Hot Reads: Why Did the Huskers Run the Ball so Often in 2019?
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Hot Reads: Why Did the Huskers Run the Ball so Often in 2019?

December 04, 2019

Nebraska ran the ball often in 2019. In a season that will probably be defined by its similarity to the previous one, this is a difference worth considering.

Taking out sacks, as is good and just, the Huskers ran the ball 59.9% of the time, the 22nd-highest rate in the country. There's a good reason some of those teams ahead of Nebraska were ahead of Nebraska. You had the triple option teams. You had a Kentucky squad that had to use a converted wide receiver at quarterback over the final eight games (he attempted 60 passes in those eight games). You had the teams coached by North Dakota State alums, Wyoming and Kansas State. Wisconsin and Utah are in there. Point is, teams you'd expect to run the ball a lot did run the ball more frequently than Nebraska.

But I wouldn't have expected the Huskers to be this close to those kind of offenses. A Scott Frost offense hadn't been close to 60% run in his previous three seasons as a head coach. His three teams prior to this one were close to perfectly balanced.

Here's the breakdown of those four seasons including run percentage, rush yards per play, pass yards per play, the difference between pass and rush, the percentage of plays run with a lead (that can influence the rush percentage quite a bit), success rate on rushing plays and explosive-rush percentage. Highs and lows from that stretch are noted in green and red respectively.

2019 59.9% 5.05 6.79 1.74 35.1% 42.9% 15.3%
2018 50.2% 6.20 6.41 0.21 30.8% 50.3% 20.6%
2017 52.7% 5.43 9.72 4.29 68.0% 42.6% 17.0%
2016 50.4% 4.21 5.11 0.90 44.5% 35.1% 12.6%

If Nebraska's rush percentage stands out on its own compared to Frost's previous seasons, it becomes even more notable when you look at what that run game was producing. For example:

  • Nebraska ran the ball 60% of the time despite having a fairly middling attack. The Huskers' 5.05 yards per rush ranked 66th nationally (national average: 5.09).
  • Nebraska ran the ball 60% of the time despite a pass being worth 1.74 more yards per play on average. Passing plays should always go for more yards than rushing plays, just how football works, but the only season among the four where that difference was higher was in 2017 when UCF had an insanely explosive passing attack.
  • Nebraska ran the ball 60% of the time despite having a lead on just 35.1% of offensive plays. It's the second straight year the Huskers have had one of the nation's lowest with-a-lead percentage and that impacts almost everything. Turnovers are more frequent when a team trails because teams that trail tend to pass more from less advantageous situations.

Despite what appear to be some strong incentives to throw the ball a little more often, Nebraska stuck with the run. Why?

I don't know. But here's my theory: It's a reflection of some of the real limitations this offense experienced in 2019. Reliable receiving options never developed. Pair that with an unforeseen regression at quarterback and the passing game wasn't exactly a strength.

So, Nebraska leaned on a run game despite some limitations there as well. Once Maurice Washington was done for the year after the Minnesota game, the Huskers had one true running back (Dedrick Mills) available. Wan'Dale Robinson shouldered that load for a time (Illinois, Indiana, Purdue) and perhaps missed the final three games because of the wear and tear. Nebraska didn't have a lot of options. Over the first-half of the season about the only reliable part of the rushing attack was quarterback runs, but there was some reticence to just go with what works as all three QBs missed time with injuries, too.

Nothing about this setup is advantageous. So, you try to find some success on the ground. The run game was decently efficient. It ranked 55th in rushing success rate. The Huskers had a 40.2% success rate on passes, 77th nationally. Both were big drops from 2018, but one (the rush) was at least better than the other.

Nebraska's run rate underscores just what a struggle 2019 was on offense. At least that's my theory.

But here's an alternate one. Maybe it's a sign of things to come. Maybe.

I mention that only because the the Huskers' 2019 run rate was right in line with Frost's three seasons as the play-caller at Oregon under Mark Helfrich. Those Duck teams ran the ball 56.5, 60.3 and 58.3 percent of the time. That was slightly lower than Chip Kelly's rate––typically above 60%––but still plenty run heavy.

As a head coach, Frost's offense was more balanced between run and pass. Until this year.

Was that a reflection of some of the offense's limitations? A preview of this offense's future? A little of both? Neither?

I guess we'll find out in nine months.

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