Just five regular season games remain for Nebraska football in the 2017 season. The Huskers are 3-4 overall and 2-2 in the Big Ten.
The offense has been up and down all season, scoring 28 points in one half against Oregon, but also being shut out in the first half twice inside Memorial Stadium.
Not all of it is bad, but not all of it is good. Here are three of each.
1. The emergence of J.D. Spielman
Spielman, a redshirt-freshman wide receiver, wasted no time making his presence known in week one against Arkansas State, after a 99-yard kick return for a touchdown.
This past Saturday against Ohio State, Spielman set the school record for most receiving yards in a game with 200, 77 of which game on a catch-and-run touchdown to give Nebraska its first points of the contest.
Through seven games this season, the speedy Eden Prairie, Minn., native ranks second on the team in targets (55), receptions (31), receiving yards (475) and catches resulting in a successful play (26).
Among the six Huskers with 10 or more targets, Spielman ranks third in reception rate, catching 56.36 percent of his targets. In that same group, he ranks second in successful play per target (42.27 percent), successful play per reception (83.87) and rate of dropped passes (5.45).
Nebraska’s leading receiver and Biletnikoff Award watch list member, Stanley Morgan Jr., trails Spielman in three of the four categories.
Spielman is turning into a go-to target on third and fourth down for quarterback Tanner Lee. Thirty-two of Spielman’s 55 targets have come on third or fourth down, nearly 60 percent. He’s picked up a first down on just over half of the attempts.
2. The interception rate is decreasing
On the final play of Saturday’s 56-14 loss against Ohio State, Nebraska’s interception total tallied 11, four more than this point of the season in 2015 and six more than this point in 2016.
Even with Patrick O’Brien’s last-second throw into the end zone getting picked, the rate of interceptions per game for the Huskers is steadily going down.
Tanner Lee had zero interceptions in his Nebraska debut against Arkansas State. He then proceeded to throw nine of them in the next 11 quarters of play, a stretch that concludes with the third quarter against Rutgers.
Since then, Lee’s only interception came against Wisconsin, a pass that in most people’s judgment should have been caught by running back Devine Ozigbo.
If we exclude O’Brien’s last second interception, the rate drops even more.
Although Lee’s interceptions have been very costly, with four of them being returned for touchdowns, he has been throwing more passes away—or out of bounds—rather than forcing them into coverage. He’s also opted to use his legs and gain three or four yards.
3. More third-down conversions
Three games into the 2017 season, Nebraska was converting on less than one-third of its third downs. It was a dismal 15-for-47, a success rate of 31.91 percent.
In week two against Oregon, the Huskers were an astonishing 2-for-14, a rate of 14.29 percent.
The last time Nebraska had a rate that low in one game was in 2012. The Huskers were 1-for-11 on third down against UCLA, for a rate of 9.09 percent.
In the past four games, Nebraska is converting on nearly half of its third downs. The Huskers were 27-for-57 during that stretch, a 47.37 percent success rate.
In Week 5 against Illinois, Nebraska was successful on 7 of its 11 third down plays for a rate of 63.64 percent, its highest since week five of 2016, also against Illinois.
With the success rate on first down decreasing, the Huskers are likely going to face more third downs. A continued success rate on those crucial third downs will keep drives alive.
Now, the bad things…
1. Dropped passes continue
Following Nebraska’s 42-35 loss to Oregon in Week 2, I wrote about the Huskers’ issue with dropped passes.
Five weeks later, that issue has only gotten worse.
Two weeks into the 2017 season, Nebraska dropped five targets for a rate of 6.85 percent. Now, that rate is up to 10 percent with 25 dropped passes.
Among the six players with at least 10 targets, Morgan, the Huskers’ leading receiver in a majority of categories, has the highest drop rate at 14.75 percent. In fact, he’s responsible for over one-third of the teams’ total drops.
A dropped pass is never good in any situation, but Nebraska’s continue to occur at very crucial moments.
Eleven of the 25 dropped passes have occurred on third or fourth down, meaning the offense was either forced to punt or settle for a field goal.
Five of the dropped passes have occurred on the first play of the drive, putting the offense in a difficult second-and-long situation.
2. Offense isn’t taking advantage of favorable starting field position
The starting field position of a drive can have a heavy effect on how many points an offense ends with.
On average, drives starting further down the field result in more points scored. For Nebraska, that hasn’t been the case this season.
Excluding garbage-time drives, the Huskers average starting field position this season has been just past its own 28-yard line (72 yards from goal).
On drives starting beyond that mark up to the opponents' 31-yard line, Nebraska, on average, is scoring fewer points than the past two seasons.
However, strangely enough, behind that 28-yard line average, they are scoring a higher average.
When Nebraska is pinned deep in its own territory, its scoring more points on average than when it is given a favorable starting field position.
3. Run game is on a downhill slide
Sophomore running back Tre Bryant was looking like one of the best backs in the Big Ten before a reoccurring knee injury flared up in the second half against Oregon earlier this season.
Bryant totaled 304 yards on 59 carries, with a success rate of 46.15 percent.
Backups Devine Ozigbo and Mikale Wilbon were left to take over the reins. The two combined to rush for over 100 yards in the next four games. Ozigbo ran for 100 yards alone in three consecutive games.
However, the success rate wasn’t there.
Wilbon now has a rushing success rate of 38.96 percent, while Ozigbo’s is slightly higher at 39.19.
As for the rushing success rate for the whole team, it’s decreased each game since Bryant went out with an injury.
The Huskers had a run success rate of 18.75 percent against Ohio State.
With talks of a medical redshirt for Bryant, Wilbon and Ozigbo, as well as the offensive line, will need to be more efficient if the offense is going to succeed.