Hot Reads: Harbinger or Just a Hard Day at the Office for Huskers Offense?
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Hot Reads: Harbinger or Just a Hard Day at the Office for Huskers Offense?

September 03, 2019

"Don't think that's the offense y'all are going to get this year," linebacker and Blackshirt Mohamed Barry said on Monday. He was talking about Nebraska's offense, of course, the one he'd seen in practice, the one nobody saw last Saturday.

Instead, Nebraska's defense, which was already holding South Alabama mostly in check in the first half, took over in the second half. The Blackshirts scored twice, forcing four of their five turnovers on the game. Add in a punt return touchdown from JD Spielman and Nebraska's offense didn't have to do a lot over the final 30 minutes. It didn't have the chance to do a lot, running just 16 plays before the end-of-game kneel down, though that was somewhat of its own making, too. Four of the Huskers' five offensive drives were three-and-out or worse.

Barry, however, saw some positives in the way this game unfolded and not just because his unit played well.

"I'm happy that happened on Saturday," Barry said. "Now the offense knows we've got their back."

That wasn't always the case last year. Per ESPN's FPI team efficiencies––a 0-to-100 number, 50 being average, that's meant to measure the "point contributions of each unit to the team's scoring margin, on a per-play basis"––the Huskers offense in 2018 was at 60.2 (41st nationally), the defense 44.8 (82nd) and special teams 53.3 (62nd).

Against South Alabama, those numbers looked like this: offense 12.4 (116th), defense 80.0 (30th) and special teams 67.6 (37th). As nice as the (one-game) gains on defense are, that drop on offense is particularly shocking. So shocking that it's almost hard to believe. Frost's 2017 offense at UCF ranked eighth in the country (80.4). I don't think that's necessarily the standard for Nebraska's offense this year, but the 2016 offense, Frost's first in Orlando, was at 21.6. That wasn't good, it ranked 118th, but it was still better than Nebraska's first game performance on offense against South Alabama.

"Offensively, [the USA] game is either going to be a harbinger of things to come this season, or we are going to look back on it as the best thing that ever happened to us because it was a learning experience," Frost said.

That remains the question headed to Colorado. Was last Saturday an aberration on offense? You have to at least consider that it wasn't, but I still think it's more likely that it was based on Frost's (and Adrian Martinez's) track record. If the offense gets back to a number that's more reflective of a Year 2 offense with a Year 2 quarterback, and the defense and special teams remain at a high level, everything is still on the table for the Huskers.

For now, however, Nebraska will take a hit for a shaky first game. In overall FPI, the Huskers dropped from 31st in the preseason to 43rd after Week 1. Nebraska's projected win total fell from 8.1 to 6.5. The downgrade had an impact on Nebraska's game-by-game win probabilities. FPI now gives Nebraska a 48.8% win probability against Colorado (previously 64%), 55.3% at Illinois (previously 75%) and, this is the one that really shocked me, 28.1% at Maryland (previously 64%).

Now, I love statistical models, but they do have limits. You have to build in rules and decide which limitations you're willing to live with and which you aren't. Maryland going from 68th to 34th in FPI, and 4.1 projected wins to 6.5, after it beat Howard 79-0 is one of those limitations.

It will even out in the long run, but for now Nebraska has to take its lumps.

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