The central tenets of Big Ten West football, particularly once the November chill sets in, are not fancy.
Chief among them: Run the ball and stop the run.
Well, Nebraska hasn’t run it very well the past few weeks and Minnesota has struggled to stop the run.
That might read like weakness-on-weakness — not exactly a ringing endorsement for Saturday’s matchup of 4-5 teams — but whichever side is able to reverse its fortunes may well hold the upper hand at TCF Bank Stadium.
The Huskers have not rushed for more than 112 yards in any of their past four games and are averaging 76.5 per game and less than 3.1 per attempt in that span. They do not have a rushing touchdown since the second quarter of win over Illinois on Sept. 28, a span of more than 4½ games. The Gophers, meanwhile, are surrendering a league-worst 4.9 yards per carry on the season and saw Michigan rush for 371 yards (10 per carry) and four scores in last weekend’s 33-10 Wolverines victory.
“You can’t ever read too much into (one game) but it’s an indicator that they’ve had a little bit of trouble defending the runs at times,” NU offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said Monday. “It’s something that we want to make sure we’re geared up for.”
Of Michigan’s 427 offensive yards, nearly 87 percent came on the ground. Of their gaudy rushing totals, most came from gap-scheme plays. In the first half alone, the Wolverines hit rushes of 47, 77 and 60 using classic power rushes, where the backside guard pulls and leads the running back through the hole.
“They got into some 'big people' formation and really stuck with it,” Langsdorf said. “It’s probably a good blueprint to look at and study. We look at all the games (Minnesota has played), but that one was particularly interesting running the ball.”
One complicating factor: The Huskers haven’t been able to get consistent production from their power rushing schemes. After the season-opener against Arkansas State, head coach Mike Riley said he really liked NU’s classic pin-and-pull play, called “Steeler.” Against Rutgers, the Huskers ran a gap-style play without a puller, called “Csonka” 31 times, according to offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh and Riley.
In recent weeks, though, NU’s relied more heavily on its zone-scheme plays.
“If we were to rank our schemes, it would be zone first and gap second,” Riley said Thursday. “So we have always, almost every game, had some of both involved.”
Against Northwestern last week, the Huskers used a pulling guard only twice in 31 rushing attempts by the Journal Star’s count. Both instances were runs to the left, with Tanner Lee in the shotgun, fullback Luke McNitt to his left and running back Devine Ozigbo to his right. McNitt provided the kick-out block and right guard Matt Farniok — making his first start — pulled. Both gained 1 yard.
So what will the Huskers do? Follow Michigan’s blueprint specifically by trying to run more power? Or follow only it only in principle by sticking to the run against a defense that’s yielded against persistent attacks?
“Hopefully we just get some running game going, whichever evolves in the game as the best way to do it,” Riley said. “We’ve got to get some runs going.”
Having freshman Jaylin Bradley (ankle) back in the mix could help as a big-play threat. Ozigbo (431 yards, 4.0 per carry) has been a workhorse recently but also a work in progress in NU’s zone packages.
“He continues to run hard and we’ve got to get him, especially in the zone game, to really press the hole,” Langsdorf said. “There were times (against Northwestern) where he might have been a little wide and having to get back to where that hole is created.
“There’s definite instincts and feel to running, you can’t just tell him, ‘this is how it's going to be every single time,’ especially in zone schemes, where there’s going to be movement.”
When NU running backs have found room, they haven’t been able to turn them into explosive plays. Langsdorf said Michigan’s running backs were, “coming out of piles everywhere for big, big hits in the run game.” The Huskers have just nine 20-plus rushes this season — the longest, a 40-yarder last week, came from wide receiver JD Spielman — and only two from running backs the past four games.
Which side budges — the stoppable force or the movable object — will go a long way toward determining who hits five wins first.