Football is the ultimate team sport, and the greatest team players in the game of football are offensive linemen. Most will never hear their names called by play-by-play announcers except when they have missed a block or committed a penalty. When they do their jobs exceptionally well, it usually means they will have a teammate or two who get recognition for doing something special with the football, while the offensive linemen—the people who make the big plays possible—will be content with a win and (hopefully) a good postgame meal.
There were lots of reasons for Nebraska fans to be anxious following the loss to Illinois. A lot of digital pixels have been spilt about special teams, turnovers, penalties, and unforced errors, often going into agonizing detail about almost every imaginable negative perspective, and some of that was focused on the disappointment in the overall play of the offensive line. The lack of a power running game was a serious issue, and the struggles in pass protection added to it.
Weren’t we supposed to have a better, deeper offensive line this year than last, even though Matt Farniok and Brendan Jaimes are now on NFL rosters? Yes, we were.… Husker fans, I want you to brace yourselves for some good news: We will still have a very good offensive line, but it won’t happen immediately.
Sometime around the middle of the season our offensive line will gel enough to be as good as it was at the end of last year. By the end of this year, they have the potential to be better than they were last year, despite losing two NFL players. Because the current players are all underclassmen, they have the potential in 2022 to be the best offensive line that we've had since Bo Pelini was patrolling the sidelines.
If all of those who are eligible return for 2023, they have the potential to be the best offensive line since the Solich era. Nothing is guaranteed, but even if they do not reach those levels, by simply staying together for this season and the next two, they would be able to provide something that has been lacking since before they were born: a foundation of veteran, senior-led offensive linemen upon which the Pipeline can be re-established. It takes quality depth and senior leadership to allow new recruits to take a few years to grow (literally)into the program.
It takes about three years to develop a quality offensive lineman. In the glory days of Milt Tenopir’s Pipeline, the guys who started before their redshirt junior years tended to be all-conference, even all-American caliber of linemen. We haven’t had many of those in this millennium. Instead, we have had a succession of top prospects who have often been asked to start before they were ready due to a lack of experienced older linemen ahead of them. Of those asked to play early, most did okay as underclassmen, but it is an exceptionally rare teenager who can more than hold his own going up against 22-year-old Big Ten defensive linemen. Most off those who were thrown to the wolves early either plateaued, or else they were off to the NFL before their fourth year rolled around, let alone their fifth. Having senior leadership and depth in the offensive line makes it harder for the youngsters to start, and that’s a very, very good thing.
In the same way that it takes about three years to develop individual offensive linemen, it takes about a full season for a group of offensive linemen to come together well enough to know intuitively not only what their responsibilities are, but to know and trust what their teammates beside them will be doing. In the same way they are able to predict in practice what their teammates across from them are going to do, they start to build enough experience to know what the opposing team across from them is going to do as each opponent will have its own tricks and tendencies.
Come back for a second year as a starter, and the knowledge base is deeper, plus the veterans will also be able to give specific advice to the guys moving up to play more beside them. Harkening back, again, to the good old days, it was common for sophomores under Coach Tenopir to get a significant amount of mop-up duty in the second halves of blowouts. There was often a pattern to the substitutions, too. If everybody was healthy, as soon as all of the seniors had rotated through and taken their snaps, we often got a sneak preview of what the next season’s offensive line would look like as the coaches ran a couple of offensive series with the top prospective underclassmen playing together. After that, everybody else would get a turn.
Those in-game repetitions matte a lot. When is the last time before Saturday’s game with Fordham that the Nebraska coaches and players have had that luxury? With nine conference games and another Power-5 opponent each season, often the only opportunities were a single nonconference game or two per season. Let’s take that a step further….
When is the last time our offensive linemen were all experienced upperclassmen? By that I don’t mean that they’re all returning starters; I mean that everybody starting in the offensive line in Game 1 had significant numbers of snaps together the previous season.
I can’t remember, to be honest. I similarly struggle to remember a time in the Osborne/Tenopir era where we did not have at least four of five starters with significant playing time from the previous season. Iowa is considered by many to currently be one of the best programs at developing offensive linemen: When is the last time that Iowa's starting offensive linemen were young and inexperienced? Again, I can’t remember.
Yes, it sometimes is that simple to understand why Nebraska has struggled offensively, or to understand why teams like Iowa and Wisconsin have become so much more formidable. A veteran offensive line with a “game manager” quarterback will usually beat a team with a fantastic quarterback and a young, inexperienced offensive line. When is the last time Iowa or Wisconsin had a more highly rated quarterback recruit than Nebraska? Yet 2012 remains the only season when we defeated both teams in the same season.
Offensive lines take time and repetitions to work together effectively, which is why all-star games rarely have good offensive lines, despite choosing the best individual linemen in the whole country. You can take the absolute best offensive linemen in the country and put them together into an all-time hall-of-fame caliber of lineup … but they still won't work together as well as a unit as linemen with lesser talent who have a lot of experience working with one another. The starting line of a mediocre Big Ten team will often perform better together as a unit by the end of the season than will the starting offensive lines in any of the various senior bowls.
With Turner Corcoran's injury—which, I assume, is the reason why he didn't start—we had two offensive linemen starting against Illinois who had not only never started before, but they'd barely played at all in a game before. Matt Sichterman still graded out fairly well, which may be a testament to the fact that he has had to wait his turn to see significant playing time at Nebraska. Brant Banks struggled at times, but this is not only not shocking, it was almost inevitable as he had been taking snaps in practice at both guard and left tackle, which will help in the long run, but in the short run meant that he would struggle. Banks is going to be a very good lineman, but the problem is that he is being forced to play more than he should, right now.
Keeping in mind that it wasn’t as though Corcoran—the returning “starter” from 2020—had a ton of experience at left tackle either. Two years ago he was bulldozing high schoolers in Kansas, and last year he was a backup until he stepped into the starting role for the final game against Rutgers; he played incredibly well, for what it’s worth. Ethan Piper and Bryce Benhart were also redshirt freshmen a year ago when they were placed in the starting lineup. Both struggled at times. Both should have struggled because they were too young to be playing so much in the Big Ten Conference. Each is now the most experienced linemen on his side of the line. Cam Jurgens is our grizzled veteran starter, yet he had never even played in the offensive line until about this time two years ago. There is enormous talent and potential within these young men, and it will eventually show through, but right now, they’re still learning how to play together. It is frustrating to learn how to play together, both for the linemen and for the fans.
The Illini defensive line was not bad, and it was even quite good in one particular spot. It was popular to malign the Illini before last week’s game, yet their starting nose guard, Roderick Perry, II, was projected by Phil Steele to be the top defensive tackle prospect for the NFL among all draft-eligible Big Ten defensive tackles,… and that was a year ago. Perry should be playing in the NFL, right now, but he came back for a super-senior year. Perry played like a beast. Nebraska will not be the only team that struggles with moving him out of the way. The Illini defensive gameplan was built around him gumming up the middle, and he did that quite well.
The other Illini defensive linemen were young and aggressive and decent already, and they were put in a defensive scheme that allowed them to attack us at the flanks using Wide-9 techniques. They were lining up outside of the OTs' outside shoulders and even outside of the TEs' outside shoulders while taking a shallow, direct path to where the QB/RB handoff mesh would usually occur. This is an unusual defensive technique, and it's designed to speed up everything on the edges and force the ball towards the middle, where Mr. Perry would be waiting. It is also fairly simple for a young defensive end to execute this type of defense as he mostly just has to pin his ears back and make sure that his outside shoulder is upfield from the ball when he gets to it, which forces the QB or the RB to always step up into the pocket, which is where Perry and the LBs were waiting to meet them. Add in LBs blitzing from different places at different times, but almost always trying to meet where that RB or QB would be forced to go, and it's a simple but effective defense.
Nebraska’s young offensive linemen had very limited practice reps to prepare for it. It is easy to criticize this as a coaching gaffe, yet I have not seen any sportswriters or online “experts” who thought this would be the defense that Illinois would be using. If the coaches tried to cover every potentiality, their players wouldn’t really be prepared for any. It is a bit of a gimmick defense that does not work so well if the opponent knows it is coming, so I suspect Illinois will not be using it as much as the season goes on.
If the offense has time to prepare for it, there are multiple ways to suck that defensive end into the middle of the pocket and then attack the edge and alley that he just vacated. Frost was doing that in the second with the zone-read look on the freeze-option plays. Those were the running plays that started out looking like a zone read, but then after a brief stutter-step, turned into a traditional QB-RB pitch-option look attacking that edge. The crashing defensive end would read the initial zone read look, and so he would race behind the offensive line to where the running back would normally be heading,… except he wasn’t. Martinez and the RB froze for a moment, but then they stepped out of that zone read play and directly attacked the edge that the defensive end had just left wide open. It worked pretty well as an individual play, but it also forced the defensive ends to think more and react less, which slowed down their whole defensive front.
If we played Illinois again, things would look very different. Bielema has some history of trying unexpected gadget defenses, especially against Nebraska. He pulled out a very unusual two-down-linemen Amoeba-front against Nebraska in the 2012 Big Ten championship game. I don't know how much he used that front before or since, but it worked that day, and it was baffling to players, coaches, and fans alike to see something so unexpected. It is easy for casual fans to act like that shouldn't be "a thing," but it is. Bill Belichick won a Super Bowl over the Rams by using a high-risk/high-reward defense that he had only used in brief moments all year, but then he made that his base defense for the Super Bowl, and it utterly shut down one of the highest-scoring offenses in NFL history.
If you can make a match with your personnel and a novel defensive scheme that takes away the strength of an opposing offense, there are some very successful coaches who will try it, and some of them are legends. Did you ever hear of the defensive coordinator who unleashed a blizzard of zone blitzes against Steve Spurrier’s high octane passing attack in the 90s? That worked pretty well. It doesn’t always, though, otherwise that is all that we’d see. If we’d play Illinois again, our O-line would likely be much more effective at establishing the run, and if the 2018 Rams played the 2018 Patriots again, they’d likely have much more success moving the ball and scoring,… but that is not how life works.
Nebraska's offensive linemen are extremely young, but they are very large and quite athletic. Half of them are lacking in experience. They will get better. That wasn't a fantastic defensive line from Illinois, but they were at least mediocre for the Big Ten, and it helped them immensely that they were doing a lot of things that were unexpected. Nebraska's offense in the 2nd half was handling things a lot better. A big part of why Adrian was able to scamper 75 yards for a touchdown was because Illinois completely sold out their pass defense in man-to-man while completely selling out their pass rush with an outside-in approach. They gambled and lost on that play. If we had made them pay more often, we win. Ifs and buts….
Let’s be patient enough to watch what happens as the year progresses. I suspect that our young offensive line could end up looking better against a very good Iowa 4-3 defensive front at the end of the year than they did against a mediocre 4-3 Illinois defensive front at the beginning of the year. That is how O-line development is supposed to work, and that is true for other teams as well. Ask Iowa about their 2020 season. Ask Northwestern about their 2018 season. Ask Minnesota about their 2018 season.
Every year it seems that there is a Big Ten West team that loses an inexplicable early game, then gets better and better as the year goes on. I don’t know that that will happen with Nebraska as a whole this year, but I suspect it will happen with the offensive line. It is appropriate for Husker fans to pause during the week of Labor Day to remember that the guys in the O-line are still working hard, still improving.
Go Big Red