Stryker: A bad year for Pipelines

Category: Football

Stryker: A bad year for Pipelines

Cavanaugh, punchless o-line dragged down Huskers with late-season swoon

The long, slow improvement of Nebraska’s offensive line looked slightly ahead of schedule in September. But then something happened.

Several things, actually, and almost none of them good for coach Mike Cavanaugh and his young pupils. After Terrell Newby broke a 63-yard touchdown run to clinch NU’s 31-16 win over Illinois, things started to deteriorate for the big boys up front. From that moment on, Nebraska went 4-4 and never again scored 30 points in any game.

For a moment there, it looked like the Huskers might finally reach that elusive barrier midway through the fourth quarter of the Music City Bowl. But then the dam — that eroding offensive line — finally burst, and the Tennessee pass rush swept away Ryker Fyfe and the Big Red, who fell 38-24 to Tennessee Friday in Nashville.

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The o-line was not the only story. The Huskers were missing some of their best offensive weapons, including Tommy Armstrong and Jordan Westerkamp, and they deserve a certain amount of credit for hanging tough. But when you look at the timing and placement of several dropped passes by wide-open Tennessee receivers, it’s obvious that the final score could have been more one-sided than it was.

Tennessee quarterback Josh Dobbs piled up more than 400 yards of total offense and had a tremendous game, as did defensive end Derek Barnett, who taught Nick Gates a lesson or two and will make big money in the NFL starting next fall. Tennessee’s overall athleticism was superior to the Huskers’ and it showed. At very few positions on defense does Nebraska have the speed or depth to win a conference championship or a New Year’s Day bowl. Case in point: Dedrick Young, a sophomore linebacker who is one of the Huskers’ up-and-comers, was consistently too slow to the edge. It cost two touchdowns when Young was beat to the outside on the 28-yard sweep by John Kelly to open the game’s scoring, and when Young was beaten again by Dobbs’ 14-yard scramble on third-and-nine that set up the Volunteers’ second score. And consider that no Nebraska defender made a bigger play than the 11-yard tackle for loss by Ross Dzuris, possibly the least athletic player on the Husker defense.

These are not the Blackshirts of the 1990s quite yet. Mike Riley needs to address this over the next two recruiting cycles.

In a season where Riley and his team overcame several daunting challenges on and off the field, there’s no escaping the fact that the Big Red is weak up front on both sides of the ball. The defensive line could never mount a serious pass rush — which is certain death against someone like Dobbs — but nothing around Memorial Stadium was more disappointing this fall than the play of Nebraska’s offensive line.

The Huskers were really never on schedule after Oct. 1. Frankly, it’s a wonder they won nine games this year. You’ve got to credit Riley and a healthy upsurge in senior leadership for finding a way to get that done. That, plus Armstrong occasionally finding a way to make something out of nothing in the run game. But when Armstrong wasn’t healthy, this team had no offensive identity.

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How can you tell Nebraska is on schedule? Past present and future, it must run the ball 40 times for 200 yards. It’s obvious, so absurdly obvious. That’s the healthy point for Husker football, no matter who’s at quarterback — Armstrong, Ryker Fyfe, Patrick O’Brien, Tanner Lee, Brook Berringer, Vince Ferragamo, Jerry Tagge, you name it. For Nebraska to be really Nebraska, it has to be “Offensive Lineman U.” Now that Riley is moving the Huskers into a pro-style offense (the ESPN commentators used the dreaded term, “West Coast offense” as they speculated about how Nebraska will look next fall), he puts more pressure on the need for talented, athletic o-linemen with great technique, who can both run block and pass block effectively.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll double down on it now — Riley will succeed as head coach in Lincoln only to the extent he succeeds at returning Nebraska to “Offensive Lineman U.” Check Nebraska’s enshrinees in the College Football Hall of Fame and notice how many of them are offensive linemen. It’s the identity of this program over the last century, regardless of the style of offense it runs.

Looking for a reason the Huskers stalled out after a 7-0 start? Look at the way NU closed out its season. It ran the ball 444 times for 152 yards at Wisconsin, and 24-for-78 at Ohio State. Even in its last two wins, Nebraska struggled to find consistency on the ground (32-for-157 against Minnesota, 45-for-181 against Maryland), before a pathetic 31-for-90 performance at Iowa and a dismal 28-for-61 against Tennessee.

I tend to put less blame on offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf, who generally did a pretty decent job of calling plays throughout this season despite the problems up front (although if he would have simply run one draw play to Devine Ozigbo when NU reached the red zone midway through the fourth quarter against Tennessee, I think the Huskers could have stuck the ball in the end zone one more time). I put more of the blame on Cavanaugh, who developed very little offensive line depth this fall, so when ankle injuries cut down the effectiveness of his players, he had few answers.

It’s probably just a coincidence that the big downturn began right after Milt Tenopir died, right?

Right?

I put more stock in the rash of injuries that hit Gates, Jerald Foster, Tanner Farmer and David Knevel. That’s when the Huskers needed help that never came.

The line is young, and it has promise. But it didn’t gain the ground it should have gained this year. October and November were lost opportunities for Cavanaugh, although you could rationalize it to some degree by blaming the injuries. The assessment for December will not be as kind for Cavanaugh and his crew, however. After the Iowa game, NU’s offensive line got five weeks older, but not a lick better. They had to have been healthier, but you couldh’t tell it by the way they played.

Nebraska cannot go one more year floundering in the offensive line like this. It’s as unacceptable as Penn State never having a game-changer at linebacker, or Southern Cal whiffing at tailback year after year or Ohio State’s band director being completely unable to come up with a tuba player to dot the “i.”

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I think most of us knew the Huskers would struggle to protect Fyfe against Barnett and his teammates (although four sacks is too many), but the Huskers lost to Iowa and Tennessee mainly because they couldn’t run block to save their lives. Riley lost ground badly on his stated desire to be among the top three rushing teams in the Big Ten (at 169.2 yards per game, he’s not even going to finish in the top half this year).

I like Cavanaugh. He says a lot of the right things and pays homage to great Husker lines of the past, but he needs help. Heck, Tenopir had Dan Young to help him out. If the NCAA approves a pending measure to allow major college teams an extra full time coach, Nebraska’s new hire should have major responsibilities as an offensive line assistant. Riley could certainly do worse than promoting Tavita Thompson and putting him in charge of tight ends with secondary emphasis on the o-line. At the very least, Cavanaugh needs full time help from a graduate assistant. If he doesn’t get it, it’s unlikely the Huskers will rise to the top of the Big Ten West.

The Huskers have a lot of young talent. Players like John Rairdon, Boe Wilson and Matt Farniok could all contend for starting spots at center, guard and tackle next fall. If at least one of them doesn’t make it, I’ll be surprised. Cavanaugh will have depth next fall, if he has the ability to coach it up and the will to use it. The Big Ten is a meat grinder and there will be more injuries to condent with. If he can’t get these problems fixed by the end of his third season, it’s time for a new o-line coach.

Spring can’t come too soon, and with it, time for the long, slow improvement to accelerate. Cavanaugh is behind schedule.

Formerly the sports editor at the North Platte Bulletin and a sportswriter/columnist for the North Platte Telegraph, Tad Stryker started writing for this website in 2008. You can e-mail him at tad.stryker@gmail.com. Stryker is a freelance writer, favoring topics related to Nebraska history or Christianity. You can buy his recent book at this link.