, but 70 years after those words were uttered, they seem to have some application to Nebraska football these days. Particularly the running game.

That may come as a surprise to some Cornhusker fans who, judging by several e-mails I’ve received lately, don’t believe Nebraska has a running game at all.

There is one, but Churchill himself would be hard-put to figure it out.

This is not Ward Churchill we’re referencing, by the way, but I’ll leave it up to that illustrious plagiarist to analyze his own former university’s running game problems, including the departure of highly-recruited Darrell Scott.

Nebraska has issues of its own, and they’ve been hard to nail down. The offense has sputtered in Big 12 play, largely due to the unreliability of the rushing attack, which has done more than its share of retreating lately. In nonconference games, NU averaged 183 yards on the ground, but against conference opponents, the Huskers have struggled to just 108 rushing yards per contest.

The team’s problems seem to parallel those of Roy Helu Jr., who was the Big 12’s leading rusher at one point early in the season but has slipped to fourth since he injured his right shoulder at Missouri Oct. 8.

Helu and the running game have been a puzzle, especially since his injury, and he was just as mercurial in an interview after practice Tuesday. When asked about Nebraska’s problems with rhythm and communication on offense, he responded, “Today’s practice was real good. Very good. The offensive line came off the ball and we communicated very well.”

Well, OK Roy. We’ll see if it happens this Saturday against Oklahoma.

Husker fans long to see a healthy Roy Helu cruising up and down the road. They’ve been as frustrated as the owner of a hot sports car with an erratic starter. Helu would seem to represent Nebraska’s best opportunity to re-energize its run game. But the junior I-back from California downplayed such a notion, suggesting that Dontrayevous Robinson, Marcus Mendoza and Lester Ward offer NU equally good options.

Helu did make at least one concrete statement Tuesday, asserting that his shoulder is back to 100 percent health. But when asked if he foresaw more carries, he simply said, “We’ll see.” After all, he’s had a history of nagging physical problems, including hamstring tightness.

“You expect to go through a season being banged up,” said Helu. “But when you do go through it, and it’s experiential, then it’s different. There’s been frustration, but every time I always want to let my mind dwell on ‘Poor me’ and ‘Why?’ — those type of things, a very selfish attitude — it’s those times when frustration comes along.”

Most of his lack of productivity on the field lately was the result of his own lack of mental preparation, Helu said.

“When I don’t control my thoughts, when I start thinking and putting all my attention throughout the whole day into this, that’s when I don’t play as well,” he said. “It’s a growing experience. It’s been very good.”

Maybe good for Helu’s personal development. Not so good for the Nebraska offense. A deeply spiritual young man, Helu can see how his trials have refined him into a better person.

The Husker defense had its own trials last season and started to look battle-tested by the end of the 2008 campaign. Will we be able to say the same thing about the 2009 Husker offense, which has as much or more talent than the 2008 Blackshirts did?

 
“We’ll do the best we can,” said Helu. “It’ll show. We’ll see what happens.”

Sounds like a definite maybe to me. And no wonder — it’s not a matter of Helu simply deciding he’s going to run for 100 yards a game. The offensive line has to show up at some point this season. Better sooner than later, as far as I’m concerned.

In four conference games, the Huskers are averaging just 295 yards and 16 points, both ranking 11th in the league. The Oklahoman this week noted that of five teams in major college football which have allowed fewer than 11.5 points per game, four of them have eight wins. The one that doesn’t? Nebraska.

Offensive coordinator Shawn Watson has talked this season about his line’s inexperience. There’s no doubt that the loss of right tackle Jaivorio Burkes has been problematic for Nebraska, but the fact is, last spring, Bo Pelini called this line “deeper than the one a year ago.” The Husker line is about as well-seasoned as any in the Big 12 North. Going into this fall, Nebraska’s o-line had more than twice as many career starts as the Kansas o-line, but you’d have to say that KU’s line has played at least as well so far.

That shouldn’t be happening. With Jacob Hickman (31 career starts) and backup Mike Caputo, Nebraska has two of the better centers in the conference. Left tackle Mike Smith (20 career starts) and left guard Keith Williams (14 career starts) have considerable talent and experience. There should be enough leadership on that line to eradicate the problems with penalties and missed assignments that have plagued it throughout the season.

“We haven’t had great consistency up front,” said Pelini in his Tuesday press conference. That has to be one of the biggest understatements of the season.

Two-thirds of the way through the season, Nebraska’s o-line has to accept the challenge and finish strong. In Cody Green, the Huskers have a good runner at quarterback and, hopefully, a completely recovered Helu. So could we get a push up front now?

Pelini has talked about Nebraska becoming more physical on offense. So has Watson. So has offensive line coach Barney Cotton. Well, it’s time to see it on the field. If you ask me, Cotton is the position coach whose status looks shakiest right now.

That could all change this weekend. There would be nothing like a strong running performance and a home victory to calm the troubled waters raging around Husker Nation. Those have been rare indeed around the Cornhusker State, and they are the kind of thing that can save jobs and raise donations. Sure, it’ll be tough to do it against Oklahoma, but really, it would only make up for a couple of disappointing outings against Iowa State and Baylor, two games the Huskers should have been able to look good running the ball.

There were glimpses of it at Baylor, at least in the first half. With Green and Robinson in the backfield, Nebraska germinated the humble beginnings of a power running game. Against OU, Nebraska will have to spend a lot of time trying to run between the tackles. That leads me to wonder: are there any cutbacks or counter plays in Watson’s playbook? The Sooners have too much speed to beat to the corner very often. If Green can connect on a few well-timed play-action passes, and if Watson turns him loose to tuck the ball and scramble out of danger when in doubt, Nebraska can stay with Oklahoma.

Frankly, the whole college football world is perplexed and waiting for the Nebraska running game to emerge once again. It could still happen this season, especially with a tuned-up Roy Helu.

But Helu is not the key. That’s in the offensive line’s pocket.

 

Formerly the sports editor at the North Platte Bulletin and a sportswriter/columnist for the North Platte Telegraph, Tad Stryker is a longtime Nebraska sports writer, having covered University of Nebraska and high school sports for more than 25 years. He started writing for this website in 2008. You can e-mail him at tad.stryker@gmail.com. | Archive

 
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