Nebraska went faster than I thought in 2018. Or at least faster than I remembered.
Per Football Outsider's adjusted pace stat––which compares plays per game to an expected total derived from the team's run-pass ratio––the Huskers were 20th-"fastest" team in the country in 2018 running about 2.3 more plays per game than expected. That was a quicker tempo than Central Florida had in 2017 (1.9, 25th), but slower than the Knights' pace in Year 1 under Scott Frost in 2016 (3.0, 14th).
If you prefer a simpler stat––though one that likely displays a little bias towards pass-heavy teams––plays per minute behaves in a similar way to adjusted pace when comparing the two UCF years with Frost to Nebraska's first year. Nebraska was getting off more plays per minute than 2017 UCF, but less than 2016 UCF. Slightly more. We're talking fractions of a play here.
Here are the national rankings for those pace stats, and I've included Frost's three years as Oregon's offensive coordinator here, too, just in case you want to see how fast an offense like this one has gone in the past.
Interesting, given that one of the frequent observations from Wednesday's open practice session was that the Huskers appeared to be going even faster this spring. That makes perfect sense in a practice setting. More familiarity with the expectations and more repetitions in the system should produce a team capable of ripping through drills more quickly (if that's the goal for that drill).
But what about the games? Can you expect to see an even quicker pace from the Huskers in 2019? They're almost certainly capable of producing that, but will they?
My theory right now, and it is the middle of March, is that the answer to those questions depends upon the run game. That, in my opinion, is what determines how "fast" an offense looks and feels.
Here's what I mean. In 2016, UCF ran the ball 54.1 percent of the time. In 2017, it was again 54.1 percent. Nebraska ran the ball 53.5 percent of the time in 2018. Frost's average run percentage as a head coach is 53.9 percent.
During his three years as OC at Oregon, it was 59.3 percent. Now, while Frost was the offensive coordinator during that stretch, it probably wasn't totally his offense so to speak. Mark Helfrich, Chip Kelly's OC, was the head coach and given the Ducks' success under Kelly it's reasonable to think there was some impetus not to mess with a good thing. Oregon was also more established during that 2013–15 stretch than UCF or Nebraska could've been during the past three years. The Ducks had been recruiting to a system for a while at that point and the specific pieces that specific system needed should’ve been in place. Frost has had to build it twice now since 2016.
All of those reasons could help explain why Frost the OC ran the ball more often than Frost the HC has to this point. It also helps explain how those great Oregon teams felt like they were ripping off plays at an extraordinary pace even when there was very little difference between the Ducks' pace and that of the 20 or so other fastest teams in the country.
For example, the 2014 Oregon team that played for a national title and the undefeated 2017 UCF team ran about the same number of plays per minute, 2.57 and 2.52 respectively. When you factor in run rates, however, the Ducks ranked sixth in adjusted pace, the Knights 25th. Both were fast, both were effective, but one is scored as faster because it's stopping the clock less often with potentially incomplete passes. There’s a bonus aspect to pace when you can do it while being run-heavy, and I don’t mean just in terms of how it’s calculated.
I would argue that the heavier the run ratio, the more overwhelming a quick pace can feel for an opposing defense. It's withering if an offense can stay on the field while running it 60 percent of the time, doesn’t matter if it’s bleeding the play clock on every play or not. Add a quick tempo to it, however, and it feels like getting jackhammered, just blow after blow after blow in quick succession.
It's different than the road-grading mid-1990s Nebraska used to inflict, though maybe less different than it appears. Nebraska in 1995, for example, ran the ball 74 percent of the time. A good portion of those runs were options, however. In today's football, that same option play is no longer riding the fullback and then option off the defensive end. Today, it's shotgun with na inside or outside zone run attached to some sort of screen. The pitches that went to Nebraska I-backs in 1995? Today they go down in the box score as passes.
And, thanks to Tom Osborne's exacting record keeping, we can determine that if you counted all those options as passes––and they did average 7.26 yards per play, almost as much as a Nebraska pass that season––1995 Nebraska's run percentage comes down from 74 percent to around 55. A more equitable approach is to count just half the options as passes. Do that and 1995 Nebraska was running the ball about 64 percent of the time. The 2014 Oregon team was at 62.4 percent.
Two different approaches, two different eras, two different tempos, but I think you could argue that there are some strong similarities, too. The key difference is the element of time. How quick is a team going to get those plays off?
It's an interesting question for Nebraska in 2019. The Huskers are almost certainly capable of going faster this season. How effective any increase might be, however, probably has more to do with how well Nebraska can run it.
We continually look at Nebraska's offense through the lens of what happened at UCF, and that's not unreasonable. It's a one-to-one scenario for one more season in terms of time in the system.
But I do wonder as we consider the possibility of Nebraska upping the tempo in Year 2 if the real long-range goal here isn't upping the run rate. Frost didn't have time to get to that point at UCF.
He will at Nebraska. Now we just need to see if he wants to.
The Grab Bag
- Good stuff from Derek Peterson on Wan’Dale Robinson and the wide receiver group as a whole.
- Jacob Padilla on Johnny Trueblood’s game against Iowa and previewing the Huskers’ matchup with Rutgers.
- Early evaluations are key for Nebraska on the recruiting trail.
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.