The Nebraska Cornhuskers have had their fair share of concerns over the course of the first half of the year – but they can take solace in the improvement of one unit in particular: the offensive line.
Without a doubt, the group that first debuted against the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Mocs in Week 1 of the college football season is not the same one that helped lead the Huskers to victory in the second half of their last game against the Ohio State Buckeyes. Jon Nyatawa of the Omaha-World Herald recently recounted a particular series of sequences, in that last outing, which exemplified just how far this line has come:
Just look at how the unit finished its game against Ohio State during that 34-27 win on Oct. 8.
Caputo released into the second level of the OSU defense, engaged and turned a linebacker, then shoved the guy to the turf. That was the senior center's 64th snap of the night.
Four plays later, Caputo helped sophomore guard Andrew Rodriguez push a 305-pound defensive tackle 5 yards downfield — Rodriguez finished the Buckeye off by throwing him to the turf. Senior tackle Yoshi Hardrick, who'd just gone to the ground with a linebacker, bounced up and down on his toes after that one, still spry after his 68th snap.
Nebraska's final run of the game, an 18-yarder for Burkhead, went to the right side, where Jones and guard Spencer Long had an open running lane for their workhorse to glide right through.
That last point is particularly important. During Nebraska’s first two games of the year, running back Rex Burkhead was largely a non-factor. Despite especially high expectations coming into the season, he just couldn’t break through that 100-yard wall against the most substandard of opposition in Chattanooga and the Fresno State Bulldogs. As a result, more of the responsibility for maintaining the offense had to be shouldered by quarterback Taylor Martinez, and the unit was more or less operating at half-efficiency.
So, what happened? What changed between the first couple games of the year and the victory over Ohio state? Quite simply – the offensive line began to evolve. The Huskers finally found a winning formula in Mike Caputo, Anthony Rodriguez, Spencer Long, Jemarcus Hardrick, Marcel Jones and bursts of Seung Hoon Choi. All in all, the unit composed of four new starters simply needed time to acclimate and re-adjust, something that can’t just happen overnight.
And as the offensive line improved, so has the rest of the offense. Throwing out that game versus the Wisconsin Badgers and categorizing it as the outlier that it is, the Huskers offense has consistently been the group holding the whole team together. While the defense has struggled to find its footing all season long -- ranking 90th and below nationally in sacks, opponent’s time of possession, opponent’s rush yards per game and opponent’s passing yard percentage -- the offense boasts the top running back in the Big Ten.
It’s easy to forget just how important the offensive line is to Nebraska because of Martinez’s ability to elude the defense. When you have a dual-threat quarterback who has a tendency to scramble and evade capture on nearly every possession, you begin to take for granted just how much the offensive line impacts the game. Burkhead’s varying production, when you compare the first two games to the other four, speaks volumes on the matter.
With Jared Crick going down it’s safe to say that the chances of the Huskers’ defense improving are slim to none. As such, the offense will need to continue to carry the burden and perform well if Nebraska wants to finish the year strong. And, as a result, the offensive line players will need to carry the burden to make that possible.
Can they do it? Absolutely. They’ve shown a propensity for improvement that nobody expected going in. Will they?
Only time will tell.