The Nebraska offense fans saw at Memorial Stadium on Saturday wasn’t quite what most were expecting from a Scott Frost-led program. The “anemic” performance — Frost’s word — included just two offensive touchdowns and 4.2 yards per play.
Saturday was our first look at the Huskers without Devine Ozigbo and Stanley Morgan Jr. and while it wasn’t pretty, we can draw some conclusions about how Frost managed his personnel.
Excluding plays negated by penalties and Nebraska’s kneel-down at the end of the game, the Huskers had 65 offensive snaps in the game. Wan’Dale Robinson’s positional versatility makes it a little difficult to classify personnel groupings, but I used my best judgment.
By my count, the Huskers used 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end, three wide receivers) on 47 of their 65 snaps, or 72.3%. Nebraska used 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends, two wide receivers) on 17 snaps, or 26.2%. The Huskers lined up in 10 personnel (one running back, no tight ends, four receivers) on one play.
Beyond the base personnel, Frost mixed things up with plenty of pre-snap motions, taking advantage of the versatility of a lot of the players on the roster.
Maurice Washington’s half-game suspension put a bit of a wrench in the running back rotation, but four guys took snaps out of the backfield.
Junior college transfer Dedrick Mills got the start and led the backfield in snaps with 34. He carried the ball 15 times for 44 yards and scored both of the offense’s touchdowns and he also caught one pass for 3 yards.
Because of the defensive and special teams touchdowns that kept the Nebraska offense off the field in the second half and then the offense’s struggles to stay on the field when it did get out there, Nebraska only had 16 offensive plays after halftime. Washington was on the field for 14 of those, carrying the ball six times for 39 yards and catching one pass for 13 yards.
With Washington unavailable in the first half, senior walk-on Wyatt Mazour came off the bench to spell Mills, getting nine snaps. He ran the ball four times for 12 yards and caught one pass for 13 yards.
Rahmir Johnson did not get into the game nor did Ronald Thompkins and Jaylin Bradley didn’t even suit up.
There wasn’t much rom to run all day for the Huskers, but the team just looked different with Washington in the backfield. He got stuffed twice but each of his other four carries went for 6 or more years including a pair of double-digit runs. Mills didn’t have a good day — I didn’t even mention his fumble — but it was his first game at the division I level since 2016. He’ll get another chance to prove himself against the Buffaloes, but Washington will probably assume the lead-back responsibility.
Tight ends coach Sean Beckton has heaped plenty of praise on Jack Stoll over the last year, and he showed why on Saturday. The Huskers had at least one tight end on the field for every play except for one, and Stoll got the majority of those snaps. He was on the field for 47 of Nebraska’s 65 plays, catching three passes for a team-high 66 yards.
Austin Allen, who impressed the coaches enough with his work during fall camp to be designated as an OR on the depth chart along with Stoll, played 29 snaps, catching his only target for a gain of 8 yards that moved the chains.
Kurt Rafdal was only on the field for five snaps, all of which were in 12 personnel.
Stoll should continue to play a big part in Nebraska’s offense so long as he is healthy, although he somewhat disappeared from the passing attack later in the game for whatever reason. The Huskers will need to keep him more consistently involved moving forward. Allen, who has always more or less been lumped together with Rafdal as the twin tower tight ends, seems to have elevated himself into the clear second spot and I expect we’ll continue to see him on the field quite a bit as well.
Beckton said during the week that true freshman Chris Hickman had shown the coaches enough to be included in the game plan, but after a tighter-than-expected competition, they stuck with the veterans.
Wide receiver has been one of the toughest positions to figure out throughout the offseason. There are a lot of bodies at that position but no proven contributor outside of JD Spielman. Graduate transfer Kanawai Noa had produced throughout his career at California, but he hadn’t done it in a Husker uniform. Mike Williams played early last season but got himself benched for walk-on Kade Warner. Junior college transfer Jaron Woodyard never quite found a role nor did redshirt freshman Jaevon McQuitty.
After an infusion of youth with four freshmen and an offseason of work, what did that picture look like? Five wide receivers saw the field with four of them playing the majority of the snaps.
As expected, Spielman led the Huskers in snaps with 59, playing both in the slot and out wide.Yet he only saw three targets, catching two of them for 36 yards.
Noa did not start the game but he was still second in snaps with 52. Martinez targeted him a couple times but did not connect either time.
Williams did start and saw 44 snaps, but I don’t think he ever saw the ball come his way.
Freshman Wan’Dale Robinson was the third starter and fourth guy in that main quartet. He played 27 snaps in his debut, although eight of those were with him starting in the backfield as the only running back on the field. He motioned all over the place and finished with three catches for 33 yards and four carries for 21 yards in addition to what he did as a kick returner.
McQuitty was the only other receiver that saw the field, playing five snaps. He caught his only target for 6 yards to move the chains. It was the first catch of his Nebraska career.
Woodyard did not play. Nor did the other three freshmen — Jamie Nance, Darien Chase and Demariyon Houston. Kade Warner, who replaced Williams in the starting lineup midway through the season, did not even suit up. Miles Jones did not play and Andre Hunt, expected to be one of the top-line guys, was suspended indefinitely earlier in the week.
Spielman is going to be on the field as much as he can handle, and I think we’re going to continue to see Robinson’s workload expand as the season goes on. Beyond those two, I think the receiver rotation is still a work in progress. It’s hard to evaluate them too harshly though because of the overall offensive dysfunction; Adrian Martinez certainly missed some open receivers throughout the game.
Nebraska basically changed its personnel with every new drive, and there were several drives that included multiple lineup changes. For what it’s worth, here were the most common lineups:
- Mills-Stoll-Williams-Robinson-Spielman = 7 plays
- Mills-Allen-Noa-Spielman-Williams = 7 plays
- Mills-Stoll-Noa-Spielman-Williams = 7 plays
- Washington-Stoll-Allen-Noa-Spielman = 6 plays
- Mills-Stoll-Allen-Noa-Spielman = 5 plays
In total, I counted 20 different groupings, 13 of which were on the field for more than one play.