On Thursday I took a look back at the improvement punch list I put together for Nebraska's defense in 2018. The idea there was to identify three areas (defined by specific numbers) that were "ripe" for improvement under a new staff.
The defense did pretty well with its box-checking even if its overall improvement drew less attention than that of the offense. (For what it's worth, the defense, on a points-per-play basis, improved by 20.8%, the offense 10.9%.) The offense didn't totally check any of the boxes I identified last summer. Bad job picking by me.
Here's a more detailed look back:
1. Field Position
What I wrote last year:
The difference between where Nebraska's offense started its average drive and UCF's offense did was a little less than 7 yards. And that's a gulf, a chasm in college football, the difference between ranking fourth in the country (63.8 yards from goal) and 104th (70.6).
Oof. Nebraska got a little bit better here. Per cfbanalytics.com's tally, the Huskers' average offensive drive started 69.31 yards from goal (84th), but at bcftoys.com, which doesn't include the Bethune-Cookman game and has a slightly different garbage-time definition, the Huskers were at 73.9 (117th). Either way, this offense showed it could move the ball last year, but it often had to move the ball a long way to produce a touchdown.
This remains a massive area of growth for Nebraska in 2019. The Huskers only won the field-position battle in four games last season and lost it decisively in seven. If this improves even a little bit this season, Nebraska's point total could improve significantly.
2. Sack (Allowed) Rate
This is another one where I think Nebraska has a chance to be pretty good right away. The Huskers' sack numbers from last year indicate that the returning offensive linemen fared reasonably well as pass blockers (while trailing much of the time, while opposing defenses knew Nebraska had to pass). Now add in a quarterback with better mobility and a bunch of quick-read pass plays and you have the makings of a signal-caller (whoever that ends up being) who stays pretty clean in 2018. That's the opposite of what Erik Chinander tries to create on the defensive side.
This number didn't improve. The 2017 Huskers gave up a sack every 20.13 pass attempts (37th), the 2018 Huskers were at 15.21 (67th). It didn't end up mattering a ton as Nebraska was a more accomplished rushing team. This was just a bad job of identifying categories on my part.
3. Stuff Rate
Here was last year's intro:
This one's from Football Outsiders and is simply the percentage of running back carries stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage. It's a rare stat where UCF's offense wasn't very good in either year, ranking 127th nationally in 2016 (26.7% of RB carries stopped at or behind the line) and only improving to 90th (20.9%) in 2017. Nebraska's woebegone 2017 run game –– which, as 1620 radio host Gary Sharp pointed out to me yesterday rushed for fewer yards as a team (1,290) in 12 games than Dahrran Diedrick did on his own (1,294) in 11 games in 2001 –– fared better in stuff rate (19%), ranking 56th nationally.
Nebraska improved a little bit here. Its stuff rate dropped from 19% to 18.5%, but the national ranking (58th) was slightly worse. Call it a wash, basically.
That's pretty interesting, though. Nebraska's 2018 run game was quite a bit better than the previous season. It went from 4.20 yards per play in 2017 (sacks removed) to 6.20 last year. The Huskers had the second-most rushing plays of 20-plus yards of any team to play only 12 games. It was explosive and efficient.
Yet it was stopped at or behind the line almost exactly as often as the 2017 ground attack, which was not explosive or efficient.
When you look at those numbers collectively, two of them were offensive-line stats. The Huskers returned pretty good experience up front from 2017 and, despite the regime change, those experienced linemen put up pretty similar numbers to what they produced in an entirely different system the year before. There will be more new blood in the mix this season.
We'll see if that ends up being a positive or negative.
The Grab Bag
- Jacob Padilla jumps on the new Varsity Club podcast to talk NBA Summer League and most intriguing Huskers with Derek Peterson.
- Speaking of most-intriguing, Adrian Martinez comes in at No. 3.
- Padilla looks back at UCF’s wide receiver production in Year 2 for close to what the Huskers might hope to get this season.
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.