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With O-line under the microscope, Huskers 'grind' to get better
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With O-line under the microscope, Huskers 'grind' to get better

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Ever had your offensive line analyzed like it is here in Nebraska?

Mike Cavanaugh didn’t answer just immediately. Or perhaps the smile was the answer. Then he said, “That’s awesome, you know what I mean. We’re going to keep working, I know that. That’s been my approach forever. We’re going to grind. We’re going to get better.”

Unless you got trapped in the wine cellar the last few weeks, you understand a good tadoo has been made about the Huskers giving almost all their O-line snaps to five starters without swinging anyone else into the rotation. Nebraska is hardly the only program to do this. Basically every NFL team does it, as Cavanaugh pointed out after Tuesday’s practice.

But the Huskers are 3-5 and just ran for 82 yards on 38 carries against Northwestern.

Cavanaugh has given his reasons, however, for doing it just as he’s done, giving almost all the snaps to Alex Lewis at left tackle, Dylan Utter at left guard, Ryne Reeves at center, Chongo Kondolo at right guard, and Nick Gates/Zach Sterup at right tackle. (Gates got most of them until he was injured in the first half against Wisconsin and Sterup has taken them over while Gates recovers.)

The bottom line, said the coach, is there’s a gap between the first-teamers and the rest. And if there’s a gap, he doesn’t see the service it does to the team by playing someone just to play them.

“You got a group of guys that are pretty sharp mentally, and you just throw somebody in there and then he screws something up mentally, it’s on all of us now,” Cavanaugh said. “So to me, I don’t know, I have a hard time if there’s separation of players, whether it’s physically or mentally, why would you rotate them in?”

Husker head coach Mike Riley also stresses the importance of building chemistry on that offensive line with a certain group.

“That doesn’t mean we don’t talk about (rotations),” Riley said. “Just about every day or, in particular, on those days like Sunday after the game and the evaluation of it. And then, probably, the next time it’s brought up is Tuesday after you get started again. So we continually talk about possible rotations, possible personnel changes, what’s the best thing to do, who’s doing what, who’s pushing to get into the game. Those are always ongoing topics.”

Cavanaugh is the first to say his starting five have to get better.

He thought his linemen too often played with their pad level too high and lost the leverage battle in the 30-28 loss to Northwestern.

“I really thought we weren’t real physical striking, sustaining blocks. You got to finish blocks,” Cavanaugh said. “You can’t let them get separation, shed you and make plays.”

That Husker O-line may have even more weight on its shoulder pads this Saturday at Purdue, with Nebraska’s quarterback situation an uncertainty. Whether Tommy Armstrong plays or doesn’t play, his mobility will still be in question after missing practices early in the week. (The media does not have access on Wednesdays, so the next update on Armstrong will come from Riley after Thursday’s practice.)

It also meets a Purdue defensive line that is known for switching its look a lot. Two years ago, former Husker O-line coach John Garrison recalled spending the entire game on a greaseboard with his players. NU won that game 44-7 against Darrell Hazell’s team, but Garrison said afterward: “A lot of stuff going on. I don’t know if there was a play in the first half and third quarter that they didn't blitz on. They blitzed probably every play.”

A year ago, in a game in which Ameer Abdullah suffered an injury early, the Huskers won 35-14 in Lincoln against the Boilermakers, but you might recall it wasn’t easy on the eyes when it came to Nebraska’s offense.

NU registered just 297 yards, 43 fewer than Purdue, had three turnovers and two trips to the red zone that ended with no points.

Asked about this year’s Boilermaker D-line, Cavanaugh said: “They’ve got a good front, too. Every week is not going to be easy.”

One thing’s for sure: He knows the five he’ll have taking them on.

For those who wonder if it hurts the future if younger players aren’t getting game reps on a line that will likely start four seniors on Saturday (Utter being the lone junior), Cavanaugh feels those backups have their chance to keep getting better against Nebraska’s best defenders every day.

“Other guys are going to grow,” he said. “There’s some guys that I like. I’m not going to name names. If they were ready, trust me, they’d be playing.”

The key line there: if they were ready.

But Cavanaugh doesn’t buy at all that they’re not getting good experience this year.

“I think you learn a lot from playing on the scout team when you’re going against the best guys you have on defense,” he said. “So to me, you should be able to grow down there if you’re giving 100 percent and if you’re really working your craft.

“Every guy that has grown through a program has gone through playing on a scout team, playing against your best guys on the other side of the ball. And if you love your craft, you’re going to get better at it.”

Reach the writer at 402-473-7439 or bchristopherson@journalstar.com. On Twitter @HuskerExtraBC.

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