More than enough time has passed since Nebraska beat UCLA 37-29 in the Foster Farms Bowl to peer forward and digest the meaning of the Cornhuskers’ somewhat surprising sixth victory under coach Mike Riley.
It was surprising not in that Nebraska won -- expect the unexpected in second- and third-tier bowls -- but that it resembled something different than the group that played and coached the first 12 games in 2015.
The Huskers rushed the football 62 times against the Bruins’ suspect front. That’s 23 times more than in any other game and 76.3 percent over Nebraska’s season average.
It matters less that Nebraska gained a season-best 326 yards and scored four rushing touchdowns. What matters is that it stayed committed to the running game, even when down 14 points in the first half.
Looking toward 2016, a physical, run-first personality gives Nebraska its most realistic shot at big improvement as the schedule toughens, with Oregon headed to Lincoln in September and trips to Wisconsin, Ohio State and Iowa.
You want to be a contender in the Big Ten West? Run the football.
Nebraska averaged 35.2 passes per game, more than every team in the Big Ten except Illinois, Purdue and Indiana, and five times exceeded 40 throws -- all in defeat.
Against UCLA, quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. threw 19 passes, a season low.
The Huskers went all in, so to speak, on using December as the first chapter of the coach’s second season in Lincoln.
The gamble worked. And Nebraska finds itself, after the disappointment of a 6-7 season, with an opportunity to capitalize on December energy and use a win over UCLA as the foundation for offseason momentum.
It’s a real thing. Just ask Iowa, which built its 2015 success from the ground up, starting one year ago this month. The Hawkeyes were intensely focused after losing three straight games. Players and coaches targeted specific areas for improvement.
They shined light on the fine line between mediocrity and championship-contending status.
It’s a solid blueprint for Nebraska -- both for the offseason focus and style of offensive play. The Hawkeyes threw 26.4 passes per game in 2015. Before Nebraska’s Dec. 26 turnabout in California, it had not reached 40 rushing attempts in a game, a threshold Iowa crossed nine times.
Don’t be too proud, Huskers, to take a page from Iowa.
And while we’re at it, here are three more early offseason suggestions:
Retire the old mantra, once and for all. Nebraska linebacker Josh Banderas dropped an “us against the world” comment after the bowl victory, albeit harmless in reference to the unjust ejection of safety Nathan Gerry for targeting. Still, it’s time to flush the idea, remaining from the Bo Pelini era, that any group of people -- the officials, the media, fans -- are out to harm the Huskers. It creates temporary togetherness with diminishing returns when adversity strikes and goes directly against the Riley mentality. Team unity is a strong tool, but draw strength from positive outside forces. There are plenty available.
Stand behind Armstrong. Armstrong is again the right QB to lead Nebraska in 2016. He’ll be a senior and sounds committed to improvement. If Nebraska throws 20 to 25 passes per game instead of 35, it better positions him for success. And the arrival this week of California prospect Patrick O’Brien probably does not provide an immediate solution. Here’s what Riley told me last month on O’Brien: “We’ll try to give him an opportunity to learn and grow and play, but it is a challenge for sure. Nine times out of 10, I’d like to redshirt every player, especially a quarterback for learning purposes and physically.” Riley wants to take a hard look at him, but Armstrong, a proven worker in practice, likely won’t give an inch to the freshman -- or the Huskers’ other contenders.
Keep it going on the defensive line. Standout tackle Maliek Collins is leaving early for the NFL. Vincent Valentine may go with him. End Jack Gangwish, a senior, is also done at Nebraska. The front four was a strength for the Huskers in 2015. Don’t let it turn into a concern as the linebackers and secondary figure to improve. Even if the Huskers run the ball better, unless they stop the run, improvement won’t show. So get to work on grooming twins Carlos and Khalil Davis to play in addition to veteran Kevin Maurice. Go the junior college route if needed and prepare Freedom Akinmoladun to play on every down on the edge.