Head coach Mike Riley made noise shortly before Christmas when he told bowl reporters his goal for the Huskers’ offense in 2016 was to be at least third in the league in rushing.
After seeing Nebraska slip to No. 8 in the Big Ten this season, most fans dismissed the idea.
Saturday’s bowl performance against UCLA might prove otherwise for the doubters heading into the offseason.
Nebraska finished with 326 yards on the ground in a 37-29 win over UCLA on Saturday, rushing 62 times for a 5.3 yards per carry average with much of the nation watching.
“I think it’s not necessarily what we saw, but what we wanted to do, and had a will to do,” said Riley. “I think football goes better generally when you run the ball well and you physically impose yourself on the other team.
“We didn’t necessarily have to wait until next year to start that idea. I was really, really excited. Because physically up front — offensive line, the tight ends, our fullback really went after those guys. It was a physical game and fun to watch as the thing went on and our guys kept attacking.”
The performance also made true freshman running back Devine Ozigbo the favorite to be the Huskers’ No. 1 guy heading into the spring.
A three-star prospect who was initially committed to Iowa State when they jumped in on his recruitment, Ozigbo finished with 21 carries for 87 yards – both career highs. While seniors Imani Cross (16 carries, 62 yards) and Andy Janovich (six carries, 31 yards) more than contributed, it was the true freshman carrying the ball late in the game.
UCLA struggled to stop the run all season. Coming into the contest they actually ranked No. 88 overall in rushing yards allowed. But, down 21-7 in the first half, Nebraska could have easily abandoned the run.
Offensive coordiantor Danny Langsdorf didn’t.
"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," Nebraska guard Dylan Utter told the Lincoln Journal Star.
The offense was right. The runs did get larger. The first downs became easier to pick up. The defense received a little more rest on the sidelines. The UCLA defense – well it got tired.
"As an offensive lineman, you want to put the game on your back," Utter told the paper. "We knew if we hit them in the mouth, they wouldn't want to keep hanging with us. That's what we did."
The next step? Hitting a Big Ten West team in the mouth in 2016.