LINCOLN — You take the offense however and wherever you can get it, but Nebraska coach Mike Riley never hesitates to say that he likes to see it come in healthy chunks from time to time.
The Huskers did that Saturday night at Northwestern.
NU totaled 15 snaps that Riley would quantify as “explosive plays” — runs of 10 or more yards and passes of 20-plus. They helped lead to a season-high 556 total yards and a 24-13 win over the Wildcats.
“I think it’s a big factor in winning games,” Riley said Monday. “Offensively we need some big chunks, and defensively we don’t want to give them up.”
Nebraska would be considered anything but a plodding offense with quarterback Tommy Armstrong surrounded by skill-position threats. Riley’s emphasis and motivation to turn that into big gains then goes over well with all those involved.
Riley even sets a goal each week of 15 as ideal, and Nebraska reached it for the first time this season at Evanston.
“We have so many weapons in our offense that if we just do what we’re supposed to do, we’ll meet that number easily,” receiver Jordan Westerkamp said.
“It’s great that that’s kind of like our tendency, to want to have those explosive plays. And we are taking shots. It’s exciting. And especially when the play’s designed to go to you.”
The Northwestern game was the first this season in which Nebraska produced more running plays of 20-plus yards (four) than pass plays (three). Two of those came from Armstrong.
The Huskers then added a healthy eight runs between 10 and 19 yards, including four from Armstrong on his way to a career-high 132 rushing overall.
“We understand that’s one of the things on our goal list,” Armstrong said. “When they first got here it was just (about) being able to be explosive. And if we get those goals and we take care of the ball, it all falls into place.”
Armstrong is the trigger man, and along with offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf, they decide where it goes.
The long passes went to three players Saturday night: Alonzo Moore, Brandon Reilly and Cethan Carter. In addition to Armstrong, five other Huskers had at least one run of 10-plus yards: Mikale Wilbon, Terrell Newby, Devine Ozigbo, Westerkamp and Carter.
“Everybody’s getting love,” receiver De’Mornay Pierson-El said. “It’s kind of what you want. Everybody brings to the table what they have, and I think everybody is just excelling at that right now. And Tommy is doing a great job at finding the points to attack and giving us the opportunity to make plays.
“Anybody can make anything happen with the ball at any given chance.”
Armstrong said it’s not necessarily about chucking the football down the field. It often comes down to receivers turning catches after short routes into longer gains.
Many of the longer runs require help, too, no better illustrated than a 37-yard run by Armstrong at Northwestern that included Reilly first engaging cornerback Trae Williams at the 30-yard line and driving him all the way to the 15.
“I probably get 9 or 10 yards (without the help),” Armstrong said. “He did a great job of staying on his block, being smart. Those guys make plays, not only with their hands but going out there and blocking. It starts out with those guys, and they understand it.”
Nebraska had just two running plays of 20-plus yards before Saturday night, and Riley and Langsdorf had said during the nonconference season that it sometimes had to do with missing that help beyond the first defensive tier.
Nebraska still can add to its success, too, currently tied for the No. 16 spot nationally in plays of 30-plus yards (13) and tied for No. 35 in plays of 20-plus (22).
But because Nebraska has different threats to draw defensive focus, Pierson-El said it should keep leading to better big-play opportunities at other spots. Westerkamp said the Huskers just need to take advantage of those that are there.
“Just watching any game, there’s just explosive plays that are game-changing plays, and you need to have that on your offense to win the game,” Westerkamp said. “And for the most part, we’ve been doing that.”