Hot Reads: It's Not Perfect
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Hot Reads: It’s Not Perfect, But Nebraska Has a Running Game Now

October 02, 2018

Is Nebraska football better than it was a year ago? Simple question and, for some, a pretty simple answer based on the Huskers' 0-4 record to start the Scott Frost era.

But football isn't simple. Take a 6-yard run on first down, for example. If you want to know more about that run than "it gained 6 yards," you are presented with countless questions. What role did the running back play? The offensive line? What about the play call? The defensive play call? Should we consider years of recruiting and available talent for each team? A straight handoff from quarterback to running back, resulting in 6 yards, contains almost endless variables.

So answering "are the Huskers' better than last year?" right now is anything but simple. It might not even be the right question, but it's one we're seeing more and more as Nebraska's current losing streak has reached eight games (dating back to 2017). That's why this week in Hot Reads I'll be looking at a different piece of evidence each day. (Part 1)

At the end of the week, draw your own conclusions and then get ready for the new pieces of evidence to emerge against Wisconsin.

Nebraska has a run game now. Is it perfect at this point? No, but simply being present is an upgrade over 2017 when the Huskers averaged 4.25 yards per carry (116th nationally), not including sacks and sack yardage. Leave the yardage lost to sacks in and the ranking gets a little better (112th), but the number (3.51) looks so much worse. Less than 4 yards per carry?

This year's Huskers, through four games, are averaging 5.62 yards per carry (sacks not included) to rank 38th nationally and seventh in the Big Ten. Nebraska's run game in 2018 at least must be accounted for, and the Huskers, who have trailed in every game this season, probably aren't even running it as much as they'd like (though it is running it more often than the average team on both standard and passing downs). The run-pass split through four games is about 55-45.

Nebraska's 2018 run game is both more efficient and more explosive than it was a year ago.  The Huskers have 33 runs of 10-plus yards this season (20.6 percent of all runs, 12th nationally), nearly matching last year's 44 (12.8 percent, 88th) across 12 games. Nebraska already has 11 runs of 20-plus yards (6.9 percent of all runs) after managing just 10 in all of 2017 (2.9 percent). 

So what's been the difference in the run game from a year ago? Devine Ozigbo has been Nebraska's best (statistically) and most consistent back, averaging 5.7 yards per carry behind basically the same line he averaged 3.8 behind a year ago. The new scheme and an offseason of better strength-and-conditioning work seems to have helped all of the returning pieces in the run game.

Nebraska's rushes have produced at least 5 yards 57.5 percent of the time (21st) in 2018, which is Football Outsiders' measure of how often the line "does its job" in the run game (i.e. "opportunity rate"). Disagree with the modeling there if you like, here's what we know: Last year's line produced the same opportunity for at least 5 yards 33.8 percent of the time (112th).

Of course, the biggest difference in Nebraska's increased rushing capability is the new pieces to the puzzle, one in particular. 

Junior-college transfer Greg Bell had a 104-yard debut but his rushing total has declined each game since then (64, 3, 2). He has the lowest marginal efficiency (actual output-minus-expected output) of all the Husker ball carriers to this point.

True freshman Maurice Washington has shown some big-play potential and alluring elusiveness. He leads Nebraska's running back room with three runs of 20-plus yards on just 25 carries.

But the biggest difference in the Huskers improved run game is probably the addition of a quarterback run threat and a pretty good one in true freshman Adrian Martinez. Minus sacks he's averaging 8.1 yards per carry over basically 10 quarters of football. Some of that average is made up of scrambles, but Martinez's ability to hurt teams on designed runs is no doubt helping the ground game as a whole.

It's not all great, however. All of the numbers above include a game against the best defense Nebraska has faced thus far (Michigan) where the Huskers couldn't run the ball at all. There's also the Huskers' mediocrity when running in third-and-short (3 yards or less) situations. Nebraska's run the ball 10 times in those situations and converted six times. The average rushing conversion rate on third-and-short across college football this season is 60.7 percent. The more noticeable failing, however, has been fourth down. Nebraska's rushed four times there and hasn't converted any of them.

"I don’t want to make any excuses, we have to do better," Scott Frost said after the Purdue game, which included a key fourth-and-1 failure. "As we’re trying to get our offensive system in, we’re not executing the basic stuff well enough yet. And we need to rep that so that it all works. Some of the situational stuff comes along a little later. Fourth-and-1, a lot of times we just try to go fast and get the yard, and if we can’t do that, if we’re not good enough to do that consistently, then as coaches we need to figure out another way to get it done."

Overall, however, Nebraska has found ways to "get it done" on the ground. If that's happening with less-than-ideal execution of "the basic stuff," the long-term outlook is pretty positive. The Huskers right now still struggle to run the ball when everyone knows they're going to run it, but that's better than a year ago when Nebraska struggled to the run the ball at all.

Does that make Nebraska better overall than it was a year ago? To be determined, but it's a key part of the equation for almost any team.

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