During their first two seasons at Nebraska, head coach Mike Riley and offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf adjusted the offensive playbook to fit the skill set of veteran, dual-threat quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr.
Now, with a hand-selected, pro-style quarterback, Tulane transfer Tanner Lee, under center for the 2017 Cornhuskers, the offense should look more like Riley and Langsdorf envisioned it when they arrived in Lincoln.
But, what did Nebraska’s offense look like in 2015 and 2016? Sure, much of it was zone-read, play-action, but what did it look like with a closer look?
To do this, I created a dataset of each offensive play Nebraska ran during the past two seasons. After breaking down and analyzing that dataset, I came across five things you probably didn’t know about Nebraska’s offense from the past two seasons – and what that means for 2017:
1. Nebraska threw fewer deep and intermediate balls in 2016 and the passing game suffered, but it did reduce interceptions.
In 2015, Nebraska attempted a total of 458 passes; 58.07 percent of those passes were short attempts (0-10 yards), 25.55 percent were intermediate (11-20 yards) and 16.37 percent were deep (21+ yards).
Nebraska completed 256 of those total passes for a completion percentage of 55.90, which ranked 87th among FBS schools.
In 2016, Nebraska adjusted its play calling to allow for shorter, easier throws for the quarterbacks; 64.75 percent of the pass attempts were short, 19.75 percent were intermediate and 15.50 percent were deep.
The percent of passes outside the numbers also decreased from 2015 to 2016, causing the percent of passes inside the numbers to increase.
The completion rate did not increase for Nebraska, which completed just 50.25 percent of its pass attempts, tied for 122nd among FBS school or sixth lowest. With a shorter, controlled passing game in 2016, most of Tommy Armstrong Jr.’s passing numbers dropped. But so did his interceptions, from 16 in 2015 to eight last season, and the Huskers went from a six-win team to nine wins in 2016.
WHAT THAT MEANS FOR 2017: With a pro-style quarterback in Lee and a likely increase in accuracy, expect to see an equal number of shorter passes. Riley and Langsdorf seem to value those types of throws as a way to limit interceptions.
2. Wide receiver runs are a dangerous weapon in this offense.
Nebraska’s wide receivers and tight ends combined for 65 total rushes in 2015 and 2016—or 6.55 percent of Nebraska’s total attempts.
Of the total carries by receivers and tight ends, 35.38 percent resulted in a gain of at least 10 yards. That’s 20 percentage points better than the average (15.06) for all runs in college football last year.
Looking a little closer at the rushing attempts by Nebraska’s receivers and tight ends, 90.77 percent were attempted outside the ends of the offensive line, 49.23 percent on the left end and 41.54 percent on the right end.
These carries by receivers and tight ends had a success rate, a measure of how often an offense stays on schedule based on down and distance, of 52.31 percent, the highest by any position group for Nebraska.
WHAT THAT MEANS FOR 2017: Nebraska lost a combined six receivers and tight ends at the end of the 2016 season who recorded at least one reception. Four of those players, Alonzo Moore, Brandon Reilly, Cethan Carter and Jordan Westerkamp also had at least one rushing attempt.
De’Morney Pierson-El and Stanley Morgan Jr. are the only two returning receivers with a rushing attempt. However, don’t expect the number of receiver rushing attempts to decrease with speedy receivers Tyjon Lindsey, Keyan Williams and J.D. Spielman all listed near the top of the depth chart.
3. Westerkamp caught nearly two-thirds of the balls thrown his way.
With 103 receptions on 158 targets during the past two seasons, Westerkamp had a reception rate of 65.19 percent. This ranked highest among Nebraska wide receivers with at least 10 targets.
Nebraska’s top returning receivers, Pierson-El and Morgan Jr., ranked second and third respectively. Pierson-El had a reception rate of 55.17 percent during the past two seasons, while Morgan Jr. was slightly lower at 54.72.
Their numbers are good, but still significantly lower than Westerkamp’s, who was Nebraska’s go-to guy when the Huskers knew they had to have a catch.
In 2016 alone, Westerkamp and Pierson-El, again, ranked first and second in reception rate, but Morgan ranked fourth, catching exactly 50 percent of his targets.
Morgan led Nebraska with 66 targets in 2016, five more than Reilly, who ranked second. Thirty of the 33 receptions Morgan Jr. had in 2016 were successful based on success rate, which ranked second behind Westerkamp, who had 38.
WHAT THAT MEANS FOR 2017: The number of receivers on the depth chart is slim and the number with in-game experience is slimmer. The accuracy of Armstrong undoubtedly influenced these reception rates, but can Morgan or Pierson-El be a 65-percent receiver in 2017? If not, who can?
4. Devine Ozigbo was a more efficient back in 2016.
Ozigbo first became a presence in Nebraska’s backfield in 2015, totaling 212 yards on 38 carries. His 5.5 yards per rush ranked first among running backs. However, his success rate ranked third. At 34.21 percent, Ozigbo was efficient on just over a third of his carries.
In 2016, Ozigbo was much more efficient with a success rate of 48.45 percent, second highest among running backs. Only Tre Bryant was slightly more efficient at 48.84 percent.
WHAT THAT MEANS FOR 2017: A battle for the starting role at running back took place during fall camp. With no announcement yet, it’s likely we won’t know until the first snap in week one against Arkansas State. Although Ozigbo isn’t the most exciting back, he’s proven he can be efficient and his year-one-to-year-two gain is encouraging. Given that Bryant, a true freshman in 2016, was Nebraska’s best back in terms of success rate, expect him to get a long look, too. Riley prizes an “efficient” running game.
5. Success on first down was crucial in winning games.
When Nebraska’s offense had a success rate of 45.00 percent or higher on first down in 2015 and 2016, it had a 10-1 record. Its only loss came against Purdue in 2015—a game in which the defense struggled immensely.
When Nebraska had a success rate fewer than 45.00 percent, it had a 4-10 record.
Perhaps the biggest victory during Riley’s two seasons at Nebraska was a 39-38 win against No. 7 Michigan State in 2015. Nebraska’s offense had a first down success rate of 58.82 percent; it’s highest in any game under Riley.
Its least efficient game was against Wisconsin in 2015 when it had a rate of 25.00 percent.
WHAT THAT MEANS FOR 2017: Although Nebraska’s efficiency numbers decreased for second, third and fourth down from 2015 to 2016, its first down success rate increased by 2.29 percentage points. This is an offense that thrives on staying on schedule. When Nebraska has avoided pure passing downs (second-and-long, third-and-long), it has been a tough team to beat.