Bowl makes Mike Riley believer in power of run at Nebraska
The end of coach Mike Riley's first season at Nebraska has left him and the fan base excited about the possibilities for 2016.
Getting into a bowl game with five regular-season wins turned out to be the most fortuitous thing for the Cornhuskers (6-7). That's because their 37-29 Foster Farms Bowl win over UCLA on Saturday served as a trial run for the physical style of offense Riley said he wants his team to lean on next season.
It took until the bowl, which followed a disastrous passing game by Tommy Armstrong Jr. against Iowa, for Riley and offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf to commit to the power running game old-school Big Red fans love.
Of course, the matchup against an undersized UCLA defense demanded that the Huskers run the ball. The season-high 326 rushing yards, the emergence of 225-pound freshman Devine Ozigbo and a game plan that complemented Armstrong's running ability offered a strong case for keeping the offense grounded.
''What we eventually want to do next year is be in the top three in the league in running the football, and when you can do that, then life goes better everywhere,'' Riley said. ''We didn't necessarily have to wait until next year to start with that idea.''
Nebraska went into the bowl seventh in the Big Ten in rushing at 167.8 yards a game, the team's lowest average in six years. Armstrong had more than 40 pass attempts in four games, all losses, and his 402 for the season were the most since Joe Ganz threw 420 times in 2008.
Playing from behind in so many games inflated the pass attempts, but there was no evidence the staff had full confidence in the run game until the bowl. Though Armstrong completed a career-best 55.2 percent of his passes, his 16 interceptions were most since Joe Dailey's 19 in 2004 under Bill Callahan.
At Oregon State, where Riley coached the previous 12 years, the offenses were predicated on throwing quarterbacks. Riley and Langsdorf needed time to figure out how to give Armstrong the best chance for success, and the play-calling was curious. The third-year starter ran for 400 yards and seven touchdowns and was the team's third-leading rusher behind Terrell Newby and Imani Cross.
The rushing success in the bowl doesn't mean the Huskers will run 62 times per game next year, as they did against the Bruins. But given the team's personnel heading into 2016, the run should be a big part of the offense.
''I think it can be a common denominator for winning a championship, and that's what we want to do,'' Riley said.
Armstrong is among eight offensive starters who'll be back. The biggest questions are on the offensive line, where only two full-time starters return. The physical Ozigbo and speedy Newby give the Huskers options at running back, and Jordan Westerkamp leads what should be one of the best receiver corps in the Big Ten.
The defense will return seven or eight starters depending on whether tackle Vincent Valentine declares for the NFL draft. Tackle Maliek Collins already has announced he'll enter the draft, and the line also will lose end Jack Gangwish. But there is a lot of young talent with tackles Khalil and Carlos Davis and end Alex Davis among the players who redshirted this season.
The Huskers will be coming off a season that started with a loss to BYU on a Hail Mary, the first of four losses on the opponent's final offensive play, and hit a low point with a 10-point loss at Purdue. Nebraska did hand College Football Playoff participant Michigan State its only loss, thanks to Brandon Reilly's 30-yard touchdown catch with 17 seconds left after he stepped back inbounds after officials ruled he was forced out.
Nebraska played West Division champion Iowa within 28-20 despite Armstrong's four interceptions, then finished with the big win over UCLA.
''In this last month, month and a half, we have played our best football and we probably played our best football game (in the bowl),'' Riley said. ''When a team can do that and fight through all the stuff we did, that says a lot about the character of the young men who are in the program.''
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