Coming into this week, Nebraska may have had some of the most scrutinized units in all of the country. In particular, Nebraska’s special teams may be the most ridiculed unit in recent memory in the state, but the offensive line has also grabbed some share of blame.
Last week against then-No. 20 Michigan State, four of the five starting offensive linemen graded below a 35 on Pro Football Focus (PFF) for pass protection. For reference, a PFF grade of somewhere between 50-60 represents an average offensive linemen for any facet of their game.
Change seemed to be in the works after another dismal performance from the offensive line, with this week seeing another possible shake-up of the offensive line.
“I think we will have a lot of options come Saturday, I liked the competition,” Nebraska head coach Scott Frost said at Thursday’s press conference. “I really liked the pad level the guys played with...and seeing them come off the ball with low pads seemed to make a pretty big difference. We have a lot of options and expect a lot of guys to play well.”
If PFF grades are an indication of what’s expected to remain the same for the pipeline, only sophomore center Cam Jurgens’ spot should be safe. That puts the rest of the starters’ jobs in possible danger.
One potential new face is junior offensive lineman Broc Bando, who, according to Frost, returns after dealing with two or three illnesses over the last couple of weeks. Bando, although not a starter, had taken snaps in the Illinois and Michigan State games in the previous weeks.
Bando only took snaps on special teams against Michigan State, but is possibly one option to help bring respectability to the offensive line. Bando is not the only possible candidate. Others, such as freshmen offensive lineman Brant Banks or Teddy Prochazka, can be thrust into the starting line-up.
Freshman offensive lineman Ethan Piper lost his starting spot last week against Michigan State, not taking a single snap in East Lansing, but also remains a viable option as well. That’s not to mention even more options, like sophomore offensive line Nouredin Nouili.
As a whole, the offensive line could be undergoing another series of changes, and where the new linemen end up on the starting unit doesn’t seem to concern Frost.
“We got some guys that are capable of playing on both sides and several guys that rep on both sides,” Frost said. “We got to get our five best out there.”
Nebraska’s offensive line struggles coincides with the running back room’s own lack of production. Although Nebraska’s offensive line’s run blocking remains questionable, junior quarterback Adrian Martinez has hit big plays on designed quarterback runs and not just scrambles.
Husker running backs haven’t been complementary to Martinez through this season, as there has been a series of rotating running backs in an attempt to get that position rolling. First, freshman running back Gabe Ervin Jr. got the starting nod in the season opener and shared snaps with sophomore running back Markese Stepp through the first four weeks of the season.
Ervin suffered a non-contact injury against Oklahoma but by his injury, freshman running back Rahmir Johnson has taken the starting reins. Since Stepp’s 100-yard game against Fordham, he has taken 10 carries.
Johnson, against Oklahoma and Michigan State, has taken 30 carries for 118 yards and right below four yards per carry. Late against Michigan State, freshman back Sevion Morrison also took carries and has been sparingly used as well.
“It’s kind of a musical chairs changing landscape every week and it’s based on who plays the best, also who’s available,” Frost said. “Hopefully, we can get some continuity and consistency there.”
In a way, the only consistency in Nebraska’s rush attack is Martinez. Despite having a subpar offensive line and little production from his running backs, Martinez is averaging five yards-per-carry on 70 carries and has scored six touchdowns on the ground.
Martinez has held the offense together, even coming back from an early first quarter injury against Michigan State to help lead the offense. Those concerns of that Michigan State injury potentially sidelining Martinez were promptly shut down.
“He’s tough as nails...I heard some of the rumors and if anyone knows about rumours around here, it’s me. Ridiculous rumors,” Frost said. “He probably has lupus and leprosy and smallpox and all those other things. He’s fine. He’s going to play.”
Nebraska’s homecoming foe, the 2-2 Northwestern, has also had its fair share of struggles this season. Still, Frost regarded the defense as technically sound and still very good, adding that he has only known Northwestern’s defenses as just that.
With a possible new offensive line, different running backs coming in and potential rain coming in during the game, that fundamentally good Northwestern defense may once again wreak havoc on the Huskers.
Despite glaring offensive flaws that will work againstNebraska on Saturday, the entire team hasn’t lost its belief in itself.
“I had a couple of leaders tell me that as confident as they were heading into the season, they’re even more confident now,” Frost said. “The guys are excited, they believe in their team.”