It doesn’t matter which statistical category you look at, Nebraska’s offense took a step back in nearly all of them in 2016. If you want the abridged version the Huskers scored 26.5 points per game, nearly a touchdown fewer than year one in the Mike Riley offense. That’s still somewhat tough to figure.
On paper, the 2016 offense should’ve been pretty good. Nebraska put up solid numbers in 2015 and returned its quarterback, its top eight receivers and three of its top four running backs. The pieces seemed to be there for a top-30 offense, but the Huskers ranked 90th (one spot behind Wisconsin, incidentally). What happened?
A wave of injuries on the offensive line certainly didn’t help, but something from Cody Nagel’s recent breakdown of play-by-play data from the past two seasons stuck out to me.
In 2015, Nebraska attempted a total of 458 passes; 58.07 percent of those passes were short attempts (0-10 yards), 25.55 percent were intermediate (11-20 yards) and 16.37 percent were deep (21+ yards).
Nebraska completed 256 of those total passes for a completion percentage of 55.90, which ranked 87th among FBS schools.
In 2016, Nebraska adjusted its play calling to allow for shorter, easier throws for the quarterbacks; 64.75 percent of the pass attempts were short, 19.75 percent were intermediate and 15.50 percent were deep.
The percent of passes outside the numbers also decreased from 2015 to 2016, causing the percent of passes inside the numbers to increase.
Translation: Nebraska’s passing attack got more conservative last season. It was less #YOLO, more controlled. Was it the best fit for Tommy Armstrong Jr.’s skill set? It was probably fair to assume some increased comfort for Armstrong in year two in the scheme, but his numbers all went down, too.
And that includes interceptions.
Armstrong threw 16 in 2015 and half that a year ago. Overall Nebraska had just 14 giveaways last season, its lowest total in at least nine years. The high-scorin’ Huskers of 2012 (34.8 ppg, 26th nationally) committed 35 turnovers, to give you an idea. Nebraska’s reliance on a shorter passing game in 2016 may have hurt the numbers, but it looks like it also reduced turnovers to some degree.
Combine that with a defense that got a little better and you have nine wins instead of six.
It will be interesting to see where things go in 2017. Tanner Lee will probably be a little better in terms of completions across the board. Maybe that means the Huskers keep throwing short most of the time, but the overall impact of those passes on the offense is increased. Maybe that means the coaches will have a little more trust in the deep ball and that will come back a bit. We’ll start to see this Saturday.
But I keep coming back to Wisconsin’s number from a year ago. The Badgers ranked 89th nationally in total offense, but spent most of the year ranked in the top 10 and nearly won the Big Ten. Wisconsin also had one of the nation’s best defenses and was low-giveaway (16).
Is that the model for Nebraska? I think something close to it could be.
On the Books
Good article from Brent Wagner of the Lincoln Journal Star on Nebraska volleyball coach John Cook’s motivations for writing a book. Full disclosure, I also worked on that book, but I suspect you already knew where this was headed.
Coach Cook and I will be signing those books tonight in Lincoln.
— Univ Nebraska Press (@UnivNebPress) August 27, 2017
Would love to see you there.
The Grab Bag
- Wisconsin lost another presumed starter at linebacker for the season.
- The Daily Nebraskan takes an early look at Arkansas State.
- You're not going to believe this, but there's an ongoing arms race in the championship ring department. So unlike schools to one up each other in this fashion.
- One last set of preseason rankings from USA Today.
Today's Song of Today
Brandon is the Managing Editor for Hail Varsity and has covered Nebraska athletics for the magazine and web since 2012, Hail Varsity’s first season on the scene. His sports writing has also been featured by Fox Sports, The Guardian and CBS Sports.