More than half way through the 2017 season, it still seems we don’t know what Nebraska’s identity is offensively with Tanner Lee under center.
Because of the struggles on defense and a handful of pick-sixes from Lee, the Huskers have been playing from behind on a majority of their offensive plays; 62.42 percent to be exact.
That is 20 percentage points higher than the national average according to cfbstats.com, and ranks 109th out of 130 FBS teams. Nebraska was much closer to that national average in 2015 and 2016.
The effectiveness on offense hasn’t been present this season. The Huskers rank 81st in the FBS in average yards per rush with 4.07 yards per carry, nearly half a yard behind the national average. That average is down from last season (4.20).
In average yards per pass attempt, Nebraska is tied for 77th in the FBS with seven yards per attempt, almost even compared to last season.
Clearly this is not what coach Mike Riley wants the offense to look like. During his press conference on Monday, he mentioned multiple times about needing to be more productive offensively.
So, how do we know what Riley wants his offense to look like? If we look at what the offense is like when the score differential is still close, we’ll get a better idea.
On plays when the game is withing one score (+/-7), regardless of whether the Huskers are winning or losing, the average yards gained per rush attempt jumps to 4.75 yards, which would rank inside the top-50 in the nation.
The average yards gained per pass attempt also increases, but just slightly at 7.11 yards, which would move the Huskers up a few spots nationally.
On Monday, Riley said the success of the offense relies heavily on the play of the offensive line. He added if Nebraska can give quarterback Tanner Lee more protection and time, the passing game will also improve.
Although the numbers still aren’t great when games are close, they are better. These may be the type of results Riley had in mind when he had an optimistic approach toward the start of the season.
“The thing that I had hoped, that also makes a big difference, is that we would be better in the rushing category,” Riley said on Monday.
Nebraska hasn’t been able to run the ball as much as it would like, in part, because the offense has been down in points so often.
Typically, when an offense is trailing, it leans toward the pass in hopes of gaining more chunks of yards. Also, if the pass fall incomplete the clock stops, saving time.
Bill Connelly, of Football Study Hall, recently wrote a piece on how a game’s state influences the rate of rush attempts.
Connelly showed that as the game progresses, teams that are trailing tend to run the ball less and throw the ball more in hopes of getting back into the game.
According to his numbers, when a team trails anywhere between 9-19 points in the fourth quarter, a two to three possession game, it runs the ball about 29 percent of the time, meaning it is throwing it over 70 percent of the time.
In 479 offensive plays for Nebraska this season, nearly 55 percent have been pass plays and 45 percent have been run. Last year, that ratio was flipped, with 45 percent of the plays being pass and the other 55 percent being run.
According to cfbstats.com, the national pass/run rate for all scoring differentials is approximately 44 percent pass and 56 percent run.
After sorting Nebraska’s plays down to one-possession plays, the rate is nearly an even split; 49-percent pass and 51-percent run. The national rate doesn’t change much with 45 percent being pass plays and the other 55-percent being run.
In one-possession plays in 2015 and 2016, Nebraska’s ratio actually grew further apart with a heavier dose of run plays, likely because it had the lead in a greater percent of its offensive plays.
Based on the various averages and rates, it would appear Nebraska’s offense is suffering from the game state.
As Riley said on Monday, he wishes the team would rank better in rushing, but the offense is trailing so often, and forced to throw more, impeding the balance he seeks.