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Maybe it was the snaps. Seems silly to blame a shoddy first outing for Nebraska's offense on something as seemingly mundane as that, but then again this was an offense with sky-high expectations against a Sun Belt team. A strange outing might need a strange explanation.
It's always unwise to blame or credit any piece of football failure or success on one thing––game just doesn't work that way––but you had a first-time center snapping in an offense that's big on timing lead by a quarterback who is coached by a guy obsessed with footwork. When Adrian Martinez has to jump to corral one of those snaps, it's not crazy to think that would make a difference.
Scott Frost first brought it up immediately after the game on Saturday, not in response to any question about snapping but while answering a question on how Martinez played. "I think the snaps being high a lot threw him off a bit," Frost said.
At Monday's press conference, Frost was asked about where the coaches start with trying to assess how the Huskers' offense managed just 4.18 yards per play against a South Alabama defense that gave up 6.70 a year ago. He mentioned that Nebraska may have gotten "too scheme-y" against a Jaguars defense that offered some different looks than they had shown on film last season. He mentioned the need to practice better during the week. And between those two items, he mentioned getting the ball to the quarterback.
"We've got to get the snap issue fixed," Frost said. "I think that cost us quite a few plays."
Redshirt freshman center Cameron Jurgens started his first game at Nebraska. This time last year, he was a tight end. Jurgens moved to center last October, but injuries limited his availability last fall and then again this summer. He wasn't a full-go at the start of fall camp, but still earned the start in the opener. That may have contributed to some of the issues on Saturday.
"With Cam I think it was a matter of not getting reps," Frost said. "He missed quite a bit of training camp and I suppose it's like shooting free throws or any other athletic movement, if you've done it a million times it's second nature. We're certainly going to be taking a look at it and working on it."
So what was the actual impact of those wayward snaps? In his Monday morning column, Derek Peterson evaluated all 49 of Jurgen's shotgun snaps from the first half––Jurgens didn't play in the second, as the coaches had planned before the game––and found that 54.1% of those snaps were on target, 14.6% were slightly off target and 29.2% were high enough that Martinez had to jump to catch it.
I matched Derek's counts up with my game chart to see what sort of impact it had on two things: Nebraska's success rate and explosive-play rate. Success rate is a measure of how often a team stays on schedule by gaining at least 50% of the yards to go on first down, 70% on second down and 100% on third or fourth down. Explosive-play rate is simply explosive plays (runs of 10+ yards, passes of 15+) divided by total plays.
The sample sizes here are pretty small––we're talking less than 50 plays total, which are then divided into three categories––but the numbers are still interesting.
|Snap Quality||% of All Snaps||Success Rate||Explosive Play Rate|
Nebraska's success rate on all plays from the shotgun in the first half was 37%. Not great, but when Jurgens delivered an on-target snap that number jumped to 48%. That was in line with the Huskers' 47.7% success rate in 2018, which ranked 16th nationally. All six of the Huskers explosive plays in the first half started with an on-target snap
Things got quite a bit worse for snaps that were slightly off target and worse yet for those snaps that Martinez had to jump for.
Again, football success or failure is never about just one thing, but it is hard to read a defense or mesh with the running back when the timing is off from the start.
"We put him in some bad spots not being able to get his eyes where they should've been because he was jumping for a bunch of snaps," Frost said of Martinez.
We'll see if one of the fixes for Nebraska's offense after one game is simply how those plays start. It might seem a little bit crazy at face value, but if you stop and think about this, it probably is easier to make good snap decisions as a quarterback when you receive a good snap.