The Huskers are now chasing the dream of a bowl game. To do that, they must beat Maryland Saturday and Iowa on Friday to reach bowl eligibility.
To do that, the running game has to produce.
For much of this season, running the ball has seemed to be a struggle for the Huskers, even if the statistics don’t look so bad.
Heading into Saturday’s game at Maryland, the Huskers are third in the Big Ten and 36th nationally in rushing at 195 yards a game. But the Huskers struggled in a loss to Purdue with just 128 yards on the ground.
Nebraska also had just 151 against Minnesota, 133 against Northwestern and, going back to the opening game of the season, just 98 against South Alabama.
But last week the rushing game got things rolling with 273 yards on the ground against a stout Wisconsin defense. Junior Dedrick Mills got his chance to be the feature back for at least a half and put up a career high 187 yards on just 17 carries.
“I think Dedrick is continuing to get better and I think he will continue to get better,” Nebraska coach Scott Frost said. “I think he’s getting more comfortable in our scheme and our system. He had a great game. A lot of his success Saturday was due to some other people too.”
The offensive line was opening holes that haven’t been there most of the season with the exception of the Illinois game when the Huskers rolled up 346 yards on the ground. Frost said the Wisconsin game was the best of the season for the offensive line.
“The offensive coaching staff did a good job scheme-wise and getting them in some good situations,” Frost said. “We blocked a little better downfield. There were a lot of things that happened that went into that, but obviously, Dedrick had his best game.”
Mills only had four carries in the second half. Frost said that was because he worn down a bit from the load he carried in the opening half.
“I played like a dog, I ran the ball really well, ran hard, physical and I didn’t let one person stop me so they pretty much congratulated me on that,” Mills said. “I didn’t let one person stop me I just ran it hard.”
The Huskers may have found their guy to take a majority of carries in the backfield.
Wan’Dale Robinson had a heavy workload in a couple of games, but he was injured against Purdue and didn’t play against Wisconsin.
Robinson has shown he can run the ball between the tackles, but at 5-10 and 190, may not have the size to slam it up the middle play after play.
Mills at 5-11 and 220 looks to be better suited for that, but Frost said Mills was sore on Monday. They probably needed him on a couple of fourth down plays in the red zone in the second half that didn’t work out well for the Huskers.
“We played him as much as we thought we could,” Frost said. “There were a couple plays that we wish there was someone on the field that might have made one more play here or there, but that’s where we are right now. He didn’t get as many carries in the second half. We didn’t have as many plays in the second half.”
Quarterback Adrian Martinez helped carry some of the load with 89 yards on 16 carries, but he said it was Mills’ best game as a Husker.
“He played really well out there,” Martinez said. “I think that was also the offensive line doing a really good job. He capitalized. I’m real happy for him. He had a good game, and we can continue to build on that and carry it into this week.”
Junior offensive tackle Matt Farniok said Mills is feeling more comfortable in the offense.
“It just comes from experience,” he said. “I mean it’s a little bit different feel but it just shows that as the year goes on he was making better reads, he was making better cuts, he was us more protectively and pressing the hole coming back and he’s shown tremendous growth of just becoming a better football player. Just this last week it really showed his progress.”
Mills couldn’t have been any more appreciative of what the offensive line did. The line has taken plenty of heat this season, but it got the job done — except for those fourth down failures — against Wisconsin.
“They blocked really well and we see these big holes and gaps we probably didn’t see at the beginning of the season as they progress throughout the rest of the season,” Mills said. “They’ve slowly picked up more and more stuff and started blocking better and better each week. They are ready to play and are going to continue to do the same thing.”
Senior running back Wyatt Mazour subbed in for Mills a few times, but he also got a good view of what Mills was doing from the sidelines.
“They were running a mid zone,” Mazour said. “They were really stretching them out so that was able to create some lanes for Dedrick and Dedrick ran his butt off and a lot of the time it took more than one guy to take him down.
“Dedrick has kind of been that guy all season, just powerful runner, and now he’s getting the feel of it in the system and where to hit things, hit the hole hard and just kind of knowing what to expect before the play happens.”