Sam McKewon Criticism of Running Game Overstated
When you seek to generate content during a long offseason, sometimes you have to go deep into obscure topics if you want to provide something both original and meaningful. Give Sam McKewon points in his recent article stating that the Huskers didn't run well enough against winning teams for something original. Meaningful though? That's debatable.
Just Seven Games
Nebraska played 13 games in 2013, but he chose to only focus on the seven that came against winning teams. That subset included all four Husker losses and the others were close wins. That makes it feel at least somewhat credible. But let's look closer.
Make That Four
Three games of those seven, including two losses, stand out because even by McKewon's math Nebraska was above average when it came to yards per carry. That included losses to Michigan State and Minnesota where NU was on par with the best rushing teams in the country when it came to average gain per rush and the overtime victory at Penn State where Ameer Abdullah had a huge day but the overall day was muted by two sacks and a kneeldown for Ron Kellogg.
That leaves four games. Not only was the Michigan game a victory, but Ameer Abdullah rushed for over 100 yards. Tommy Armstrong watered down the tally by gaining just 13 yards on 12 carries or 26 on 11 if you take out a sack. But he was a freshman playing on the road at night in one of the largest stadiums in the country, where he delivered a victory. Are we really going to quibble that he didn't fall forward for an extra yard or two each time? His zero turnover stat line seemed a lot more important than his rushing that day. It should be noted that the Wolverines had negative 21 yards rushing on the day, so outrushing your opponent by 149 yards is hard to call a subpar performance.
Or Is it Two?
The victory over Georgia saw Abdullah have another big day with 122 yards on 27 carries. The team stats were undercut by an Armstrong sack, a give to receiver Quincy Enunwa that resulted in a six-yard loss, and two kneeldowns for minus five yards to end the game. The Huskers outrushed their opponent by 48 yards. So once again NU's freshman quarterback playing in a stadium very familiar and proximal to its opponent and delivered a victory but we want to deduct points because he didn't break a couple of tackles? Puh-leeze.
Down to One
The Huskers lost badly to UCLA. It would be easy to argue that once the Huskers raced out to a 21-3 lead, they should have been able to lean on a running game to get to the finish line. Except that doesn't stand up to scrutiny of what actually happened. The rushing total is undermined by two sacks of Taylor Martinez for 15 yards and an additional fumble he had for minus 20 yards. Eliminate those errors and you have a fine day rushing. The running backs combined for 139 yards on 31 carries. Abdullah additionally added 50 receiving yards. Abdullah had NU on schedule on the first NU drive after their 21-3 lead before a false start proved to be a drive killer. The Bruins narrowed the lead to 21-10 and the Huskers opted to pass. Abdullah stayed on schedule but the backs got only three carries against a dozen called pass plays among the next fifteen plays. After that the Bruins led 31-21. Abdullah still remained on schedule, but the ball stayed in Martinez's hands and a failed fake punt set up UCLA to take a 38-21 lead. Abdullah's red zone fumble after a six yard gain in the fourth quarter was a nail in the coffin, but the yards per carry was fine on that play. The backs would not see a carry again until under two minutes and down twenty. The Huskers had their problems that day, but it was not the running game.
We Needed More Yards Per Carry Against Iowa (in the First Half) Dadgummit!
While technically you could argue that the 97 carries for 27 yards by the running backs was a hair above the per carry average Iowa gave up on the year, it's fair to say that Abdullah did not have a good first half and the Huskers ended up down 14-3. Ron Kellogg's two picks and some poor field position didn't help either. The running game rebounded on the opening drive of the second half when the Huskers closed it to 14-10. The awful fake punt went in the books as a rushing attempt and it put Iowa up 24-10. Abdullah continued to play well as the Huskers closed the gap to make it 24-17. His fumble on the next drive was devastating however, and the team kept the ball in Kellogg's hands the rest of the game as the Hawkeyes closed with two more touchdowns.
So upon closer inspection, do you look back and say the Huskers didn't rush well enough against good teams? No. Did they come out flat in that department in the first half against Iowa? Yes! It's also fair to say that it really hurts the team when Abdullah (or Martinez) fumble. Also, sacks are bad. And please, no more fake punts until the players learn how to execute them. Certainly, don't call them after the opposing team calls time out and keeps their defense on the field (cough, Iowa, cough). But don't take away that NU should try to play more like Arkansas did last year. That would be a mistake.