Since the final whistle blew at the conclusion of Nebraska’s mediocre 21-17 loss against Northern Illinois, the talk surrounding the program has been centered on the insufficient play of the offense.
The Huskers have accumulated just 86 offensive points through the first three games.
The last time the program had a total that low at this point in the season was 2005, Bill Callahan’s second year. That team totaled just 39 offensive points. From then until now, the offense never scored less than a combined 100 points in the first three games.
Prior to the start of this season, I took a closer look at what Nebraska’s offense looked like during the first two seasons under coach Mike Riley.
This time, with a similar approach, I wanted to find what is hurting the Huskers’ offense and how it must be fixed.
Here are three things that stood out:
1. More pass attempts in traffic means more interceptions.
Based on the offseason hype associated with transfer quarterback Tanner Lee, it’s hard to believe he leads the nation in interceptions thrown with seven through three games.
In both 2015 and 2016, former quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. didn’t throw his seventh interception until Week 8. That’s hard to believe, right?
After comparing the pass location percentages, those facts become more understandable.
When it comes to the depth of Lee’s passes, the percentages are similar to that of Armstrong and Ryker Fyfe’s from 2015: about 58 percent are short attempts (0-10 yards), 25 percent are intermediate (11-20) and nearly 17 percent are deep (21+).
Where the percentages differ is when it comes to whether the attempts are located on the inside portion of the field, where there’s more traffic, or outside, where there’s less traffic.
In 2015, 40.38 percent of Nebraska’s pass attempts were somewhere between the numbers on the field. In 2016, that percentage increased to 68.00. So far this season, it’s increased again to 72.50.
A higher percentage of throws into traffic means more defenders and perhaps a higher possibility of interceptions. That’s exactly what’s happened. Five of Lee’s seven interceptions—or 71.43 percent—have occurred inside the numbers. That number is higher than both percentages from 2015 and 2016.
HOW CAN IT BE FIXED: Granted, Lee’s decision making hasn’t been great, and he hasn’t had much time in the pocket, the numbers speak for themselves when it comes to the increase in interceptions.
To fix this, Lee needs to put an emphasis on throwing the ball away, or settle for a less-risky throw outside of the numbers.
2. Nebraska needs a more efficient…passing game.
Poor decisions by the quarterback, a lack of blocking up front and numerous drops by receivers have forced Nebraska’s efficiency numbers to be heavily one dimensional, favoring the run.
And as the field gets shorter, it gets worse.
The offense has been successful (based on success rate) on just 35.43 percent of its total pass plays, which is down from both 2015 and 2016.
The running game has been just the opposite. Its 2017 success rate of 46.88 is higher than both 2015 and 2016.
Now, when we look at those rates on plays inside the opponent’s 40-yard line, they separate even more. The pass efficiency drops to 28.89 and the run efficiency increases to 51.61.
Break it down again to plays in the red zone, and the pass efficiency drops to 25.00 percent and the run efficiency jumps to 60.00 percent.
HOW IT CAN BE FIXED: Nebraska’s offense has scored a touchdown on just eight-of-12 trips in the red zone this season, lower than both 2015 and 2016 through three games.
Although the running game has been by far more efficient in the red zone, the run/pass ratio is slightly greater toward passing.
It is worth noting these numbers may be skewed slightly as Nebraska has trailed for the large majority of the past two games, but if the Huskers want to get the most out of their trips in the red zone, they may want to focus on running the ball.
A perfect example is Lee’s first pick-six. Had Lee decided to hand the ball of instead of throwing a bubble screen, the Huskers may have led 7-0 at the end of opening drive, rather than trailed.
3. The offense has had very minimal success on third-and-long plays.
It’s been pretty clear to anyone who has watched Nebraska’s games this season that the Huskers have struggled on third down. The stats don’t lie. Nebraska has converted just under 32 percent of its 47 third-down plays in 2017. That ranks tied for 112th in the FBS.
In the past two seasons, Riley and company was far more successful on third down. The Huskers ranked 24th nationally in 2015 and 32nd in 2016, according to CFBStats.
However, when these third-down plays are split into third-and-short (1-3 yards), medium (4-6) and long (7+), the trend varies.
Nebraska has converted on two-thirds of its third-and-short plays, the highest during Riley’s tenure.
The success rate drops drastically on third-and-medium plays. The Huskers are converting a little over one-third of them. In 2015, they converted exactly one-third, and last season an impressive 54.29 percent of third-and-medium plays.
Now, where the bigger problem occurs is on third-and-long plays. Nebraska is converting on just a dismal 12.50 percent of them.
That staggering number, which ranks 116th nationally, is 17.60 percentage points lower than the rate in 2016 and 25.47 lower than in 2015.
HOW IT CAN BE FIXED: There’s no doubt Nebraska’s offense needs to convert on more third-and-long plays to keep drives alive. The problem isn’t that the Huskers are facing a higher percentage of third-and-long plays. Nebraska simply isn’t converting on those plays like it has in the past.
The Huskers’ yearly rates of third-down plays that are long are as follows: 8.28 percent in 2015, 11.16 in 2016 and 10.76 in 2017.
Nebraska’s offense is one that thrives on first down success. The Huskers can help their third-down struggles by being more efficient on early downs. It sounds like a simple fix, but if they can put themselves in a more manageable third down, the numbers show they are drastically more efficient.