All good things come to those who wait — who hasn’t heard a parental unit or two say those things to a kid growing up? It apparently also applied to the first year of the Mike Riley era at Nebraska.
With a 37-29 victory over the UCLA Bruins in the Foster Farms Bowl on Saturday night, Riley erased a lot of bad feelings by pulling off perhaps the most unexpected of upsets. The Huskers went old-school, breaking off 62 rushing attempts in the win in front of 33,527 spectators at Levi’s Stadium.
It backed up what Riley noticed during his first go-round in the Big Ten — you have to be able to run the football to win in this conference.
“When you look at the (Big Ten), and look at the teams winning it, they’re running the ball a lot,” he said ahead of the bowl game. “Certainly, we know from just history, you can have a really good passing game. But it always goes better when you run the ball. A lot of that play-action stuff means a little bit more …
“That should be our game. We have to get to be a better running team.”
No doubt that message was sent and received, as the Huskers gave up just 109.8 yards per carry (3rd in the Big Ten) and were paltry on the ground as Riley tried to mesh his game to the Big Ten (6th in the Big Ten with 180.0 yards per game and 496 attempts).
Riley turned that knowledge in to production, as not only did the team rush a season-high 62 times, it blazed a trail of 327 yards and four touchdowns all over Levi’s Stadium.
Nebraska also figured out it had a gem in freshman running back Devine Ozigbo, who led the team with 20 attempts and 80 yards (both career highs). It was a perfect complement to Tommy Armstrong, who did his best Tommy Frazier impression en route to 76 yards and a touchdown himself.
Yes, the Huskers were losers during the regular season and finish with a 6-7 overall record. But, winning this way had to not only feel good for a fanbase looking for any spark of life from this team, but also for an offense that had been struggling to transition all season long.
Most importantly though, the Huskers found a way to not fold under pressure. UCLA put themselves up 21-7 midway through the second quarter on two touchdown throws from star freshman quarterback Josh Rosen.
It looked like lights out for Nebraska at that point, as Rosen was on his way to a 319-yard day. However, something was sparked not only in the defense, but the offense after that.
The Huskers rattled off 30-straight points to put themselves up 37-21 with under a minute gone in the fourth quarter. It was the run game that powered the scoring, but also the ability to keep drives alive, as the Huskers went 3-and-out just twice in this game.
Part of that was the Huskers’ ability to out-muscle their Pac-12 opponent, something they were eager to do after watching the Bruins on film, according to Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal Star.
“It’s as much a statement as a goal,” Riley said of Saturday’s night Herculean effort by the line, the fullback, the tight ends, everyone involved.
Here’s the rub: David Utter, Nebraska’s junior left guard, said the Huskers thought they could have success running the ball “just because UCLA isn’t as big and physical as some of the Big Ten teams. We knew we could pound the rock.”
It was as old-school Big Ten as Nebraska has ever been, and a formula that Riley surely sees needs to be incorporated in to his offense going forward.
Perhaps the best part is watching the Huskers feed off the fun the offensive line was having in knocking around the Bruins front seven.
“We knew if we kept running the ball and running the ball, those 3- and 4-yard runs might become 5-, 8-, however-many yard runs,” Utter said.
“We can just see if we take what Coach Cav (offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh) is teaching us and emphasize his technique, we can be effective. As an offensive lineman, you want to put the game on your back. We knew if we hit them in the mouth, they wouldn’t want to keep hanging with us. That’s what we did.”
Bowl games can have a way of affecting the future of a program, and after a dismal failure that still led to a bowl game, the Huskers’ future was shown in this bowl game.
The question is, will Riley and the Huskers be able to sustain what they did and learned from their Foster Farms Bowl victory?