LINCOLN, Neb. -- Only twice in its illustrious history has Nebraska averaged 200 yards rushing and 200 yards passing in the same season.
Only once – last season – has it reached 250 rushing and 200 passing.
Through six games this fall, the Huskers sit at 285 rushing and 205 passing. Granted, three of the Big Ten’s top four rushing defenses – Michigan State, Iowa and Michigan – await Nebraska in November, and the other top unit against the run, Ohio State, might well be there for the Huskers in Indianapolis on Dec. 7 if things go as planned in Lincoln.
Regardless, credit the Nebraska offensive line, whose members talked in August of ranking as a vintage Huskers group. That’s a mouthful at a school that won six Outland Trophies and 13 NCAA rushing titles in the 1980s and 1990s alone.
These guys have held their own, though, allowing a FBS-low three sacks in the season’s first half.
Now they meet their biggest challenge, the test the Nebraska linemen hoped they would never face: the loss of Spencer Long. How they respond will define the way they are remembered.
“From here on out, we’re playing for Spencer,” said junior Mike Moudy, Long’s likely replacement at right guard next Saturday when Nebraska visits Minnesota. “We’ve got the drive to compete for him. Without him, we wouldn’t be where we’re at. But everyone’s just taking that in stride and saying we’re going to give our all to Spence.”
Long meant so much to his teammates. He was a throwback to the great linemen of Huskers past – a walk-on from Elkhorn, Neb., who toiled on the scout team, earned his scholarship, then all-conference honors and a recognition as a captain in his fifth-year senior season.
He started 33 games. He remains a top student, majoring in pre-med. He’ll probably be a doctor, even if the NFL delays his continued studies.
He went down on the fifth play from scrimmage last week in the Huskers’ 44-7 win at Purdue. Long was hustling around the backside of a rush by Imani Cross and fell over the legs of defensive end Ryan Russell. Long’s left knee buckled.
Coach Bo Pelini was among the first to reach him on the ground. Long underwent surgery Thursday to repair a torn MCL. Don’t bet against his return in time to work for NFL scouts ahead of the May 8-10 NFL draft.
“What happened to Spencer sucks,” senior left tackle Jeremiah Sirles said. “There’s no way around it. His career got cut short here at Nebraska, but a lot of young guys have got great opportunities now.
“We’re going to honor Spencer with our effort. We’re going to honor Spencer with the way we play, because he was our captain. We followed him.”
Who will they follow now? Perhaps Sirles, a veteran of 34 starts, fellow seniors Andrew Rodriguez at right tackle and center Cole Pensick. With Moudy and junior Jake Cotton at left guard, the offensive line is still a seasoned group.
It will work best if Moudy sticks. He fits the pedigree at 6-foot-5 and 300 pounds, another top student who has worked in the program for four years. As recently as last season, Moudy spent time on the scout team. Pelini said he noticed a big jump in the spring.
“Probably just wanting to play, “Moudy said. “The desire to play. I kind of got tired of sitting on the scout team. I had to take another step mentally.”
Long, with Cotton and offensive line coach John Garrison, aided Moudy in his ascent.
He began to prove himself at Purdue. Moudy allowed one sack but otherwise played well.
The other linemen chided him for the mistake.
“He did a great job,” Sirles said, “but he’s going to held to the same standard Spencer was held to. People are like, ‘Oh, that’s not fair.' But we all hold ourselves to a high standard. It doesn’t matter who’s out there playing.”
Injuries such as this one are all too common over the past two seasons at Nebraska. Senior defensive tackle Baker Steinkuhler went down last year during the Huskers’ regular-season finale against Iowa.
The defense did not respond well as Wisconsin and Georgia gouged Nebraska for 115 points in subsequent games.
I-back Rex Burkhead, a leader and motivational figure in the same vein as Long, missed six games of his senior year with a knee injury last season. In his place, the Huskers found a new star, Ameer Abdullah, and hardly missed a beat.
Which path will the offensive line take over the next six weeks? It figures to define their legacy.