Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Defining Numbers of Nebraska’s 2020 Season: An Uncommon Scoring Struggle

January 01, 2021

This series has been about defining numbers. How can we explain Nebraska’s passing game flat-lining? Well, look at the efficiency, or lack thereof, on passing downs. Complementary football? Yeah, it was nowhere to be found, even though Nebraska was once again a strong rushing team. Why did Nebraska consistently lose the field position game? Uh, it had one of the worst turnover margins in the country. Why was it still in nearly every game it played? The defense made tremendous strides as a run-stopping unit.

These are just a few things that together paint a pretty accurate picture of Nebraska’s season. Why just 3-5? Well, all the things just mentioned. 

We’ll wrap up with the simplest number, but the one you’ll likely see A TON of as we move through this offseason. 

Twenty-three. 

Define Nebraska’s 2020 season. “The Huskers averaged 23 points a game as an offense in year three under Scott Frost.”

Go back in time and tell that to a Husker fan the day Frost was hired to be the head coach and they’ll commit you to a psych ward. 

It wasn’t the worst mark in the country. Nebraska tied South Florida for 101st nationally. It wasn’t even the worst among the Power Five programs, ten of those guys were worse, including four from the SEC. And it wasn’t even the worst among Big Ten teams! Illinois and Michigan State were worse. 

But it continues a decline from Frost’s first year, when the team averaged 30 points, and it’s the worst season-long mark for a Husker team since 1969. 

Is the best way to measure offensive success relying on points? Not entirely. Last year’s 5-7 Husker squad outscored opponents by three points on the year and yet it had a losing record. The 2020 Huskers were 20th nationally in success rate and, as previously covered, really effective at moving the ball as long as they were on schedule. 

This Nebraska team just couldn’t finish. 

Nebraska was predictable in the red zone, and thus one of the worst teams in the country at turning trips inside the 20 into touchdowns. NU posted a touchdown rate of 51.4% on red zone trips (109th), a slight decline from where it was a season prior and a precipitous drop from Frost’s first season (61.4%). 

It also only averaged a little over three points per trip inside the opponent’s 40-yard-line. That was again one of the worst marks in the country.

Exactly why Nebraska struggled to seal the deal on scoring opportunities is hard to square. 

That 2018 team had a physical running back that could move the pile and so did this 2020 team. That team had a red zone threat amongst the pass-catchers and so did this team (Austin Allen is 6-foot-freaking-8). That team had Adrian Martinez as a dual-threat quarterback and so did this team. That team had a capable offensive line, and statistically speaking so did this team.

The Huskers were similarly prone to short-circuiting on third down, converting only 36.5% of those attempts on the year. 

What’s more, Nebraska was one of the least explosive offenses in the country.

So you have a team that has to sustain drives to score because it can’t break off chunk plays with any kind of reliable frequency (four pass plays covered more than 30 yards, a 10-year low), struggles to convert third downs because inopportune penalties or technique errors put it in third-and-trouble situations more often than not, and regularly starts from deep inside its own territory.  

To score, the drive had to cover a huge chunk of the field. Nothing came easy. Nebraska couldn’t afford to make a mistake. When it was clean, Nebraska looked rather encouraging. When a pass bound for the end zone instead bounced off an offensive lineman’s helmet at fell into the arms of a defender, what are you supposed to do? 

Nebraska ate up yards and on average it was only outscored by one touchdown each game. 

Does that speak to a team that’s close or a team that is struggling to find the winning combination? Is this an extreme low in a year of extremes? Or the continuation of a downward trend? 

Last offseason, Nebraska replaced its offensive coordinator with a guy Frost knew well and poured over every detail from the 2019 tape. The self-scout was said to help the Huskers drill down on what they could consistently run in 2020 and beyond. 

Does Nebraska go back to the drawing board again? It probably won’t be replacing anyone on the coaching staff unless an assistant is lured away. And in true Nebraska fashion, the Huskers showed growth at the tail end of the season. On six of Nebraska’s last 10 touchdown drives, Nebraska scored despite a penalty or negative play during the possession. Before the Purdue game, Nebraska only found the end zone once on a drive that featured a penalty or a negative play. 

Perhaps that’s a sign reinforcing one of Frost’s favorite lines: it’s never as bad as it might seem. 

Well, 23 points per game with a team led by a coach hailed as an innovative offensive mind seems kinda bad. Nebraska will have to reckon with that this offseason. In 2021, it’ll either show this latest campaign represented the absolute floor, or things will get even more interesting around here.

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