How has Year 1 gone, Coach?
“You know when you go through something and it seems like it just started yesterday but also it seems like it started 10 years ago? That’s kind of how this year’s been,” head coach Scott Frost said Monday morning.
The “just started yesterday” part? That’s probably because Nebraska is having a lot of fun playing football right now. You see it on players’ faces before, during and after football games. You hear it when they talk.
Nebraska has a chance to close the back half of its first season under Frost 5-1.
The “seems like it started 10 years ago” part? That’s probably because Nebraska started this football season 0-6. The patience was being tested. Players were leaving. Nationally, people were hitting pause on the Nebraska Rebirth Tour. There was a pretty dark and pretty heavy cloud, as Frost has said, over Memorial Stadium.
Yet that feels like forever ago, doesn’t it? The dark times, the negative energy, all that bad stuff, it feels like years ago.
Whenever coaching staffs change over and programs enter into a rebuild, seasons turn into steps on a ladder. It’s about the climb; things happen one step at a time.
The phrase “Year 0” gets tossed around when a coach is having to completely makeover a football team. Then you get into Year 1 where you try and get your stuff implemented, then Year 2 where you try and win football games your players aren’t used to winning, then Year 3 where you hopefully have either reached or gotten close to that light at the end of the tunnel, whatever that may be for your particular program.
Nebraska, it feels like, has had multiple seasons within this first year under Frost. Sophomore tackle Matt Farniok told me it feels like a Year 1 and a Year 2 jammed into three months. It split nice and pretty down the middle — the first six games and the last six — as there have been stark differences between the first half and the last half of 2018 both on the field and off it.
So let’s look at both.
On the Field: the Numbers Part
Things look different in a lot of the areas Frost pays attention to. We’ll start on the offensive side.
|OFFENSE||First Six Games||Last Five Games|
|Yards per play||5.96 yards||6.87 yards|
|Yards per point||18.88 yards||12.86 yards|
|Rushing yards per play||5.53 yards||7.22 yards|
(Martinez: 62.3 percent)
(Martinez: 65.8 percent)
|Explosive run percentage||19.7 percent||23.0 percent|
|Explosive pass percentage||18.8 percent||12.7 percent|
|Big play rate (20-plus yards)||8.4 percent||8.8 percent|
|Turnovers||13 total (7 INT, 6 FUM)||8 total (3 INT, 5 FUM)|
They’re all important, but maybe the two most interesting numbers are the first two. If Nebraska can stay around the second yards per play mark, Frost is happy. The first, 5.96 yards, would mark the 38th-best in the country over an entire season, which isn’t bad. But the second would be good for eighth. Now you’re cooking.
Both those big play rates are great — for the entire season Nebraska ranks 17th nationally in that regard — but when you can combine the kind of explosiveness Nebraska has shown both through the air and on the ground with an uber-efficient offense, you have what Frost had in Year 2 at Central Florida. That was maybe the best offense in the country.
The efficiency across the board has made a big jump over the back half of the season. It hasn't really come at the expense of explosiveness, either. Nebraska has had the ball for virtually the same amount of time (an average of 27:30 through the first six and 28:15 over these last five) while running four fewer plays a game on average.
That's the efficiency talking. And it's yelling loudest in that yards per point number. The lower that number is, the better your offense is performing. The first six games would be the second-worst nationally, the last five would rank 28th.
Guard Tanner Farmer said the offense's goal has been to hang 50 on teams each game. "We were looking at the kind of yardage we were putting up, 500 yards for a lot of the games and we said we should be putting up almost 50 points with this many yards," he said after the Illinois game.
The offense is only averaging about 40 yards more over the last five than the first six (486.2 up from 440.5 per game) but the scoring has jumped from 23.3 to 39.4.
Everyone is playing better and executing cleaner. The offensive line deserves credit for the growth it has made. Penalties and sack rate are both down for that unit. The running backs, namely senior Devine Ozigbo, have settled in. The pass-catchers have made a pretty sizeable jump in perimeter blocking. Quarterback Adrian Martinez has improved the decision-making.
"The team just feels different now," Martinez said. "I wish we could have been playing like this at the beginning of the year because I think things would be a little bit different, but it is what it is. We have another opportunity this week to play a really good team and show people this is who we are now.”
Now for the defense.
|DEFENSE||First Six Games||Last Five Games|
|Yards per play||5.88 yards||5.74 yards|
|Yards per point||11.63 yards||18.49 yards|
|Rushing yards per play||5.57 yards||5.70 yards|
|Completion percentage||61.8 percent||47.0 percent|
|Explosive run percentage||14.5 percent||14.5 percent|
|Explosive pass percentage||18.5 percent||15.9 percent|
|Big play rate||6.6 percent||7.6 percent|
|Havoc rate||15.2 percent||19.1 percent|
|TakeOpps||33 total, 5.5 per game||47 total, 9.4 per game|
|Takeaways||6 total (4 INT, 2 FUM)||14 total (7 INT, 7 FUM)|
The yards per play average is down. The yards per point average is up. The rushing has, for the most part, stayed the same despite huge performances from Ohio State and Illinois while the pass defense has grown leaps and bounds.
Completion percentage has plummeted thanks to an aggressive defense with ever-growing confidence. Nebraska's secondary is playing the ball when it's in the air, no fear of failure. The results speak for themselves. Look at the last three numbers; that's what defensive coordinator Erik Chinander hangs his hat on.
Havoc rate is a combination of tackles for loss, passes defensed (picks and break-ups) and forced fumbles taken over every snap a defense faces. The national average is 16.2 percent. Cause a ton of negative plays for an offense and it'll lead to takeaways.
Makes sense then the Huskers takeaways are up, as are TakeOpps (passes defensed and forced fumbles). Brandon Vogel calculated the five-year national average for TakeOpps per game heading into 2018 around 5.3. Before, Nebraska was an average defense that wasn't capitalizing on opportunities. Now, it's a different unit. Nine a game is absurd.
Apart from big play rate, that's defensive improvement across the board. (And you can sort of explain away the one percent bump in big plays if Nebraska is playing more aggressively; seeking turnovers is a high-risk, high-reward proposition.)
Talk to anyone on the team and they’ll tell you they could have and should have won games early on. Talk to members of the Blackshirts and they’ll tell you that defense could have and should have played better.
“I don’t think anybody expected the beginning of the season to go like it did, but we knew at the end of the day we could be a really good team if we put everything together,” linebacker Luke Gifford said. “I think halfway through, the Northwestern game, that was really a turning point. It does look like two different teams. At the end of the day, I don’t think of this as a Year 0 at all, I think there’s a lot of things that have been built in these last few games and a lot of momentum that’s gotten us going that will really pay off for next year.”
Off the Field: the Culture Part
The “little things” everyone keeps talking about. The details throughout a week of practice that manifests itself on the field in a better havoc rate or a better explosive run percentage.
Nebraska committed to practice. It committed to doing things the right way. You can often times get a good sense of how coaches talk by listening to their players. On good teams, everyone talks the same way.
Over the last few weeks, Nebraska has said a lot of the same things. You hear things like “faceless opponent” and “brother to your left, brother to your right” and “day-by-day” and “hats to the football” and you hear guys talk about winning the weekend during the week.
Nebraska could lose Friday against Iowa and finish with the same record as last season and the mood around the program would be immensely different.
“I don’t know if last year we started 0-6 if we would end up where we are now,” Gifford said. “Actually, I know we wouldn’t end up where we are at now.”
When players talk about family, it’s not lip service. It’s genuine. You hear a senior guard talk about carrying a true freshman kicker off the field and into the locker room. You see guys embracing a head coach they’ve known for less than a year like he had been a part of their entire life.
“I love Coach Frost,” defensive tackle Mick Stoltenberg said. “In just one year, we feel like we’re super close to him and I feel like I’ve been around him forever. He has definitely just wrapped his arms around us, especially as a senior class. He’s relied on us, and we’ve relied on him to kind of help get this thing moving.”
At 0-6, Nebraska could have fractured. Guys could have checked out. A lot of what has happened is the natural development of a team, but it’s not supposed to happen this quickly. Maybe the speed of the ascent can be credited with the depth of the hole the Huskers were in, but regardless, Nebraska feels ahead of schedule.
“We’re going to look back and cherish this year because a lot of things that happened this year, although some of them weren’t pleasant, I think were necessary for us to try to get this where we wanted it to be,” Frost said. “We’re certainly a good enough football team right now to have a lot better record than what we had but it’s kind of been pretty sweet and special to see the guys band together and rally and persevere and have the second half of the season that they had.”
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.