The Finishing Move
Photo Credit: Eric Francis

The Finishing Move, the Quarterback-Only Club, and the Biggest Get

December 16, 2019

It’s Sunday. Here’s a Monday column.

Nebraska Must Not Play Mortal Kombat

Nebraska ranked 116th nationally in red zone conversion percentage. The Huskers got points on only 74.5% of trips inside the opponent 20-yard-line this season. If you isolated the conversation to just touchdown trips in the red zone, Nebraska ranked 100th.

Not great. But there was plenty of things—on the field, in the box score, at the postgame podium—that suggested closing was not a strong suit of the 2019 Nebraska offense. Yet, here I am, wondering what their finishing looked like on paper.

A scoring opportunity is when an offense’s drive stretches inside an opponent’s 40-yard-line. If you take a snap in there, it’s considered to be a scoring opportunity. You’re in range for most kickers to attempt a field goal (ha) and not yet into the condensed part of the red zone where the playbook gets trickier.

You’re knocking on the door. Or, depending on how you want to structure the metaphor, the door is open and all you have to do is not trip on the frame and smack your head on the hardwood just beyond the welcome rug.

Nebraska, in this dragged-out metaphor, had a concussion by season’s end. The Huskers sucked in scoring position. Seventy-five drives featured a snap inside the opponent 40 (I’ve taken out one that ended with a kneel-down and another that ended with the clock running out before halftime), and Nebraska got zero points out of 27 of them.

Thirty-six percent. That’s really, really bad.

In fact, Nebraska’s points per scoring opportunity was the lowest it has been in years: 4.58 in 2016, 4.43 in 2017, 4.73 in 2018, and 3.74 in 2019. Over the back half of the Huskers’ season, Nebraska was getting just 3.57 points out of drives that featured snaps inside the 40. 

  Percentage of drives inside the 40
Touchdowns 46.8
Made field goals 15.6
Missed field goals 9.1
Punts 9.1
Turnovers 5.2
Turnovers on downs 11.7

Nebraska had 11 drives in its last six games alone that ended with either a punt or a turnover on downs after just two such drives over the course of the first six games. 

Not having a kicker hurt the Huskers, particularly in this part of the field. Head coach Scott Frost was forced to gamble, oftentimes in less-than-ideal situations, that his offense had a better chance of picking up, say, 7 yards than his kicker did of connecting from the 30. Hard to operate that way when your offense is already in a degree of disarray the likes of which you hadn’t dealt with a season prior.

But Nebraska made mistakes, too. Plenty. Be it a sack after a big play, a penalty after a big play, a suspect play-call, a turnover. The Huskers had 59 drives last season that featured a gain of 20 yards or more and 21 of those possessions ended without points. 

Twenty-one of 59 drives. That’s a little over a third. I’m thinking about the Wisconsin game, when the Huskers got a 45-yard pickup on the ground by quarterback Adrian Martinez and were flagged 15 yards on the play because a coach was too far out into the white of the sideline that an official ran into him, then got a 43-yard run from running back Dedrick Mills, only to pick up 6 yards on the next four plays and turn it over on downs.

Things I know: Nebraska just taking the next step as an offense because it’ll return a bunch of production from this season isn’t a given unless Nebraska can figure out how to execute a little cleaner in scoring positions and find that finishing touch. 

Things I have no idea about: how exactly to go about accomplishing that. Big summer ahead for Frost’s group.

Heisman Thoughts

Chase Young got invited so the Heisman Trophy Trust could go on another year pretending the most prestigious and sought-after individual award in college football is more than just a quarterbacks-only club.

It hasn’t always been that. From Johnny Rodgers in 1972 to Mike Rozier in 1983, 11 straight non-quarterback footballers won the Heisman. From 1960 to 1999, only 14 quarterbacks picked up the trophy.

Since 2000, 17 of the 20 honorees have been quarterbacks. (And even though the NCAA took it away, the 2005 Heisman was still awarded to Reggie Bush. He still was an unstoppable machine in the games he played.)

And, honestly, whatever.

Joe Burrow is a really damn good quarterback and he had a really damn good season for LSU and he had a really damn good case for every single award he was eligible to win. The title of “best in the country” is so unbelievably subjective, but Burrow is objectively one of the very best. He’s absolutely more deserving now than Mark Ingram was in 2009. I’m happy for him.

You could say the same for Kyler Murray in 2018. You could say the same of Baker Mayfield in 2017. You could say the same of Lamar Jackson in 2016.

But 841 of a possible 891 first-place votes? It’s fitting that the largest margin of victory for the Heisman in the trophy’s history comes in a season where we witnessed arguably the most dominant defensive player in a decade. And that Young’s season and subsequent fourth-place finish comes on the 10-year anniversary of Ndamukong Suh having maybe one of the greatest individual seasons ever and being disrespected by the same voting body with a fourth-place finish.

This isn’t about the best player in football anymore. It’s about the best quarterback, and if he happens to play for one of the three or four best teams, it’s a lock. The Heisman will sprinkle in the occasional running back to insulate against those who would get too preachy about that first fact.

Chase Young led the country in sacks, with 16.5, and he missed two games. His 21 tackles for loss ranked fourth nationally, but only 1.5 behind first. All that while having his days called early in like 90% of his games. If he enters the draft, don’t think for a second even the most quarterback-needy of teams wouldn’t at least entertain the possibility of taking him No. 1 overall. (Take Young, then continue to tank for Trevor Lawrence or Tua Tagovailoa in the following draft? Not a bad way to reset a franchise.)

Burrow had the narrative. It’s fine. You knew watching the SEC Championship he was winning the award right there before your eyes.

Surprise, surprise: early odds for the 2020 Heisman winner have quarterbacks as the top five guys.

(A larger issue I have with the award is the voting process is starting to get a little lazy, like a lot of other voting processes we have in sports. Chuba Hubbard’s votes in comparison to Jonathan Taylor’s votes illustrates the work that actually went into those ballots on the whole. The Oklahoma State running back led the country in yards per game; Taylor was third. Hubbard and Taylor each had 21 touchdowns. Hubbard had 18 20-yard runs; Taylor had 13. Hubbard had the poorer supporting cast; Taylor had the Rimington Trophy-winning center. Taylor having 189 points in the voting compared to Hubbard’s 68 doesn’t make much sense to me at all. Neither does Tagovailoa getting a first-place vote.)

A Huge Commit

If you’ve been following the work of my colleague, Greg Smith, then you knew this was the expected outcome. Omar Manning‍ was going to join the Huskers’ class. And yet, knowing probably didn’t make the news that he has officially committed a week out from signing day any less exciting to those within the walls of Memorial Stadium or those hitting the like button on Twitter with blazing speed.

Manning is a big, huge, massive, monster addition to this class. 

From Smith’s Five Thoughts piece on the commitment:

Manning isn’t just a big, slow wideout. He has great size but he can stretch the field, too. At Kilgore this season he had 35 catches for 727 yards and six touchdowns on 20.8 yards per reception. He has good hands and is a willing blocker. Simply put, he can do it all. That combination of skills is rare. Which is why he spent the entire cycle as Nebraska’s top wide receiver target. 

(The story linked is premium, so if you can’t access it then you might as well go here and fix that.)

Manning could wind up being the most important get of this 2020 class. He was important enough to bring Adrian Martinez back onto Twitter to welcome him to the team. Manning’s graphic not-so-coincidentally highlighted his size—6-foot-4—so as to say “Look, we’ve needed a big receiver and we just got a big receiver.”

Junior college receivers, in the right system, with the right quarterback, can have a massive impact right away. I’ve seen it. Nebraska needed this season what Minnesota had in Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman. Would those finishing numbers up above have been different if they had just one of those dudes to pair with Wan’Dale Robinson and JD Spielman? 

Nebraska now has a dude who can slot in on the outside and take the over-the-top burden off Spielman and allow him to work on the underneath stuff he does best. Manning can be Martinez’s guy when he needs to just take a chance and throw the ball up. 

I don’t think I’m putting too much on the newcomer’s plate here. There’s a reason he was and has been for a hot minute No. 1 on Nebraska’s board.

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