To mark the return of the I-80 Preview podcast for another season, I took this very long preview of Nebraska’s offense and made it a podcast. That won’t be a regular occurrence and the I-80 Preview feed will be back to regularly scheduled podcasting––a game/opponent preview––the Thursdays before Nebraska games. Point is, you can listen to this article if you want to, and, since I’m not planning to do that often, you could call this a limited edition.
These are the ways in which Mark Whipple’s 2021 offense at Pittsburgh and Nebraska’s offense from last season were the same. Pitt averaged 486.6 yards per game (eighth nationally), Nebraska averaged 446.6 (22nd). That’s despite the Panthers running seven more plays per game, on average, and playing the 39th-toughest schedule in the country by Team Rankings’ measure. Nebraska faced the sixth-most difficult schedule last year and only trailed the Panthers by 40 yards. On a per-play basis, the Huskers were slightly better than Pitt, ranking 18th to the Panthers’ 25th.
Nebraska hit for an explosive pass on 21% of plays, Pitt on 20.6%. The Panthers had a success rate of 47.7%, the Huskers 45.7%. The average play in 2021 generated 0.298 points in predicted value for the Panthers (22nd nationally), 0.283 for the Huskers (31st). Pitt allowed 2.43 sacks per game, Nebraska 2.42.
There were statistical differences, too, but broadly speaking these were both top-30 offenses a year ago. Pitt was a little more efficient, Nebraska a little more explosive. Neither was “bad” in either category. In my view, there was only one difference that actually mattered.
Pittsburgh averaged 41 points per game (third nationally), Nebraska averaged 28 (71st).
This is an oversimplification, but that’s why Whipple is in Lincoln now. That’s why he was worth nearly $1 million in 2022. Nebraska has spent a $1.20 to earn a dollar on offense during the Scott Frost era. Whipple’s Panthers in 2021 spent 80 cents to earn that same dollar.
From a numbers perspective, that’s the play. Nebraska under Frost has never had a problem putting up yards, it’s had a problem putting up points. Whipple put up a lot of points last year with basically the same numbers.
If you think about how much hinges on that play, it could drive you crazy. Jobs are on the line. Entire families might have to move. Kids, having just made new friends, might have to leave them behind . . . again. Millions of dollars are at stake.
Anyway, let’s preview Nebraska’s offense in 2022.
At Big Ten Media Days in late July, Frost called his partnership with Whipple “a fun collaboration.” He corrected a reporter who characterized the change that’s coming for Nebraska’s offense as Frost “stepping away” from play-calling duties. In fact, to whatever degree Frost has given up some control, he said it makes him “sad,” as good an indication as any that something new actually is happening here.
That’s all fine and fair. It should give Frost some remorse because he’s good at presenting problems for a defense through scheme and play-calling. He shouldn’t be totally divorced from that side of the ball because Nebraska’s offense isn’t broken. It just has one bizarre malfunction—not enough points.
Whipple, who has the seen-it-all savvy you’d expect from someone with 40-plus years in the game, is here to assess and address that malfunction. We all already know that. Four months from now, we’ll all know if it did or didn’t work.
Right now, however, the question is: how does it all work? What does this offense look like? What does it need to look like?
I don’t know, to be honest. Like the rest of you, I can only try to make informed guesses at this point, but here are three things to consider.
ALL PASS, NO BRAKES?
Whipple is a passing guy. You need to know that and probably already do if you follow Husker football closely. His 2021 Pitt offense threw the ball on 53.5% of plays, Nebraska ran the ball on 55.6% of plays. That’s the offseason conflict. Is this a pass-first offense now given the Huskers hired Mark Whipple?
The projected answer is more complicated. The old adage that a team “has to run the ball to win” is more of a chicken-or-egg scenario than anything. Winning teams do often out-rush the opponent, but it may only be because teams that are already winning tend to run the ball more.
Whipple’s Pitt tenure is a good example. Last season, the Panthers ran the ball 57.5% of the time when it was in the lead, 36.5% when tied and 40.2% when trailing. It’s the number when tied that probably gives you the clearest picture into the heart of an offensive coordinator. The stakes are even then. Playing with a lead prompts more rushes, playing from beyond prompts more passes, and those are powerful forces impacting what a coach can do, regardless of what he wants to do.
When all things were equal in 2021, Whipple opted to throw the ball a lot and it would’ve been dumb not to. He had an eventual Heisman finalist at quarterback and one of the best receivers in the game. Before that was the case, in 2020 and 2019, Whipple’s offense still threw the ball more than they ran. There’s not a lot of mystery about what he wants to do.
How often he does it at Nebraska in 2022, however, largely depends on how things go. In addition to the vast difference in scoring between the Panthers and Huskers last season, there was another one worth noting—Pitt’s offense had a lead on 55.6% of the plays it ran last season. Nebraska had a lead on 28.8% of plays in 2021, and this has been a consistent problem through the Frost era. In 2018 the offense had a lead for 30.8% of plays, it was 35.1% in 2019 and 26.1% in 2020. The Huskers have constantly had to play uphill.
If you’re worried by the idea of a pass-first offense in the big, burly Big Ten, I get it. The track record of that approach succeeding in this conference isn’t extensive. Ohio State can do it, but it laps everyone in terms of talent. Purdue tries to. Indiana tried to under Kevin Wilson. Beyond that, in a 21st Century context, you’re talking about Joe Tiller as a successful example of taking to the gray skies consistently in the upper Midwest.
But in this specific example, 2022, if Nebraska ends up throwing more than it runs, it’s probably a good thing up to about the 55% mark. It would mean two things: 1) Casey Thompson (or whoever starts the most games) was probably able to execute the offense as designed, and 2) Nebraska probably wasn’t playing on a slanted field based on the score. This is where—between 50 and 55% pass—I’d guess this first Whipple offense lands.
More than that, and the Huskers probably trailed too often, as they have for the past four seasons.
Less than that? Could be great news or it could be terrible news.
RUN IT BACK
Now to Frost’s part in this hopefully “fun collaboration.” He trends toward run, probably not a surprise given the offense he played in (Nebraska’s) and the offense he made his coaching name in (Oregon’s). The Huskers have been a run-first team all four years under Frost, despite not getting enough out of the running backs after Devine Ozigbo in 2018. It’s where Frost comes from.
Whipple may have offered a hint at the division of duties this summer during a Sports Nightly radio appearance. Speaking about Logan Smothers, the only returning quarterback with experience at Nebraska, Whipple said Smothers only had to learn half the playbook. That half was the passing game, Whipple’s concepts. The half he already knew was the run game, Frost’s concepts. At least that’s how I read it.
It might make sense if that were the case. Despite a heavy reliance on Adrian Martinez for yards, and Luke McCaffrey for a couple of games, the Huskers’ run game may have totaled out better than you think. In a conference where rush yards are hard to come by, Nebraska’s rushing offense has finished in the top half of the Big Ten all four years under Frost. Last season, sixth, was its lowest ranking yet, but it was against one of the 10 toughest schedules in the country.
The good news/bad news of this run/pass breakdown is this: Unless Nebraska has a breakout star in its running backs room right now, it’s hard to see the passing game not being the Huskers’ weapon of choice. If Nebraska does, great news. Maybe it’s Gabe Ervin Jr., building on the promise shown during an injury-shortened season. Maybe it’s Rahmir Johnson, the solid, often underappreciated option. Maybe it’s one of the newcomers.
If the Huskers don’t have such a back, a run-first focus might mean that the football gods finally smiled upon Lincoln. That would be a nice thing for Nebraska’s immediate goals, but, perhaps, not all that sustainable—the bad news. Through luck or design, if Nebraska was playing from ahead most of 2022, then I could see this being an offense that ended up closer to a 50-50 split.
But those are really the only two scenarios where I could see that being the case. I can’t feel good about betting on Nebraska having one of the 20 or 30 best backs in the country right now based on what we’ve seen, but maybe I could bet on Nebraska being a team that consistently gets a lead and maximizes the advantage that presents. If that happens, and it hasn’t for four seasons now, it could be a sign of overall program health.
Or, like a big swing in turnovers, it could be a bit random. The Huskers would probably take random right now if it meant more wins, but I’d spend the entire 2023 offseason worrying about sustainability.
Of course, these discussions—the run/pass split, luck versus design—won’t matter at all if Nebraska doesn’t address perhaps its biggest issue entering 2022.
IS MINDSET THE KEY TO BETTER LINE PLAY?
It’s hard to be good in the Big Ten if you’re just average on the offensive line, and it’s hard to argue Nebraska has been better-than-average up front of late. Center Cam Jurgens earned third-team All-Big Ten honors from the media last year. He was the first Husker lineman to make one of the top three teams since tackle Nick Gates in 2016.
The Huskers have had one first-team All-Big Ten lineman since entering the Big Ten—Spencer Long in 2012. This at a program that has nine Outland Trophy winners, the most in the history of the award.
Nebraska was about average in 2021 in a number of line-specific measures—67th in line yards, 60th in opportunity rate, 60th in stuff rate—and seriously below average in one. The Huskers allowed a sack on 8.1% of dropbacks last season, 104th nationally.
That said, new position coach Donovan Raiola doesn’t inherit a line in need of a complete renovation. Jurgens, a second-round pick of the Philadelphia Eagles, is tough to replace, but he was really the only key piece the Huskers were missing prior to the news left guard Nouredin Nouili would miss the upcoming season. With Nouili in the mix, the Huskers returned 82% of their o-line snaps from last season, the most in the Big Ten and 11th nationally. Without him, that number comes back to pack a bit, but there’s still plenty here for Raiola.
The Huskers’ triumvirate of tackles—Turner Corcoran, Teddy Prochazka and Bryce Benhart—have talent. By 247 Composite rating, those three rank first (Corcoran), fourth (Benhart) and seventh (Prochazka) among all of the offensive linemen Nebraska has signed since 2011. With Corcoran’s ability to move around on the line, that’s not a bad place to start. If those three are all starters, Raiola would have the option of two sixth-year seniors—Trent Hixson and Broc Bando—at center and guard.
Frost has been consistent, if a bit general, in what Nebraska needs from its line and what he’s seen from Raiola’s group through the offseason.
“What really drew me to Donny is what I believe in from an attitude and technique standpoint on the offensive line is exactly what he coaches,” Frost said at Big Ten Media Days. “I think that change can make us a little bit better. He’s done a good job getting that team, that group, to be a unit and be a brotherhood.”
Could improved line play really be as simple as a change in mindset? Maybe. It is the biggest position group on the team, so a feeling of camaraderie among the group probably matters the most up front. Playing on the line also involves some of the hardest work for the least amount of attention. Pride in a job well done is often the only immediate reward, and that’s not everyone’s default setting.
Sometimes you need someone who can instill that. Frost is betting Raiola’s the guy. Bando called his new position coach “very demanding,” but said “that’s what we need right now.”
More than once this offseason, Frost said he believes Raiola’s impact will be noticeable. It needs to be.
“I’m not saying anything that everybody doesn’t know, but as that group goes, we’re probably gonna go,” Frost said.
And so it goes.
Brandon is the Managing Editor for Hail Varsity and has covered Nebraska athletics for the magazine and web since 2012, Hail Varsity’s first season on the scene. His sports writing has also been featured by Fox Sports, The Guardian and CBS Sports.