Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Defining Numbers of Nebraska’s 2020 Season: Real Rushing Success

December 30, 2020

What did you think of Nebraska’s rushing attack in 2020? See enough to be satisfied? Left wanting more? Disappointed? What’s wild is three different folks can answer three different ways and fairly easily justify their answer all three times.

On the surface, Nebraska was a really good rushing team this season. This isn’t a “bring your lunch pail to work” kind of offense, but it sure dresses like one. Aside from Ohio State, Nebraska was tops in the conference in both end-of-the-day output and per-hour efficiency. Makes sense for what we all assume is a run-first offense, right? 

Only Nebraska and Ohio State averaged 200 rushing yards a game in the Big Ten. The Buckeyes averaged 6.1 yards per carry, Nebraska averaged 4.8. The Huskers have now been in the top half of Big Ten teams in rushing efficiency in each of Scott Frost’s first three years as head coach. 

Statistically speaking, Nebraska continues to be a strong rushing outfit. 

Creating chunk runs? No one in the Big Ten had more 10-yard carries than the Huskers. 

Running in high-pressure, short-yardage situations? Nebraska was 13th nationally in power success rate, which tracks conversion rates on third-and-short and fourth-and-short runs (2 yards or less to go). 

Simply capitalizing on the space created for the runner? Nebraska ranked 14th in opportunity rate, a metric that measures the percentage of carries that achieved a 5-yard gain when 5 yards were made available. 

Staying on schedule with the ground game? Nebraska ranked 14th in rushing success rate.

Limiting the stuffed runs? Nebraska ranked 54th in percentage of running back carries stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage. 

Nebraska checked all the boxes. If you just looked at the numbers, this was a rushing attack without any real flaws or reasons to question the approach moving forward. 

However, there are questions. Chief among them: what was real?

Is the prevalence of the quarterback run within Nebraska’s system the last three seasons a sustainable offensive strategy? Luke McCaffrey and Adrian Martinez juiced the numbers. Is that smoke and mirrors masquerading as success or actual success?

The redshirt freshman McCaffrey averaged 5.6 yards a carry. The junior Martinez averaged 5.7. Those two are tremendously capable runners, it’s true, and quite dynamic at that, but a good portion of their rushing success was creating something with their legs when a called pass play didn’t pan out. Does that count as successful running? Or opportunistic improvisation? (Does it matter…?)

I ask because the running backs collectively had one strong game all season.

Freshman Marvin Scott III was the No. 2 running back for most of the year, carried the ball 24 times in five games, and only averaged 2.6 yards per carry. Before his 191-yard explosion against Rutgers in the season finale, Dedrick Mills was averaging 3.5 yards per carry through his first five games. Mills had 84 carries in six games and only found the end zone three times. 

Was Nebraska consistently good at running inside zone, a play coaches and players alike have said has to be a staple? Was Nebraska consistently good at outside zone? Was it consistently good with a traditional rushing offense? 

……..no..?

Nebraska clearly has a capable lead tailback in Mills, but it has never called on him to be a featured back. The Georgia native has appeared in 18 games as a Husker and carried the ball more than 20 times only twice. The first was a 94-yard performance against Iowa in 2019, and the second was the 191-yard day that directly helped Nebraska to its third and final win of 2020.

Another question worth asking: Does it matter if Mills is getting 13 carries a game (his average) instead of, say, 18? Or do we only talk about his usage because Nebraska’s offense ranked 10th in the Big Ten in points per play this year and hasn’t ever looked done.

When the product isn’t finished, the whole process is up for debate. Sports discourse is fun that way. 

But it’s a question I’ve been grappling with. This is an offense designed not to be death by 1,000 paper cuts, but rather death by 100 gashes from 10 different pieces of paper. The whole point was to stockpile offensive playmakers and then spread the ball around. 

By that measuring stick, the reliance on QB draw would signal Nebraska is still under construction. (Duh. You watch the games.) Talent isn’t an issue anymore, though. Nebraska has four young running backs already on campus that any other Power Five team would take without much hesitation. 

Consider this: if Nebraska develops an uber-explosive downfield passing game overnight and carries it into next season, will the running game suddenly look different? Will the offense suddenly rely on one tailback for 25 carries a game? Or will we still see the by-committee approach?

If Nebraska can produce on the ground and defenses suddenly have to respect the vertical shot, does the conversation about run distribution become much ado about nothing? An already successful run game gets more room to operate. 

Six yards is 6 yards regardless of who it comes from! And if Martinez is one of your best runners, it makes sense to use him! 

Nebraska was successful on 49% of its runs. And it never looked better this season than when it was running over the Scarlet Knights in the second half of that Dec. 18 meeting. So maybe the only disappointing part is that Nebraska didn’t do that more often. 

Run the ball guy, stand up. 

Other “Defining Numbers” pieces from the series so far: Passing Downs failures | Field position | Turnover margin

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