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Husker offensive line struggles early, helps grind out yards late

Husker offensive line struggles early, helps grind out yards late

Rahmir Johnson

Nebraska's offensive line helped open up holes for Rahmir Johnson, pictured, and Sevion Morrison in the second half.

Sam McKewon's reaction to "heartbreaker" Nebraska loss at Michigan State

EAST LANSING, Mich. — Scott Frost walked 5 yards onto the field, yelled for his offensive line, and gathered several starters close to him on the sideline. Frost’s look was stern as it gets.

The coach chewed out at least three of his linemen — Matt Sichterman, Cam Jurgens and Turner Corcoran — right then and there for their mistakes, but it may as well have been the whole unit.

Again, in a hostile atmosphere, the offensive line struggled early to handle the heat — whether it was coming from a frothy Spartan Stadium student section or MSU’s pass rush.

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“We can’t have four false starts from our offensive linemen,” Frost said. “Coach (Greg) Austin stands behind those guys every day at practice and yells ‘move’ and gets the D-line to shift. Everything we know how to do to keep them from doing it. They’ve got to stay calm and do their job and not jump offsides. Probably cost us points in the first half.”

But as the game wore on — and Michigan State’s defense wore down in the second half — the holes for running backs Rahmir Johnson and Sevion Morrison got bigger. The Spartan defense reacted more slowly. And what started out as a nightmare became, at least for one night, a crucible that forged Nebraska’s line into a yard-chewing unit by game’s end.

In the first half alone, NU’s starting line had four false starts and allowed four sacks. Two — from Jurgens and Sichterman — came on Nebraska’s first movement into Spartan territory when Logan Smothers filled in for a briefly injured Adrian Martinez. That’s when Frost commenced his session with the line.

It didn’t have much effect, though. Two drives later, after Martinez returned, NU committed two more false-start penalties — this time on Trent Hixson and Bryce Benhart. Martinez’s 45-yard scramble overcame Hixson’s mistake, but Benhart’s false start, at the MSU 8, doused Nebraska’s chances at a touchdown.

The Spartan student section, dressed in all white, took up nine sections — including three balcony sections — and Nebraska consistently played in that half of the field.

Nebraska’s offensive line has struggled, in one way or another, much of the season to make holes for its running backs and handle opposing pass rushes to protect Martinez. In the opening four games, the line committed 11 penalties and allowed 11 sacks, as well.

Those issues only compounded in the first half Saturday night as the Huskers struggled to manage the Spartan front on downhill runs. Against Michigan State’s pass rush — which lost defensive end Drew Beesley in the first half — NU held up well at times while also relying on Martinez to play escape artist.

NU had more success executing against the edge of MSU’s defense on triple and speed option calls or with QB power plays that had several tight ends as lead blockers.

The tide started to shift in the fourth quarter, as the short runs by Johnson into the Spartan line got bigger. Then Morrison replaced Johnson and hit two up the gut. Martinez’s go-ahead touchdown was the easiest 2 yards he gained on the night.

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