NCAA FOOTBALL: SEP 07 Southern Miss at Nebraska

Numbers Game: What’s with the slow starts offensively?

There’s something different about Nebraska’s offense early this season. Or at least it feels like there’s something different from 2012 through two games.

Different enough that Bo Pelini was asked about it on Monday at his weekly press conference.

“(Saturday) was strange,” Pelini said “It was hard to get in a rhythm. The first drive they were backed up and probably should’ve gotten out of there. I thought we missed a cut that was there and would’ve gotten us out of there. It’s hard to get in a rhythm the way that game started, with a defensive score, and then you’re backed up and then we scored again defensively.”

He was talking about last week’s game against Southern Miss, but, remove the defensive touchdowns, and he could be talking about Wyoming too. In both games, the Huskers started the game inside their own 10-yard line, which significantly limits just how creative or risky offensive coordinator Tim Beck’s willing to be on the opening drive but more on that in a bit.

Statistically speaking, there’s little to separate the 2013 offense from what the 2012 unit averaged in its first four non-conference games last year:

 

Offensive Comparison

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You’ll notice a few slight differences in the per play averages from last year. Nebraska’s down more than a yard per play overall and more than two yards per play in the passing game. The rushing averages are within a half-yard of each other, which is the good news for Nebraska but explaining the overall decrease is relatively easy.

Last September, Nebraska averaged nearly six plays of 30 or more yards over the first five games. This season the Huskers have six total through two games. Part of that’s due to being a little conservative early on. Beck came out of the Wyoming game openly saying he wished he’d taken more shots downfield and part of being conservative ties back into the offense opening each game in the shadows of its own goal posts. Nebraska went three-and-out on both series.

But what the offense has lacked in big plays early this year, it’s made up in steady improvement throughout the game. Here are the Huskers’ yards per play averages by quarter, this year to last year:

 

Offense by Quarter

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Three things to keep in mind: 1) The 2013 stats are only two-game averages. A lot could change but if we’re talking about this year’s offense compared to last year’s, there are the  numbers. 2) The 2012 numbers are taken from the Huskers’ entire schedule so they include some games against significantly better defenses than what Nebraska has faced thus far in 2013. 3) Ignore the sharp fourth quarter drop this year. Nebraska hasn’t been in a position where the offense was asked to do anything other than salt away a win. (Less successfully so against Wyoming, but that’s another story.) The Huskers have only attempted four passes in the fourth quarter this year compared to 32 runs.

With all of that in mind, here’s a theoretical question: If you’re an offensive coordinator, which trend would you prefer? An offense that comes out red hot and sort of coasts home as defenses make in-game adjustments, or an offense that gradually increases it’s edge as the game progresses?

My line of thinking is that the upward trajectory as the game progresses indicates an offense that is stronger overall. There are a lot of variables that could affect that. Maybe a team just has a significant physical advantage and wears the opponent out. Maybe a team is getting blown out frequently and picking up empty yards. You could make the same claims for the opposite trajectory. An offensive coordinator could be better at scripting an opening series than making in-game calls. This team could be blowing a lot of teams out and sticking to vanilla running plays. There are a lot of different things to consider when you’re trying assess the actual ability of an offense year-to-year, but from a purely theoretical standpoint give me the offense that gets better as the game goes on.

If that’s Nebraska this year, I think it’s in better shape than it was a year ago but we’ll find out as the Huskers face stronger opponents.

It starts this week. Here’s hoping that, either by losing the toss or just electing to put the offense on the field, Nebraska gets the ball first and starts out at its 25-yard line. Then we can put these questions of rhythm, play-calling and slow starts to the test.

STATS SOUP

Some other Nebraska numbers worth considering early this season…

–Nebraska currently ranks 19th nationally, picking up 55.17 percent (16-for-29) of its third down attempts. The truly interesting thing, however, is that the average distance on those third downs is 6.14 yards. The Huskers haven’t quite been as on schedule as they’d like, but it hasn’t burned them yet.

–Among quarterbacks who have played two games against FBS-level opponents this season, Taylor Martinez’s 71.1 completion percentage ranks fifth behind Chuckie Keeton (Nevada), J.W. Walsh (Oklahoma State), Derek Thompson (North Texas) and Aaron Murray (Georgia). Christian Hackenberg, Penn State’s true freshman quarterback, ranks seventh.

–The Huskers’ six interceptions this season currently rank third nationally.

–Freshman I-back Terrell Newby is averaging 5.91 yards per carry despite not having a run longer than 20 yards this season.