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QB Adrian Martinez throws the ball down field
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Defining Numbers of Nebraska’s 2020 Season: Failure on Passing Downs

December 27, 2020

This column will kick off a “Six Pieces in Six Days” thingy (the technical term) that will lead us right into New Year’s Day and hopefully a better 2021 calendar year across the board. The goal is for this to be a somewhat informative series that helps to autopsy the 2020 Huskers. The theme: numbers that came to define Nebraska football throughout the season. 

We’ll begin with one of the most damning numbers the Huskers put in spreadsheets this year, and one that’s pretty obvious.

First, the good: Nebraska was in a standard down on 71.9% of its offensive plays this past season. That rate was the 21st-best nationally and the third-best mark in the Big Ten, behind the always-elite Ohio State Buckeye outfit and the recently E.L.I.T.E. Minnesota Gopher team (couldn’t resist). 

What’s that mean? Any first down is a standard down, a situation where the offense can either run or throw it, which is to say the offense has the advantage. Down and distance isn’t dictating what they should do. A second down with 7 yards or less to go is a standard down. A third or fourth down with 4 yards or less to go is a standard down. 

In general, offenses are in standard downs on 60% of their offensive plays. In 2020, the average was 68.6% (with games left to play that might change a teeny tiny bit).

Nebraska was above average at staying in advantageous situations as an offense. Great!

That also means the percentage of time head coach and play-caller Scott Frost spent operating in passing downs was ideal. 

Passing downs would be downs outside those thresholds above—second-and-8 or more, third-and-5 or more. Offenses typically throw on two-thirds of these plays. Nebraska was in them 28.1% of the time.

So, you have an offensive mind hailed as one of the better scheme-creators in football for manufacturing advantageous situations for his players operating in so-called advantageous situations more often than the average team. That’s really great.

(Now, if we were to add a note that Nebraska ran an offensive play with a lead on roughly 25% of its plays overall, we can debate whether the Huskers were ever really in advantageous positions… but I digress.)

Maybe the biggest defense of Frost as a play-caller this season is the fact the Huskers’ had the ninth-best success rate in the country on standard downs. Plays run on standard downs had a 55.1% success rate.

(Success rate defined, just in case: 50% of necessary yardage gained on first down, 70% on second, and 100% on third and fourth.)

Nebraska was just behind Oregon and nearly a full percentage point ahead of Oklahoma on average. 

Much was made of first-down run/pass splits this year, and rightfully so—in games Nebraska won, it had a run rate of 75% on first downs, and in games Nebraska lost, it had a run rate of 55.7% on first downs—but the standard-down success points to an offense that is generally getting done what it wants to get done.

To me, that looks like success with your scheme, success within your system. In normal-to-ideal situations where seemingly everything Frost would want to have available to him is in fact available to him, Nebraska was one of the better teams in the country in terms of operating efficiently. And on top of that, it did well to stay in those situations more often than should be expected. 

That’s part of where those “we see the improvement, we see the progress” statements come from. (And, if you read and listen to Brandon Vogel, you know that’s exactly what he uses to reinforce those statements.)

Now for the damning part: on passing downs, Nebraska had a success rate of 24.8%.

The national average for 2020 (again, perhaps subject to change) is 31.2%. The Huskers ranked 111th. Oklahoma, for reference, was 10 percentage points better. 

That seems to speak to execution. When scheme isn’t enough, the defense has the upper hand, and players need to win their one-on-ones, Nebraska wasn’t good enough. 

On Saturdays, this looked like stacked boxes, predictable QB draws, routes short of the sticks, missed receivers deep, and overthrows, right? Everyone saw this. Nebraska created a tough situation to overcome; if opposing defensive coordinators could get the Huskers off schedule (or, frankly, just wait for them to do it to themselves), then NU’s possessions would die. Which they did, either by way of penalties outside the normal run of play or faulty execution within it.

“When we’ve clicked and not shot ourselves in the foot, it’s been pretty good all year,” Frost said after a 28-21 win over Rutgers on Dec. 18. “It just hasn’t been consistent enough.”

There’s direct evidence to support that! 

So how does Nebraska fix the consistency component? It can’t be in standard downs 100% of the time; even the best offense in the country, Alabama, was in passing downs on 23% of its plays.

Is fixing the issues on those plays as simple as improving the quality of play at quarterback? Certainly wouldn’t hurt, but if Nebraska’s taught us anything in the last two years it’s that there are no easy fixes and most issues are interconnected. 

Nebraska was actually comparatively better at protecting quarterbacks Adrian Martinez and Luke McCaffrey on passing downs (7.1% sack rate, 44th nationally) than on standard downs (6.3%, though 87th nationally). But, mobile quarterbacks as dynamic as Nebraska’s help to massage that number, and with two seniors departing (or at least one of the two) among the five end-of-year starters and another vet in the two-deep hitting the transfer portal this week, it’ll be imperative that young group continues to ascend.

Nebraska needs more consistency from its wideout group in terms of available personnel and usage, too.

But it does need better quarterback play as well. The passing game this season was one that lacked a respectable deep-shot element. A third-and-6 against a stacked box sucks. A third-and-6 against a defense that has to play straight up is technically a passing down but a situation Nebraska could easily run out of (or call something with some optionality to it). 

Make life easier on yourself. That’s much easier said than done, but “bottled up” would be the way I would describe Nebraska’s offense for nearly all of its 2020 campaign. A balanced passing game with a quarterback that can consistently see and hit those 20-yard corner routes and better execution around the QB would go a long way toward loosening things up.

TL;DR: don’t be terrible on passing downs, because the scheme stuff was working.

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