LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska has allowed two 100-yard rushers in the first four games of the season.
The Cornhuskers are just sixth in the Big 12 and 53rd nationally in run defense, too. Lay those statistics on NU coach Bo Pelini, and he’ll shoot you a look that says, “So what’s your point?”
Pelini doesn’t lack for confidence in the No. 6 Huskers’ ability to stop the run.
“We have our ways,” Pelini said, “but we don’t necessarily always call those things, especially early on when we’re in control of football games. ... I have a pretty good idea where we are running game-wise and what we have to do to handle the run.”
Pelini will find out for sure Thursday night when Nebraska (4-0) goes against Daniel Thomas and Kansas State (4-0, 1-0 Big 12) on the first stop of the Huskers’ Big 12 farewell tour. Kickoff is set for 6:30 p.m. at Bill Snyder Family Stadium. The game will be televised on ESPN.
Thomas is the nation’s fifth-leading rusher at 157 yards a game, and in the running for a second straight conference rushing title.
The opportunity in front of the Huskers is similar to the one they had against Washington quarterback Jake Locker two games ago.
“I do get excited. I’m not going to lie,” Huskers safety Rickey Thenarse said. “Everyone talks about Jake Locker and how he passes the ball. So it’s time to step up to a running back and show what we’re all about. We’re not backing down. I’m not backing down. I’m looking forward to this challenge.”
The Huskers are allowing 139 yards a game on the ground, 46 more than last season when star lineman Ndamukong Suh and linebacker Phillip Dillard were plugging the middle.
Pelini said it’s too early to worry. Last year’s early opponents gouged the Huskers at times, but Nebraska ended up being a top-10 defense and No. 1 in fewest points allowed.
The running backs who had big games against the Huskers weren’t one-game wonders. Western Kentucky’s Bobby Rainey, who ran for 155 yards against Nebraska, went for 187 against Kentucky and 110 against Indiana.
Kyle Minett of FCS South Dakota State sandwiched his 112-yard game against Nebraska between 120- and 137-yard outings against Illinois State and Northern Iowa, respectively.
Even when Rainey and Minett made big gains, the Huskers resisted the temptation to load up to shut down the run.
“We were experimenting with different things,” Pelini said. “There’s a method to the madness.”
The Huskers, who haven’t played since Sept. 25, have spent much of their off time reviewing fundamentals in practice. Tackling the 6-foot-2, 228-pound Thomas is more than a one-man job. He spins and lowers his shoulder to make defenders miss, and he patiently follows blocks and accelerates once he finds a hole.
“He doesn’t go down easy,” Huskers lineman Jared Crick said. “He doesn’t take the easy way out. If he’s close to the sideline, he cuts it back and tries to get as many yards as he can, and we all respect that. We’re going to group tackle, fly to the ball and hope that settles that situation.”
Thenarse said Thomas reminds him of the Minnesota Vikings’ Adrian Peterson, another sturdy back with an aggressive running style.
“He’s not that explosive but he’s right there,” Thenarse said of Thomas. “So it’s time to bring the big-boy pads to this game and try to get a couple licks on him.”
Though the Wildcats prefer the physical running game, quarterback Chase Coffman has thrown effectively when necessary.
Central Florida held Thomas to a season-low 76 yards, but Coffman led two fourth-quarter scoring drives, finishing one with a 58-yard pass in a 17-13 win.
Pelini said the Huskers will get burned if they focus only on Thomas.
“You have to give him the necessary respect,” Pelini said. “I promise you everybody on our football team respects Daniel Thomas. But you also have to understand you can get beat in other areas if you’re not careful.”