LINCOLN — The storyline that won’t quite go away is Nebraska’s offensive front.
And the performance against Oregon didn’t help.
Nebraska’s line gave up three sacks Saturday, and pressure in quarterback Tanner Lee’s face led to the last of his four interceptions, which ended Nebraska’s chance at a comeback.
Coach Mike Riley, offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf and line coach Mike Cavanaugh all offered lukewarm reviews of the line play against the Ducks.
Too many hits on the quarterback, they said. Not good enough. Not even close.
“Just average,” Cavanaugh said. “We gotta get better.”
Though the offensive line fields the brunt of the work in protecting Lee, the tight ends and running backs have a part to play.
“I think part of the protection is making sure the backs and the tight ends are doing their part in their role, whether it’s a blitzing linebacker or chipping an end on their way out,” Langsdorf said.
Twice against Oregon, Nebraska ran a blocking scheme that pitted senior tight end Tyler Hoppes against a defensive end. The two plays, both in the fourth quarter, ended with a sack and an interception.
Nebraska ran it a handful of times with moderate success earlier in the game, but on those two pivotal downs, the blocking fell apart.
Cavanaugh didn’t want to talk about the advantages of the scheme. But left tackle Nick Gates explained it’s designed to get the defense to move and shift. Hoppes or another tight end comes across the line in motion, hoping to draw in the linebackers. A play-action from Lee to the running back is intended to do the same, while buying time for Lee to throw. Ideally, Lee can find a receiver in the middle.
But twice it failed, and twice Nebraska paid for it.
“It’s hard,” Cavanaugh said of the scheme. “But that’s what we’re doing.”
The scheme is new to Hoppes. And it’s tricky, he says.
“It’s tricky only because the defensive end, you never really know what he’s going to do,” Hoppes said.
He and other tight ends work with graduate assistant Tavita Thompson and Cavanaugh on those blocking techniques. And Gates and the other linemen talk a lot with the tight ends to give tips.
“They’re basically offensive lineman, too, so they’re part of the line,” Gates said. “They always will be.”
The offensive front is upbeat about growing. It’s a close group, Cavanaugh said.
Players like each other, they work hard, they love football. And that’s a formula conducive to growth.
Plus, Nebraska’s running the ball well. Sophomore back Tre Bryant has run for more than 100 yards in two straight games, something the Huskers hadn’t done since 2013.
But coaches want better protection for Lee, and they want it fast.
“We obviously have run the ball well in the first two games, so you have to say the offensive line is probably doing a better job and improved from a year ago,” Riley said.
“It’s not perfect yet, but I think it’s getting better.”
Northern Illinois at Nebraska
When: 11 a.m. Saturday
Where: Memorial Stadium
Radio: 103.1 FM