Nebraska took the ball to open the Northern Illinois game. “We certainly want to be a fast-starting team,” head coach Mike Riley said, and that much was very evident from the moment the Huskers stepped foot on Tom Osborne Field on Saturday.
In six plays to open the game, Nebraska did exactly what it wanted to. One of its goals week in and week out, Riley said, is to score on its opening drive of each half. Six plays, 65 yards into the day and the Huskers were at the Huskies’ 10-yard line looking to accomplish that goal.
On a second-and-3, quarterback Tanner Lee took the snap under center, immediately looked to his right and fired a ball to receiver De’Mornay Pierson-El in the slot on a bubble screen. Northern Illinois corner Shawun Lurry, who lined up on receiver Stanley Morgan on the outside, jumped the pass as if he’d been shot out of a cannon and returned the ball 87 yards for a score.
“We had five days to watch film on them,” Lurry said after the game. “They run a lot of bubbles, so something just told me to jump it and I just jumped it.”
Just like that, 3 minutes and 36 seconds into a home contest against Northern Illinois, Nebraska’s offense had collapsed.
“You can’t let things like that affect you, but obviously it did,” fullback Luke McNitt said.
Lee could sense it, Riley could sense it and offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf could sense it: the Huskers grew tense on the sideline while they waited to get the ball back. Lee said the success on the opening drive – if you can call it that – showed the offense they could move it, now they just wanted to “hurry up and do it and start scoring.”
As for the play itself, Lurry was so quick to identify what was coming, and even faster in his reaction, Langsdorf said even though the play has a built-in run option, Lee didn’t even have enough time to identify Lurry knifing towards the football. Morgan, the guy assigned to block Lurry, didn’t either and Pierson-El was turned towards the ball and away from the defender.
Langsdorf isn’t buying the idea Lurry knew what was coming, either.
“He gambled and rolled the dice,” Langsdorf said. “We haven’t run that out of that formation at all. I didn’t feel like it was a tell or self-scout deal. We hadn’t run it out of either that personnel group or that formation so I don’t feel like we had been predictable on that at all.”
Not only have the Huskers not run a bubble screen out of that specific personnel grouping, they haven’t run bubble screens very often at all this season.
Before the opener, running backs talked about their increased responsibilities in the passing game, assistants talked about the importance the screen game would play and Lee talked about it all coming together. But so far, all that talk has yet to materialize on the field.
Through three games, Nebraska has only thrown five bubble screens – we’re not counting the slant-bubble RPO that Nebraska has used a handful of other times because the bubble component of that play has really been a distraction so far to clear out the middle for the slanting receiver. The Huskers tried it twice in the opener against Arkansas State, both coming early in the game, and three times on Saturday.
In both games it’s been used, the bubble screen has also made an appearance on the Huskers’ opening drive.
It’s been successful too. Of those five passes, four of them have gone for positive yardage. The only other one? The pick-six.
What’s more interesting, the Huskers haven’t thrown screens in general very often at all this season.
In total, the offense has attempted 120 passes, but only 19 of those (about 16 percent) have been screens – bubbles included.
Of those 19, eight resulted in a successful play, based on success rate, which comes out to about a 42 percent clip. Compare that rate to the overall success rate on all pass plays (about 35 percent) and you see signs of a successful tool in Langsdorf’s toolbox. Maybe it’s been successful because it hasn’t been heavily relied upon, maybe it’s something different, but it’s a tool nonetheless.
Which makes what happened Saturday even stranger.
Langsdorf said that’s a throw that is “usually pretty safe” and doesn’t result in a lot of interceptions, and there aren’t a lot of resources out there providing interception rates by pass type (hey, good idea though) short of mapping out games yourself, but the frequency with which teams use screen plays has been increasing over the last decade. A New York Times study of the throw back in 2015, showed that quarterbacks’ completion percentages jump 24 percent from the average and their interception rates fall by almost two percent to less than once every 100 throws.
All signs point to that first-quarter pick on Saturday being a fluke, something the Huskers can’t allow to affect them as much as it appears it did.
“A player has to look at it like ‘how can I do that better’ and a coach has to look at it like ‘how can I help that player do it better,’” Riley said Monday. “When you’ve got that, we’ve got a chance.”
Thanks to Cody Nagel for supplying some of the play counts in this story.
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.