Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Commentary: Nebraska establishes ground attack

Known as pass-happy coach, Callahan realizes Cornhuskers need to move ball by land as well as air


As much as Bill Callahan likes to throw the ball, even he knew Nebraska wouldn't be a championship-caliber team until the Cornhuskers could run with some consistency.

In 2005, the once-proud ground game at Nebraska had moved just about as far away from its running roots as humanly possible.

The Cornhuskers were 107th nationally in rushing, averaging 2.7 yards per carry.

"Our ranking last year was hideous," said Callahan, the Cornhuskers' coach. "So we're pretty proud we've been able to get where we are now."

Where Nebraska is now is No. 18 nationally in rush offense, averaging 4.4 yards per carry.

That turnaround may be the biggest reason for Nebraska's rise to Big 12 North champion and a date Saturday against Oklahoma for the conference title.

Nebraska has four backs who have carried the ball at least 70 times this season, led by Brandon Jackson, who has run for 881 yards and seven touchdowns.

Callahan had a shift in philosophy after watching his team average 38 pass attempts and suffer seven interceptions and 18 sacks in losses to Texas Tech, Missouri, Oklahoma and Kansas last season.

"Last year we threw a lot more, and this year we're a lot more balanced," said quarterback Zac Taylor, who was under siege all last season as the Cornhuskers gave up 38 sacks. "Any quarterback will tell you he loves having a great running back. I've got four. The offensive line was pretty young last year, and they're just getting better."

Callahan realized the Huskers couldn't survive as a one-dimensional team. The results last season were damning, including a 31-24 loss at home to Oklahoma in which Nebraska attempted 46 passes and Taylor was sacked nine times.

"We knew we had to improve our running attack and become more balanced," Callahan said. "We put an emphasis on it going into the game against Michigan in the Alamo Bowl. We ran it against a good run defense and then just kept it going into the spring.

"We worked hard on fundamental techniques in training camp, and it carried over into the season."

The improved running game has led to fewer negative plays. After giving up 38 sacks last season, Nebraska has given up 25 in 2006. After attempting 430 passes last season with 12 interceptions, Taylor has attempted 315 passes this season with four interceptions.

In 2004, Nebraska had three backs who averaged well over 4 yards per carry in Cory Ross (5.3), Brandon Jackson (4.6) and Tierre Green (6.5). Yet former option quarterback Joe Dailey was allowed to keep throwing as Callahan installed his West Coast offense. Dailey ended up with 19 interceptions and 17 TD passes.

NU nearly led the country in turnovers that season (33), causing a strong defense to give out after so many sudden changes. The team went 5-6 and ended two of the school's most prized accomplishments: 42 years without a losing season and 35 straight bowl appearances. So it's fitting that Nebraska, the last team to win a national title running the option (1997), is back on top of the Big 12 North thanks to a strong running game.


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