Hot Reads: No Mo
Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Hot Reads: No Mo, Now What for Nebraska’s Offense?

October 22, 2019

Nebraska will be without sophomore running back Maurice Washington against Indiana and probably longer.

"He won't play this week," Scott Frost said on Monday. "We don't see him being a part of our plans in the immediate future, and the farther out future, we'll have to determine that based on some circumstances."

We don't know yet if this is the end of Washington's time at Nebraska––Frost said he's not part of the team right now, but as far as he knew Washington was still enrolled in classes––but we do know it's an immediate blow to the Huskers' depth if nothing else, and that was something already in short supply.

But what's the actual impact on Nebraska's offense? The Huskers crawled into the off week, scoring 27 points over their final three games (Ohio State, Northwestern, Minnesota) before the break and averaging 4.4 yards per play (average in the four games before that: 6.5).

Washington wasn't a big part of that 1-2 stretch. He was lethal against Illinois in the first half, carrying 10 times for 89 yards before leaving the game with an injury. Things took a turn from there. He carried 15 times for 30 yards combined against Ohio State, Northwestern and Minnesota, and caught four passes for 13. Washington was also suspended for the first half of the Northwestern game for a violation of team rules.

So, here's the question. Did Nebraska's offense begin to sputter because Washington seemed to drift away after the first half at Illinois? Or was it simply a matter of a string of games against real Big Ten defenses? Answers in football are never easy to come by and almost always multiple, but let's at least look at Nebraska's numbers this season on plays involving Washington and those that didn't.

From an efficiency standpoint, down-to-down success, Washington wasn't outpacing the Huskers' offense as a whole. Here are the success rate numbers on all plays, plays involving Washington and non-Washington plays:

Play Type All Plays Washington Non-Washington
Rush 42.8% 42.0% 42.9%
Pass 40.5% 35.3% 41.0%

To this point, Washington has accounted for 17.7% of Nebraska's non-sack rushing attempts. It's a decent sample and an indication, at least in my eyes, that the source of the Huskers' run-game struggles isn't primarily with those doing the running. The passing game is a little trickier. Washington was the target/receiver on just 8.5% of Nebraska's pass attempts. Smaller sample size here, but passes involving Washington were less successful on the whole than pass attempts that went elsewhere.

If that seems a little curious it's probably because of the other piece of this equation––explosiveness. Washington was one of the Huskers' most explosive playmakers, which you probably already knew. The 75-yard swing pass for a touchdown against Colorado? That was what Washington could do for an offense. Here are the same categories from above, but measuring explosive-plays percentage:

Play Type All Plays Washington Non-Washington
Rush 13.4% 14.0% 13.3%
Pass 14.9% 17.6% 14.7%

Again, we're looking at a small sample size on the passing side, but Washington was raising Nebraska's explosiveness slightly in the run and pass game. Neither number is good at the moment for Nebraska, but Washington was a player whose primary value was his ability to turn a 6-yard play into a 60-yard play.

You can also look at explosiveness from a Predicted Points Added perspective, a measure of how much value a player is adding to a possession. Washington has the fourth-best PPA (.153) on the team behind JD Spielman (.721), Adrian Martinez (.290) and Wan'Dale Robinson (.195). Dedrick Mills (.140) actually is ahead of Washington (.108) in rushing PPA, though I think you can chalk that up to Mills being the Huskers' goal-line back. His rushing success rate is lower than Washington's. On the receiving side Washington (.308) trails Spielman (.721) and Robinson (.582), but is ahead of the rest of Nebraska's regular receivers.

What's it mean for Nebraska's offense in the immediate future? Things certainly didn't get easier, but I'm not sure the central question really changed. Can the Huskers offense find some success without the explosive plays it is built to run on? That was probably going to be the case with Washington or without.

Against Indiana, it might be the case of finding that success without Robinson and Martinez, too. The Hoosiers' defense is tied for second in the Big Ten in explosive-plays percentage. That's better than Ohio State (barely), better than Michigan, better than Michigan State, better than Penn State.

No matter who is available for Nebraska, Indiana looks like it can force the efficiency issue on Saturday. Washington, based on the season to date, wasn’t a perfect remedy for that. But more on how the Huskers and Hoosiers matchup on Wednesday.

The Grab Bag

  • Frost said he had no regrets in how the coaches handled Washington to this point.
  • Derek Peterson on how the Huskers got back to basics in the run game during the off week. (Premium)
  • Does Nebraska need a third running back in the 2020 class now?
  • Madi Kubik was named the Big Ten Player and Freshman of the Week.

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