Stryker: Devastating loss in Columbus starts with poor o-line play

Category: Football

Stryker: Devastating loss in Columbus starts with poor o-line play

Huskers need someone to succeed up front — and soon

A Nebraska football team with a fragile, paper-thin offensive line is a sad sight to behold.

When an offensive line can’t stand and fight, all its playmakers are nullified, and soon it puts the entire team in a no-win situation. And it’s the main reason that Mike Riley now has an ugly loss, a 59-point thrashing, second worst in Husker history, is on his Lincoln resume. That’s something Bo Pelini, with all his embarrassing collapses, never had to live down.

This sort of thing — Nebraska being unprepared to play on the big stage — was supposed to be history, wasn’t it? Well, it’s not.

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The Nebraska football program got taken apart in the Horseshoe. The most important thing for everyone to remember is that even though the team’s wheels seem to have come off, it still have a lot to play for. Now we’ll see what Riley and his staff can do to prepare their team for three winnable games still on its schedule. Now we’ll see what kind of resolve this team has.

Can the Huskers move on from this? They’re still 7-2; will they carry a hangover into next Saturday night’s game against Minnesota?

Of course, the big question is can Tommy Armstrong return from his scary-looking injury and play effective football next week? If not, this team is going to suffer.

There’s really very little to say about the 62-3 pounding the Huskers absorbed in Columbus, except to say that Ohio State is much more talented, and it showed the Huskers how confidence enables you to make plays. J.T. Barrett is a top-level quarterback, and he’s surrounded by speed. When a freshman running back is overpowering NU’s senior linebackers one-on-one, as Mike Weber did, there’s no point lingering over it.

This team really must move on, and do it quickly. But it needs to learn from its mistakes, which were almost too numerous to count Saturday night in Ohio Stadium. The Huskers’ laundry list of problems against Ohio State included far more than its offensive line — their tackling was horrible and their pass rush was weak at best, even when they tried to blitz. They seemed helpless against OSU’s offense on third down, and special teams play was spotty — but the problems begin in the offensive line, which looked like it was playing on roller skates, the way it was getting pushed around all night.

For two seasons now, offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh has talked about building 10 linemen who are game ready, but at his high-water mark during fall camp, before Jerald Foster went down with a season-ending knee injury, Cavanaugh had only eight linemen (at most) who he trusted to play in a game. Three of them — Foster, Tanner Farmer and David Knevel — were injured and unavailable against the Buckeyes. The five on the field in Columbus— Nick Gates, Sam Hahn, Dylan Utter, Corey Whitaker and Cole Conrad — were totally outclassed. The three-and-outs were numerous, the Buckeyes piled up 37 minutes in possession time and the worn-down Husker defense could not hold back the flood waters.

Armstrong played most of the first half, and the Huskers trailed 24-3 when he went down. He threw a pick-six, and in general, was ineffective because the Huskers were one-dimensional, and he didn’t have time to set his feet and throw.

Ohio State is one of the most talented teams in the nation. The Huskers are not as bad as they looked in Columbus, but if Cavanaugh can’t patch together a decent o-line performance for the Minnesota game, the Huskers are in big trouble, even if Armstrong can return at quarterback. If there’s someone out there — maybe Jalin Barnett or Christian Gaylord — who can block against a Big Ten defensive line, now is the time for him to step forward.

If the o-line breaks down, it really doesn’t matter how many talented wide receivers or tight ends you have. They’re not going to get the ball too often, at least not in a position to do much damage. One good offensive lineman is worth two good wide receivers. That’s something to keep in mind during recruiting season.

Riley seemed perplexed about his team’s offensive line after the game. He needs to find solutions quickly.

“We couldn’t do a lot offensively and we couldn’t get them off the field defensively,” Riley said. “We were beaten thoroughly in all the phases. It really didn’t remind me of our team.”

Was this game an outlier, or a foreshadowing? Let’s hope the Huskers’ inept performance was deceptive, and that its character rises to the top. Everything from a 10-2 to a 7-5 regular season is in play at this point.

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 [email protected]. Stryker is a freelance writer, favoring topics related to Nebraska history or Christianity. You can buy his recent book at this link.