Hot Reads: Huskers' Run Game the Biggest Change from 2018
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Hot Reads: Huskers’ Run Game the Biggest Change from 2018

October 09, 2019

In the week leading up to the start of the 2019 season, Derek Peterson and I looked at two sides of one Nebraska proposition. The Huskers' projected win total was holding strong at 8.5, so we looked at what it would take for Nebraska to be 1.5 wins above that number (10-2) and 1.5 wins below (7-5).

I drew the 7-5 side of that debate. I thought the Huskers would be better than that record, but here at the midpoint of the 2019 season 7-5 feels a little closer to reality. Nebraska would need to be better than .500 over its final six games to be better than 7-5. That's doable, but ESPN's FPI wouldn't call it likely at this point; the Huskers are a favorite per FPI in just two of the remaining six games.

Since we are at the midpoint of the regular season, it seemed like a good time for a midseason review. I'll look at the offense today, defense tomorrow.

Below are a handful of stats with Nebraska's numbers from the first six games of 2018 compared to the first six of 2019. The yardage totals are sack-adjusted, red numbers indicate a decrease from last season, green an increase, and national rankings (for those that I have) are in parentheses.

STAT 2018 2019
Rush Yards Per Play 5.53 (33) 5.02 (67)
>Exp. Rush % 19.74% (11) 13.94% (70)
Pass Yards Per Play 6.43 (72) 7.22 (46)
>Exp. Pass % 15.81% (71) 19.30% (30)
Total Yards Per Play 5.97 (51) 5.91 (63)
>Exp. Play % 17.83% (24) 16.11% (43)
Success Rate 44.9% 42.7%
>Standard Downs Success Rate 51.2% 49.1%
>Passing Downs Success Rate 32.9% 30.0%
Takeaway Opportunities % Allowed 7.45% 6.16%
Havoc Rate Allowed 16.93% 17.50%
Points Per Play .316 .408

There's a lot to digest there. Working big to small, the total yards per play for the Huskers is nearly identical to what it was at this stage a year ago, though the explosive plays (explosive plays %) and overall efficiency (success rate) are down a bit. Credit a bigger-play passing game for keeping Nebraska close to its overall yardage mark from last season. That's helped the Huskers survive a lagging run game.

That's the thing that jumps out most to me right now. When I wrote that "How the Huskers Go 7-5" story towards the end of August, the first point I listed was "the run game regresses."

…There’s plenty of uncertainty there, but if you believe Nebraska is going to improve on the 456 yards of total offense per game it averaged a year ago—and I would believe that––it almost has to include equal or better rushing production than the already-high level the Huskers reached in 2018. If that doesn’t happen, Nebraska’s ceiling in 2019 is lowered. Perhaps significantly. Last year the Huskers averaged 8.4 yards per carry in four wins and 5.3 in eight losses (sacks, again, removed as is right and just). This offense can do a lot of things, but it’s still built around an eviscerating run game.

Why has the run game struggled to this point compared to last year (a point when the Huskers were 0-6)? You can look at a variety of reasons, many of which are well-worn at this point. The offensive line hasn't come together quite as quickly as hoped, and has given up more plays behind the line of scrimmage (you can attribute the higher havoc rate allowed this year almost solely to tackles for loss). It's hard to know just how heavily to weight this in this discussion, but the snap inconsistency certainly has affected timing at times so Nebraska's zone-read looks haven't been quite as effective.

Also, Nebraska doesn't have a Devine Ozigbo so far this year. We knew that could be a hole that was hard to fill coming in, but it has looked even larger than expected through six games. And, yes, that was true even after Ozigbo was somewhat lightly used over the first half of the season. He may not have seen the ball quite as much at this point last year as he would over the back half of the season––53% of his total touches (rushes plus receptions) came over the final six games––but Ozigbo was effective all year long. His season-long success rate when he had the ball was 51.3% and 56.8% on rushes only. Over the first six games his overall success rate was 53.4% and rushing success rate was 57.5%.

Here are those same numbers for Nebraska's four primary rushers this season. For Adrian Martinez, his overall success rate includes all passing attempts and sacks are counted as passes.

Team 42.7% 42.6%
Adrian Martinez 43.2% 47.1%
Wan’Dale Robinson 51.9% 46.5%
Maurice Washington 41.4% 40.9%
Dedrick Mills 37.8% 40.6%

Despite the evident struggles at times, Martinez has still been Nebraska's best rusher based on success rate though that's down significantly from a 57.3% rushing success rate last year. Wan'Dale Robinson isn't far behind Martinez on the rushing side. His impact on this team to this point is pretty clear from those numbers.

Maurice Washington has more big runs than anyone at this point, but it's been a little boom-or-bust with him at a 40.9% rushing success rate, 1.7 percentage points below the team average. Dedrick Mills, who has 20 more carries than anyone else, has the lowest rushing success rate of the four. Some of that could be due to the type of runner he is. Mills is the guy Nebraska calls on most often to do the dirty work between the tackles. He has shown flashes, particularly against Northern Illinois and Ohio State, but as the source of most of Nebraska's most straight-forward runs so far his numbers to this point are emblematic of Nebraska's struggles in the run game as a whole.

There are still six games for the Huskers to show some gains here. It's as vital now as it was at the start of the season, and Saturday's trip to Minnesota might be the perfect test of how ready Nebraska is to show some improvement. With rain, snow and wind in the forecast plus the prospect of using a backup quarterback, this game seems to scream "run the damn ball." It's a challenge when both teams know it's what the other has to do, but being a good rushing team is running the ball even when everyone in the stadium knows it's coming.

Nebraska was closer to that a year ago than it is today. Turning that trend around––which won’t be easy in the Big Ten––might be biggest key for the rest of 2019.

The Grab Bag

  • Nebraska picked up its 13th commitment for 2020 with the addition of Ronald Delancy III, a 3-star defensive back from prep powerhouse Miami Northwestern.
  • After a quiet year last cycle, Nebraska is back in Florida on the recuriting front in a big way.
  • Lauren West looks at the vital role Lindsay Peterson, director of operations, plays for Nebraska volleyball.
  • Ben Stille answered the call with Khalil Davis out last week. (Premium)
  • Be sure to read Erin Sorensen’s excellent magazine feature from the September issue on Dave Ellis and Nebraska’s training table.

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