LINCOLN — Northwestern’s defense ranks 13th out of 14 Big Ten teams in yards allowed per game, and the Wildcats are battling injuries in their secondary.
But Nebraska offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said Wednesday night after practice that he’s been impressed with Northwestern’s ability to keep opponents off the scoreboard. The Wildcats rank third in the league, allowing just 14.7 points a game.
“They’re playing with a lot of different guys and they’ve had some injuries,” Langsdorf said. “They’ve held teams down pretty well. They’ve given up a lot of yards but they have not given up a lot of points, so scoring against them has been a challenge for people. They’ve been rotating some different guys in that back end. They’ve kind of bent, but they haven’t broken very much.”
Langsdorf said Nebraska will have its “work cut out for us”scoring points Saturday.
Ground and determined
A key tweak at halftime of the Oregon game — to substitute a wide receiver onto the field for a tight end, spreading out the Ducks’ defense with a three-wide look — helped the Husker run game get going.
“It depends on the defense, but they were loading us up pretty good in their bigger personnel groups and bringing those safeties down tighter,” Langsdorf said. “If you can spread ’em out, that can be a benefit. We want to be able to run the ball out of three wides as well as our big people. We had that in the plan — we just got to it more against Oregon.”
I-back Devine Ozigbo, who got the majority of the second-half carries, said the change by Langsdorf “softened the core” of Oregon’s defense.
“It gave us some creases to hit,” Ozigbo said. “In the first half we did some under-the-center stuff and they were packing the box pretty well. That kind of made it challenging, but after we spread them out, the creases were there.”
Running backs coach Reggie Davis — who praised Ozigbo’s “added physicality” and his improved ability to “run behind his pads” — said the Huskers were “pretty determined” to run the ball.
Who lit the fire under the offense to run the ball so well?
“That’s a secret we leave in the locker room,” Davis said. “We talk every time at halftime, absolutely.”
The footing will be important for everybody Saturday night, but definitely big for Nebraska I-backs as they try to make cuts on Ryan Field’s grass surface.
As before any game, Ozigbo will try to get a feel for it during warmups.
“You’ve just got to walk the field on any away game,” Ozigbo said. “Even if it was a turf field, I would still go out there and just test it, see what it was like, and get my footing right.”
The last time Nebraska played on natural grass, Ozigbo had 20 carries for 80 yards in the Foster Farms Bowl against UCLA. He said he played most of his high school games in Texas on turf, but remembered some playoff games on grass.
“Some grasses are different,” said Ozigbo, who is averaging 80.7 yards per game and 4.6 per carry to start the season. “I heard this grass takes a little adjustment to get used to it. But overall it shouldn’t be much to overcome. As soon as you get used to it, you’ll be fine.”
Shaky start, strong finish
Nebraska saw its average per carry go up every quarter against Oregon, reaching 5.8 yards per attempt in the fourth.
“I thought we kind of started a little bit slow, and then we geared it up as the game went on,” line coach Mike Cavanaugh said. “So obviously you’ve got to like that. We’ve got to continue to be a physical group and move people.”
The down side was NU averaged 2.4 yards per carry in the first quarter.
“I like that we’ve found a groove, but we need to get things going earlier, too,” left guard Sam Hahn said. “Those three-and-outs we’ve started with these games, that’s just not something we should be doing.
“It’s good to see we can maybe kind of wear on some people sometimes and get going. But now we’re going into Big Ten play, and you guys know how that is. You’ve got some warriors in there, and they’re not going to wear down maybe as easy.”
Nebraska will be tested by the Northwestern defense. The Wildcats won the line of scrimmage a year ago, holding the Huskers to 82 rushing yards.
“We’ve got to play physical football on Saturday night,” Cavanaugh said. “Trust our technique and finish blocks. This is a good defense we’re going against.”
One lineman Cavanaugh hasn’t had to worry about is left tackle Nick Gates. Cavanaugh said the sophomore from Las Vegas has been “nails” this season, leading the Huskers in pancakes and knockdowns.
“He’s setting a great example and setting the bar high,” Cavanaugh said. “He can still do some better things, too. I think if he plays with better leverage, I mean, he’ll be rolling a lot of people.”
NU’s big Bison fan
Hahn texted a few former North Dakota State teammates Saturday morning with a simple message: “Win.”
The Bison did just that, beating Iowa 23-21 on the road on a last-second field goal. Hahn was at NDSU for the 2012 season before transferring to Nebraska, and remains friends with former roommate Landon Lechler.
“I told Landon, ‘You guys can move the ball on ’em. Just run power and you’ll be fine,’ ” Hahn said. “That’s what they ended up doing, pretty much. North Dakota State’s just that good, because Iowa’s no slouch, obviously.”
Hahn has a suggestion for teams that might be thinking of playing the Bison in the future. “I’d advise any team, never schedule ’em.”
Tommy impresses Wildcat LB
Northwestern linebacker Anthony Walker said the Huskers caught his attention with what they did offensively in their 35-32 win over Oregon.
It didn’t surprise him to see Tommy Armstrong throw for 200 yards and run for 95 against the Ducks, with a hand in four touchdowns.
“Tommy looks good, I can say that right now,” Walker said. “He looks a lot healthier. He ran the ball really well last week, and made some big plays.
“I think the offensive line was really good, especially running the ball and getting up to ’backers. The running backs looked good, and Jordan Westerkamp looks really, really good. We’re definitely going to have to bring our A-game all across the field.”
A year ago, Walker said, the Wildcats were able to pressure Armstrong during a 30-28 win, and “kept him uncomfortable a little bit.”
“We were able to control the line of scrimmage and stop the run, which was big,” Walker said. “And I think we were able to get off the field when we needed to.”
» Nebraska wideout Brandon Reilly (hamstring) practiced again Wednesday, while wideout Alonzo Moore (shoulder) was held out for a second straight day.