Hot Reads: An Update on Nebraska's Unpredictable Offense
Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Hot Reads: An Update on Nebraska’s Unpredictable Offense

November 27, 2018

It's unofficially "taking stock" week at Hail Varsity. Nebraska' 2018 stats are now written in stone and we can start making some direct comparisons to previous years as well as revisit some in-season trends that may or may not have held true.

One trend that did hold strong: Nebraska's willingness to run the ball on passing downs. I wrote about that after the Huskers' loss to Colorado.

It stands out for what it said about what was to come on Saturday. It was a run on a “passing down.” The latter isn’t a random designation, but it comes from Football Outsider’s success rate thresholds. Any first down, second-and-6 or fewer, third- and fourth-and-4 or fewer is a standard down; anything else is a passing down. As the names are telling you, it’s a big advantage for a team to stay in standard downs. The average success rate on standard downs in 2017 was 46.5 percent, and it dropped to 30.7 percent on passing downs for the obvious reason –– defense has the leverage in that situation of knowing what the offense is likely to do to get back on schedule.
Most teams will pass. That was especially true of Mike Riley-era Nebraska. When those Husker teams were in passing downs they ran the ball 25.2 percent of the time in 2017 (116th nationally), 28.4 percent in 2016 (102nd) and 26.7 percent in 2015 (104th). That’s pretty predictable. When the defense had the Huskers behind the chains, Nebraska’s offense did what the opponent could’ve reasonably expected about 75 percent of the time. That’s why passing downs are important to a defense (and important for an offense to avoid).
But if a coach has some confidence in his offense, or maybe just a rebellious streak, it doesn’t have to be so simple. Against Colorado last week Nebraska ran the ball on passing downs 37.5 percent of the time. That’s a pretty average run rate on passing downs year to year, but it’s huge jump from where this offense was the previous three seasons. And it might’ve been even more stark if the Huskers didn’t fall behind at the end. Five of Nebraska’s 24 passing downs in the game came on the last, Andrew Bunch-led drive when the Huskers had to have a touchdown in the final minute.

The Huskers' run rate on passing downs came down a little bit from that first game to 36.2 percent for the season as a whole, but that's still slightly above the national average (34.7). To look at the other side of the coin here, teams this season ran the ball nearly 60 percent of the time on standard downs. Nebraska ran the ball 55.6 percent of the time on standard downs, which ranked 90th nationally (i.e. the 40th-lowest rate).

Why is this notable? 

Two things here really interest me. One, a coach who is willing to run the ball in passing situations at an above-average rate is dulling the defense's advantage through play selection. Passing downs are important, and so named, because a defense can reasonably assume an offense will pass. Alter that expectation even slightly and your team is more difficult to face. Demonstrate success with those contrarian play calls and it's even more difficult. (There's an obvious limit here. Army runs the ball 75 percent of the time on passing downs, extreme enough that the typically contrarian strategy is just Army's regular strategy.)

The other thing that's interesting here is how stable those run rates have been for Scott Frost. Nebraska's Year 1 numbers were almost identical to both of Frost's seasons at UCF.

18 Nebraska 55.6% (90th) 36.2% (56th)
17 UCF 55.8% (82nd) 35.2% (57th)
16 UCF 55.7% (85th) 36.1% (40th)

What is a “Scott Frost offense?” That’s a tough question to answer succinctly, but based on the above numbers you could say unpredictability is a facet. Just unpredictable enough to be annoying.

We know there's more to Nebraska's playbook than what we saw in 2018, but the Huskers' run rates this season indicate that the blend of play calls wasn't limited by inexperience in the system. Maybe that wouldn't have been unexpected at the start of the season. A coach can call whatever he wants, of course. He can force his team into those run rates if he wants to. It's more a question of how successful a group can be with those play calls. Nebraska's success moving the ball in combination with what looks like by-the-book run rates for Frost, however, should foretell a jump for the offense in 2019.

At least in my opinion. The Huskers will only add intricacies to the bedrock unpredictability on display in 2018. It's also reasonable to expect the level of execution to increase as well. Not a given, but reasonable.

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