Photo Credit: Purdue Athletics

An Ode to a Drive: Nebraska’s Third Quarter-Opening TD March Against Purdue

December 06, 2020

In each of its last three games, Nebraska has scored a touchdown on its first possession of the third quarter.

It’s an encouraging sign. The third hasn’t belonged to Nebraska much of late. And this staff’s ability to make appropriate halftime adjustments has been a (somewhat overblown) topic of discussion. Before Saturday’s game against Purdue, Nebraska had been outscored 48-17 in all third quarters this season. 

While there are a number of factors at play there, you can credit the execution on the opening possession of that third quarter as a major contributor. That’s a tone-setter, so to speak, and Nebraska hasn’t set the right one. 

Through the first three games, Nebraska had a seven-play, 30-yard drive that ended in a fumble, a five-play, 21-yard drive that ended in a punt, and then a four-play, 24-yard drive that ended in a punt.

In total those first three weeks, Nebraska averaged 5.9 yards per play, but had two turnovers and only three points. 

The last three weeks have shown marked improvement. 

NU scored against Illinois on its opening possession—a six-play, 75-yard drive—and the drive began with a first-down pick-up on the first play. Nebraska then scored on its opening possession of the second half against Iowa, an eight-play, 70-yard drive that also featured a first-down pick-up on the first play. And then again against Purdue Saturday, there was an 11-play, 75-yard march that began with an 8-yard run from tailback Dedrick Mills.

The first play of the first drive against Ohio State gained positive yardage. But then it flamed out. The first play of the first drive against Penn State gained positive yardage (22, in fact). But then it flamed out. 

Nebraska’s run the ball on five of those six possession-and-10 plays. You can look for tendencies, but those haven’t changed much.

So what has changed?

“I don’t think we adjusted much, we’re just executing a lot better,” said wideout Levi Falck after Saturday’s game. 

Nebraska wasn’t boom or bust on either of its Iowa or Purdue possessions, it was just really damn good across the board. 

Six of the eight plays it ran on the Iowa possession were successful and nine of the 11 Purdue plays were successful. Knowing that not a single one of those 15 successful plays gained more than 15 yards, you have to consider that Nebraska wasn’t operating in any sort of unsustainably explosive fashion, but just being really efficient with what was called. 

Which is what it looked like on the field, too. 

If that Purdue scoring drive to open the third quarter wasn’t one of the best drives Nebraska’s put together in the last three years, it’s certainly close to the top of that list. 

Scott Frost and offensive coordinator Matt Lubick, as they’ve done often this year, had the right stuff dialed up at the right moments. Nebraska mixed tempo early but didn’t leave scorch marks in its footsteps. And it got the ball in the hands of five different players. 

Maybe Frost has found something. Each of the last two weeks, Nebraska has gotten the ball to start the second half instead of the first. Frost’s tendency is to take the ball and score to open the game, but it’s undeniable that the last two third quarters Nebraska has opened with tone-setting drives. 

Like I wrote immediately after the game Saturday, it’s a start and Nebraska is far from a finished product, but it’s an encouraging start no less. 

Let’s take a closer look at the drive. 

A staple play for Nebraska. The o-line blocks down, tight ends Travis Vokolek and Austin Allen take their guys out of the play (Vokolek is going to have a number of key blocks on the drive), and Purdue’s #55 misses. Tailback Dedrick Mills gets eight yards. Positive play, Nebraska uses tempo and gets right back to the line. 

Another simple play executed well. Wideout Zavier Betts runs a little 7-yard hitch and Adrian Martinez hits him right on the money. First down.

Mills gets three on first. An “unsuccessful play” by definition, but yardage is better than nothing. 

A tunnel screen to Betts and Martinez hits him on target again. Blocked better? You could argue that, sure, as Nebraska had a numbers advantage for a moment, but Betts gets 6 yards and sets up a third-and-1 that’s right in Nebraska’s wheelhouse…

Wan’Dale Robinson motions out of the backfield, left guard Ethan Piper pulls, Vokolek and right tackle Bryce Benhart create the hole, and Martinez picks up 15 yards on another staple, QB power.

Robinson gets 4, nothing special, nothing fancy, but Nebraska stays moving downfield.

Nebraska puts Allen in the slot and wideout Levi Falck next to him. The two run a smash concept and Falck sits down in the underneath zone. Martinez gets it to him quickly and Nebraska picks up 11 yards on second-and-6.

A shift at the line of scrimmage gives Nebraska numbers it likes to the boundary, and Martinez uses Mills as a lead blocker to pick up 8 yards and stay ahead of the chains. Everyone’s doing their job so far and Nebraska is knocking at the door.

Again, everyone does their job and Mills gets 6 to set up first-and-goal from the 4. He gets three more on the next play to give NU second-and-goal from the 1. 

Vokolek wipes away his guy, Mills gets a hat on his, and Martinez walks into the end zone. 

Six points, and it was really rather easy. No gadget plays. No trickeration. Purdue didn’t have any egregious busts. Nebraska just did what it wanted with in-rhythm throws and well-executed runs. Do that often enough and then Frost and Lubick can really start having fun. 

That’s what Nebraska’s trying to get to. That’s what we haven’t gotten to see enough of. The scripted stuff has been great. But when teams get a beat on what Nebraska is doing and try to take stuff away, NU short-circuits. (The drive after this went for 9 yards on three plays and ended in a punt.)

More consistent execution and things will start getting a little more exciting. We know it’s in there. 

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