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T A D    S T R Y K E R
October 2, 2009

Four games into the season, how should we judge the Nebraska running game?

The short answer is this: so far it has been nearly adequate, but we’ll see after a couple of Big 12 Conference games.

The long answer is a little more complex, but the clearest piece of evidence is this: in his junior year, Roy Helu Jr. is emerging as one of the best backs in the conference, and one of the top 20 in the nation. He’s shown no evidence of the hamstring problems that nagged him during spring drills. The I-back from Danville, Calif., is a smooth combination of power, speed, elusiveness and pass catching ability.

Rex Burkhead is proving himself as a solid backup to Helu. The freshman from Plano, Texas, has the ability to get something out of nothing and has a burst of speed to go along with great natural football sense. What’s more, he’s a good kick returner. If Helu went down, the Nebraska running game could still be adequate.

The Husker running game has sent mixed messages. Against Florida Atlantic, offensive coordinator Shawn Watson seemed bound and determined to prove that Nebraska could still run the I formation and pound the ball into the end zone. Against Arkansas State and Virginia Tech, Watson went to the short passing game in the red zone, with success against Arkansas State and failure against the Hokies. Then the Huskers returned to running the ball inside the 5-yard line against Louisiana-Lafayette, and had good results.

Arkansas State and Louisiana stacked their defense against the run, and kept Nebraska’s numbers down, but Zac Lee, who has been mediocre as a runner, made them pay through the air. Helu and the Huskers had good rushing numbers at Virginia Tech, but couldn’t find the end zone.

Nebraska’s offense has been about a 50/50 mix of running and passing during the nonconference schedule (130 rushing attempts, 122 passes thrown so far). They have thrown the ball deep, shown a propensity to score quickly, and have not dominated time of possession. As Watson prophesied during fall camp, the Huskers are “multiple.”

The Osborne/Solich Huskers won three of eight Big 12 North titles from 1996-2003 with their running game and their defense. The Bo Pelini Huskers have a much-improved defense this fall, but are more balanced on offense. Last year they ran the ball 53 percent of the time and controlled the clock with a more experienced quarterback at the helm, largely using a short passing game.

Even during Bill Callahan’s final year, when the lame duck coach often abandoned the running game during the conference schedule, the Huskers ran the ball 46 percent of the time, and 57 percent during his North title-winning year of 2006.

I’ve been surprised to see Nebraska throwing the ball so much this early in Lee’s career. Will that change during the conference schedule? I’d feel better if Nebraska was running the ball more, but in the final analysis, it’s not about how a columnist feels — it’s about scoring points and winning football games.

The running game is most important for scoring touchdowns when real estate gets hard to come by in the red zone, and for getting first downs when you want to use up the clock.

NU has scored 10 rushing touchdowns in four games — not a bad average, even considering a fairly weak nonconference slate — but in crunch time against Virginia Tech, NU either couldn’t or wouldn’t run it enough inside the 5, and didn’t score a touchdown. Nebraska has good third-down conversion numbers this season, but couldn’t move the chains on its final possession in Blacksburg when it desperately needed to burn the last two minutes.

NU needs a dependable quick-hitting running game to pick up those one- and two-yard situations with regularity. That means more offensive line, or maybe more fullback. Tyler Legate, a 225-pound redshirt freshman, has done a decent job as a blocking back when called upon. He’s caught a couple of passes (one for a touchdown), but Watson has shown no evidence that he has any plans to hand the ball to the fullback anytime soon.

That could change by next season. I don’t think Pelini would have used a scholarship for a fullback (C.J. Zimmerer of Omaha Gross, currently redshirting) if there was no plan for him to carry the ball from scrimmage. In Cornhusker culture, most of us still equate Watson’s and Barney Cotton’s promise of more physical football with the fullback toting the pigskin at least once in a while to keep defenses honest.

That being said, the current version of the NU running game is generally been adequate. Nebraska currently ranks 41st among all major-college teams in rushing at 183 yards per game. That’s just a bit better than the Huskers’ 169 rushing yards per game last season.

For comparison purposes, Kansas is 19th at 204 yards a game and Missouri is 61st, at 143. KU has rushed the ball 165 times (41.25 per game), Missouri 151 (37.75) and NU 130 (32.5).

All three are in the top 20 in scoring and total offense. Nebraska has played the toughest of the three non-conference schedules, but not by much when compared to Kansas.

The Oct. 8 trip to Missouri will be a test of the NU running game’s ability to not only survive an emotional opening flurry, as it did at Virginia Tech, but finish drives and put points on the board in a hostile environment.


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 [email protected]. | Archive