John Garrison was standing outside the locker room just before kickoff last Saturday when he heard a familiar voice.
The voice was hitting loud notes, delivering inspirational words to help pump fuel into 150 brothers.
Garrison turned to the team’s strength coach, James Dobson, to make sure his ears were not betraying him.
“Is that Andy Rodriguez?” the Husker offensive line coach asked.
It was at first hard to believe that the mild-mannered offensive tackle was the one speaking to his teammates with such passion.
But sure enough, there was the senior, putting his reserved nature aside and stepping to the center to lead.
“I got tears in my eyes, because you almost feel like a proud dad a little bit," Garrison said. "Because you've seen the guy grow. You never once in a million years just two years ago would have felt that Andy would feel comfortable doing that. But when he says something, people listen.”
That the motivational words before Nebraska’s win against Illinois came from a member of the offensive line is fitting.
For whatever unease has come with the first five games, Nebraska's O-line seems to have found its footing heading into Saturday's first road test, at Purdue.
As the defense tries to cover its imperfections and the quarterback wheel spins, it is the offensive line that seems willing – and eager – to put the heavy weight on its shoulders to help the Huskers pancake their way through a clean October.
Who’s playing quarterback? Let everyone else babble about that. In a way, it matters little to those on the front five.
“It's all the same, man,” said senior offensive tackle Jeremiah Sirles. “It doesn't matter if it's Taylor, Tommy or Ronnie back there. We're going to do our job the same way.”
While Tommy Armstrong and Ron Kellogg III have performed well in the absence of Taylor Martinez, just as much credit goes to the O-line, which has made life much easier for the quarterbacks by giving them time and a clean pocket to throw the ball.
Sirles, Rodriguez and Brent Qvale at tackle. Spencer Long, Jake Cotton and Mike Moudy at guard. Cole Pensick and Mark Pelini at center.
Garrison likes that group.
He said it's a group of guys who feed off challenges, whether that means helping out a freshman quarterback making his first collegiate start or embracing bad weather.
“We knew it was going to be a windy day last Saturday. They were calling for 30 mph winds. You mention that to guys and they get excited about it, because they know what it means -- you’ve got to be able to run the ball,” the coach said. “Anything you can challenge this group of guys with, they’re excited about it. They don’t look at it as, ‘Oh, gosh, where can I put my head in the sand?’ They try to put it on their back and lift it.”
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The simplification of the offense after the bye week has helped Nebraska up front, Garrison says. “You can only practice so much."
And the Huskers have also found success running the traditional option, a play so adored by Nebraskans when operated at a high level.
Linemen like it too.
Among other things, it has perhaps brought some added aggression up front that isn’t always quite as easy to duplicate when running the zone-read option.
“There’s still a zone (blocking) concept to it, but it’s more of an outside zone, where your zone-read is more of an inside zone,” Garrison said. “And I think the outside zone really complements the guys to be able to rage and come off the ball and play fast, and block what they see, where inside zone is more of a bottled picture. It’s in between the tackles. It’s just different.”
That down-the-line option game could become an even bigger part of the offense if Armstrong keeps running it well.
After the 39-19 win against Illinois, the young quarterback heard from running back Ameer Abdullah, who came up to him and said: “We are a dangerous duo now.”
And Armstrong certainly has earned the respect of the big uglies blocking for him.
“What I like about him is he supports us as much as we support him,” Rodriguez said. “He’s high-fiving us and slapping us around, saying good job. That’s a great kid. He’s humble too. He has all the right attributes.”
Abdullah was also rightfully passing out compliments to the line after putting up 225 yards against the Illini, averaging 11.4 yards a carry.
For a second straight game, Nebraska rushed for 335 yards, pushing it to a No. 9 national ranking in rushing offense -- 291.6 yards per game.
The Husker linemen have also got it done in pass protection. A year after allowing 35 sacks, Nebraska has given up just two, putting them tops in the country in that category.
“We don’t talk about that,” Garrison joked when a reporter mentioned the stat. “The last time I did that, we gave up five in a game.”
Instead of slaps on the back, those on the Husker line are nit-picking what could be done better.
When it came time to review the performance against Illinois, Sirles was just as quick to notice the yards and points that weren’t had.
“Watching the film ... we realized we left a lot of things out there,” he said. “Seeing some of those plays, we were one block from a play being a touchdown, or maybe a 25-yard gain being an 80-yard gain. So that was something we really looked at hard. We were hard on ourselves in this film, knowing that we got a lot left out there. We could have easily put 60 points up.”
If that seems like a harsh self-evaluation after a game where Nebraska gained 521 yards, well, Sirles says it can’t be any other way.
Not in October. Not in the midst of a Big Ten chase. Not if this offensive line wants to be a dominating force.
“That the way we've got to look at it every game, is we've got to go out there and play the perfect game,” he said. “No one has ever played the perfect game, but that's what we're striving for, is to be perfect. Because, if you set yourself to a high standard, you're always going to be pushing for more to reach that standard.”