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C O M M E N T A R Y
T A D    S T R Y K E R
August 23, 2010

 
Husker mystique must include good running game
 
roy_helu (13K)
Dennis Hubbard photo
Roy Helu Jr.
 
  
Nebraska is big news in college football once again, but a bunch of big uglies will have to carry the banner farther up the mountain if the Cornhuskers are to take back their place among the college football elite – and as a national television favorite.

One of the biggest reasons Jim Delaney and the Big Ten were happy to welcome Nebraska was because the Cornhuskers are a recognized national football entity. That’s true, although Delaney was being gracious in his praise. Nebraska football is not the total package it was in the 1990s, but it’s definitely on the way.

No one is impressed by the number of television sets that Nebraska brings to the table – after all, it’s the smallest state with a BCS school. Yet it has a national following. So what’s the attraction? It’s fairly simple: Blackshirt defense and smashmouth offense.

Just think of the jump in value of that national branding once Nebraska can run the football effectively – with consistency – again. That’s one of the biggest story lines of the upcoming season. Under Bill Callahan, Nebraska gutted its option running game and, if you look at it from a marketing point of view, it abandoned its identity.

The dumbed-down running game hurt Nebraska’s image, but not as much as the catastrophic collapse of the Husker defense in 2007.

The Callahan era ended with a 65-51 loss at Boulder, Colo., a freakish contest which degenerated into a video game on grass. It was a scene that had nothing in common with the proud heritage of Nebraska football. Speaking of TV sets, you could almost hear them clicking off all around the nation. Left with no defense and only a shell of a running game, Cornhusker football was no longer distinctive, and plenty wondered if it would ever be again.

Diehard Nebraska fans never give up hope, but objectively speaking, the climb back to national prominence has happened quicker than anyone could have reasonably expected. It’s because Bo and Carl Pelini have repaired the foundation in stunningly short order, turning the school’s worst defense in history into the unit that allowed the fewest points in the nation just two years later.

ricky_henry (8K)
Dennis Hubbard photo
Ricky Henry
 
  
Luckily, Nebraska’s national identity was never tied completely to its offensive attack. Except for 2007, there were always the Blackshirts, and their revival over the past two seasons seems to have re-ignited national interest in Big Red football. So in one respect, Ndamukong Suh and the Pelinis paved the way into the Big Ten for the Huskers, who frankly still have the nation scratching its head about what kind of offense Nebraska uses.

With the defense solidified, the running game must follow. Last year, Pelini proved that he wants to run the ball, but it wasn’t executed well. Let 2010 be the year the Huskers deliver on the promise. College football has shifted too far toward the wide-open passing game. Let Nebraska deliver the power running game that college football fans once expected every time they saw the Big Red take the field.

Yes, there will be more balance on offense than there was in the Frank Solich days. It will not be the old Power-I, but it needs to average about 200 yards a game on the ground and pack enough wallop to convert on third-and-two.

Once consistency and depth have returned to the Husker offensive line well, then the culture will have flipped back from the Callahan days and Nebraska is truly Nebraska once again.

It could happen this fall. O-line coach Barney Cotton is encouraged by the depth in his unit. Three starters – left guard Keith Williams, right guard Ricky Henry and right tackle Marcel Jones – return, and a fourth (tackle Mike Smith) was on hand before he broke his leg in fall camp. Throw in D.J. Jones, who started three times when Marcel was out with an injury.

Think back just one year. If Smith had been seriously injured last season, it would have been a disaster for the Husker offense. This season, it may be problematic at times, but there appears to be enough depth to compensate for his loss. With Mike Caputo at center and newcomers Jermarcus Hardrick (a junior) and redshirt freshmen Jeremiah Sirles, Brent Qvale, Nick Ash and Jesse Coffey battling for playing time, Cotton has more good options than he did a year ago.

The return to glory of the Nebraska offensive line becomes paramount. There has been no first-team all-conference o-lineman at NU since Richie Incognito in 2003. Great offensive linemen and great results on the field always have gone hand in hand at Nebraska.

It will take a great performance by the quarterback to get the Husker banner all the way to the top of the mountain, but if the offensive line can get the job done, Nebraska will at least be a solid Top 10 team once again.

 

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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