Five games in, four of them losses. Let’s do a number check on Nebraska with two to play. (And there will be some other thoughts on Friday’s game sprinkled in.)
>> The red zone has been tough for others. The Blackshirts currently rank 21st nationally in red zone touchdown rate. Opponents are scoring on 51.9% of trips inside the 20. While that might seem a decent clip on its surface, it represents a huge leap year-over-year for defensive coordinator Erik Chinander and his crew; last year, teams got touchdowns on nearly 70% of red zone trips (tied for 109th nationally).
Iowa went 2-for-5 inside the 20 on Friday. Before that, Illinois was 4-for-7 (tough), Penn State was 1-for-6 (much better), and Northwestern was 2-for-3. Both Penn State and Iowa were below their season averages for conversion rate inside the 20, and Northwestern only got there three times on 13 total drives. You’ll take that if you’re Chinander.
The defense has been interesting in that it’s still somewhat susceptible to methodical drives down the field but the big-play prevention has improved. And yet, when the field shrinks and teams need to be clinical rather than explosive, Nebraska’s defense has stiffened up in key moments.
The 6.1% big-play rate allowed so far (20 yards or more gained) is incrementally better than in 2019 (6.5%).
I think you can point to some of the athleticism Nebraska has on its defense right now to explain some of that. Nebraska flies to the football the way Chinander teaches, and it has guys at each level who can cover a lot of grass in a short amount of time when they need to.
>> The red zone hasn’t just been tough for Nebraska, it’s been hell. There’s only one team playing college football right now who has been worse at converting red zone trips into touchdowns and that’s Syracuse (40% touchdown rate). Nebraska sits at 42.9% on the season, tied with Utah State for 125th nationally.
It’s been a steady bottoming-out for Nebraska since Frost’s arrival in the red zone. A 61.4% conversion rate in 2018 (national average: 62.4%), became 52.9% in 2019 (nat’l avg: 60.7%), and it’s now darn near 20 percentage points below the national average in 2020 (62.6%).
Nebraska needs better line play in general, but it would really go a long way inside the 20. The Huskers are running the ball on 71.7% of plays inside the 20-yard-line this season (38 runs, 15 passes, and I left in three penalties that negated plays because we’re looking for tendencies).
It’s a bunch of quarterback run with some zone stuff for Wan’Dale Robinson, Dedrick Mills, and Marvin Scott III sprinkled in. There have been too many first-and-10s that started inside the 20 and ended with a field goal after three straight runs netted something like 7 yards.
There has been something of a reluctance to go under center in short-yardage situations (though Nebraska showed it Friday against Iowa, with Martinez sneaking for a score). The play-calling has left you wanting at times.
>> Pass-rusher is still needed for those Blackshirts. Nebraska has eight sacks in five games, and five of them belong to inside linebackers Will Honas and Luke Reimer. In passing situations, Nebraska’s sack rate ranks among the 25 worst in the country. You can point to the third-down numbers here to illustrate this, but, really, it’s pretty evident on Saturdays.
Chinander has brought some stuff this season. He’s mixed and matched his personnel to get more speed on the field—that 2-5-4 configuration springs to mind, Chinander’s nickel—and done some creative stuff with his blitz packages to try and apply pressure.
The Huskers just aren’t consistent enough at getting to the quarterback. Ty Robinson looks like he’s developing towards a guy who can give offensive lines fits, but the production isn’t there yet; that’s to be expected of a redshirt freshman playing for the first time.
Caleb Tannor, on the other hand, has one sack in five games. It hasn’t clicked there. Garrett Nelson is starting and playing a lot of ball for this defense as an outside ‘backer and hasn’t registered a single tackle for loss yet. JoJo Domann leads the team in that category with five, but the nickel ‘backer isn’t necessarily pinning his ears back and terrorizing quarterbacks.
Iowa averaged nearly 8 yards to go on 14 third-down attempts Friday. They converted just one of six third-and-longs and only four of 14 overall. That was much better. Only one sack, though.
The defense is doing good things. A dominant edge rusher still eludes the Blackshirts, though.
>> Hope you took the under on passing scores this season. Those Pac-12 teams that just started are excused. Four programs have played more than two games and only thrown one touchdown this season. They include Air Force (38 pass attempts total), 0-4 UMass, 0-4 Bowling Green, and 2-2 Wyoming.
Then there’s Nebraska. The Huskers have thrown two touchdowns in five games. They’ve thrown six interceptions. Army, with its 67 total pass attempts in nine games, has thrown for more. “But Nebraska has played fewer games.” But Nebraska has thrown 141 times.
Two have been dropped in the end zone. And Nebraska’s vertical game is only just now showing signs of life. Adrian Martinez looked downfield a number of times against Iowa. It was one play, and while we shouldn’t make a big fuss out of one play, it was absolutely encouraging to see a scrambling Martinez throw one up for his tight end, Austin Allen. The 6-foot-8 man came down with it. The quarterback needs to trust those guys. You hope that’s a sign of things to come.
It would certainly help.
NU has 11 passes that have gained 20 yards this season. That’s on 141 attempts, which would be a 7.8% rate.
Frost’s last five offenses in terms of 20-yard completions as a percentage of total throws:
- 2016 UCF: 7.8%
- 2017 UCF: 18.9%
- 2018 Nebraska: 10.1%
- 2019 Nebraska: 16.1%
- 2020 Nebraska: 7.8%
Not where you want to be.
>> Run defense was trending in the wrong direction. The Huskers gave up 4.2 yards per run to Northwestern on Nov. 7. The Cats are by no means an efficient rushing attack (114th on the year), but considering where Nebraska’s been at in recent years, anything under 5 is a nice starting point.
Then it allowed 5.2 to Penn State on 50 attempts.
Then it allowed 5.7 to Illinois on 51 attempts.
The average was creeping back up. And Erik Chinander talked about it this week; Nebraska can’t afford to think in terms of, ‘Well, we gave up 58 here and 35 there, but on everything else we were sound.’ No, they have to be sound every time.
Against Iowa, they were much closer to where they want to be. The Hawkeyes didn’t have a single run gain more than 15 yards—a first for the season—and were held to 3.1 yards per carry. That’s doing work.
Chinander’s likely hoping that’s a performance they can build on.
>> Adrian Martinez operated really well Friday. He was 18-for-20 throwing it, took chances but didn’t make back-breaking mistakes. I’ll give him a partial pass for the fumble at the end of the game, he needed time his offensive line didn’t provide him. Despite what some local high-schoolers would have you think about Martinez’s ability, the junior was not the reason Nebraska lost Friday. Far from it.
There were still a handful of plays where some probably yelled “Get rid of it” at the home TV. That much is true. Consider this all still to be a work in progress. Would you like him to be further along? Bluntly, yes. But, he showed some promising signs.
Namely, these two plays.
That’s 40 yards gained on two swing passes. (The first went down in the box score as a run, technically.) While they might seem small in scope, Martinez hasn’t always hit those passes.
The swing game has been much-maligned during Scott Frost’s run so far because of it. For the most part, it has been rather ineffective. A number of things go into that: perimeter blocking, timing, and quarterback accuracy on the throw.
Notice the placement on both of those balls from Martinez. Wan’Dale Robinson doesn’t have to contort his body to make a catch. He doesn’t have to break his stride. Martinez hits him on time and in rhythm, and Robinson takes care of the rest. That’s exactly how those plays are supposed to function.
Blocking was much better out on the edge. On that second play, you see tight ends Jack Stoll and Austin Allen out there making room for Robinson.
When you hear offensive coaches talking about how “the details have to be better,” those are the kinds of things they’re taking about. Put the ball right where it needs to be. The swing pass was a weapon for Nebraska against Iowa because of it.
Now, the challenge is that kind of throw can’t be a “more often than not” throw. It has to be a 9-out-of-10 throw. If Martinez can do that, other things will open up.
Frost continues to get the young guys touches in creative ways. That’s true freshman wideout Alante Brown. (And peep the block redshirt freshman Rahmir Johnson gives him.)
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.