Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Huskers are an Oddity that’s Hard to Explain, Harder to Fix

August 29, 2021

The average college football offense gains about 5.65 yards each time it runs a play. If your favorite team is consistently pounding the over, congratulations, you’re a curve-wrecker. If your favorite team is consistently skating under that, maybe re-evaluate why you set yourself up for failure on Saturdays. 

If your favorite football team is winning that per-play battle over its opponent—your offense is operating with more efficiency than the other guys—then you’re likely enjoying yourself most weekends. Teams that win the YPP category win 80% of the time. 

Nebraska, under coach Scott Frost, has a losing record when winning this category. The Huskers are 9-11, a 0.450 winning percentage. 

It’s the most basic way of measuring an offense. How well do you do your jobs? Nebraska has been slightly above average in Frost’s 33 games, sporting a yards-per-play clip of 5.9. And you might think “well, the defense has surely given up more than that on average,” but they haven’t; Nebraska is allowing 5.6 yards per play over Frost’s tenure. 

The Huskers are winning the most basic battle on average yet hold a 12-21 record. 

They’re a statistical marvel if there ever was one, a big, ugly, unsolvable question mark. 

Nebraska outgained Illinois 5.3 to 4.9 on Saturday, but lost 30-22. 

In what has become standard operating procedure, Nebraska spotted the Illini points. 

A first-quarter punt curiously fielded inside its own 5-yard-line ended with a safety and an after-the-play gaffe that will surely make the rounds on sports talk shows this week. (If you’re going to be the first game of the season and the only semi-interesting game of the day, you better be buttoned up.)

A missed touchdown throw on a mid-second quarter offensive possession was followed up with a roughing the passer/targeting double-whammy on the next defensive possession. The penalties (which I’m not convinced they were) wiped away a Cam Taylor-Britt interception and moved the ball 30 yards closer to NU’s goal line. Illinois ended the drive by crossing it. 

On a third-and-2 with less than a minute to play in the first half, Nebraska went empty. Quarterback Adrian Martinez held the ball a touch too long in the pocket, and then tried to escape a four-man rush up the gut. In doing so, he had the ball punched away, scooped up by an Illini defender, and returned 41 yards for a defensive touchdown. 

Illinois scored twice in the third quarter to cap a 28-0 run of unanswered points and open up a 30-9 lead Nebraska wouldn’t recover from.

There was a safety, a defensive score, and two missed PATs from the reigning Big Ten kicker of the year. Eleven points in a game Nebraska lost by eight.

Nebraska limited its turnovers—only one this day after a combined nine in the previous two meetings—and put up solid yardage, but posted a success rate of just 41.8%. After offseason talk of a more effective and accurate vertical pass game, NU was successful on just 34.3% of its pass plays. 

Coaches said Martinez, who last year posted a school-record 71.5% completion rate, had taken his accuracy to another level in the spring and summer. On Saturday, he repeatedly missed when throwing to his left. 

Coaches said Nebraska was going to recommit to a physical, downhill run game. Three tailbacks received 19 total carries and gained 40 yards. Martinez, who was supposed to be running less, was right around his career average. 

The offensive line was said to be a strength of the team, but tackles were beaten off the edge by Illini defenders and play-calling suggested more concern than confidence. 

Nebraska was outscored and out-gained in the third quarter against Illinois. In its last nine games, Nebraska has outscored and out-gained its opponent only once—Rutgers to end the 2020 campaign.

“I just got done telling the guys we can’t have this season be the same movie because this game look like the same movie today,” was the quote heard round the Husker-sphere, delivered postgame by Frost. 

It’s an interesting thing to hear from a coach in his fourth year. 

But it wasn’t the most concerning bite from Frost’s turn at the lectern.

“It was all a guessing game for us,” Frost said of the Illini defense. “(Illinois coach Bret Bielema)’s been a bunch of places, the defensive coordinator has been a lot of places. Our best guess was that they were going to be a lot like what they were at Missouri and in the spring game. They weren’t.”

Too often in his 33 games now Frost has made some variation of that statement, an admission that Nebraska was shown a different defensive look than what it had prepared for. Put another way, Nebraska was thrown for a loop and didn’t adjust.

Why? 

What continues to cause that to happen?

If Nebraska was guessing at which defense the Illini would run, odd or even, why would it only prepare for one of the two potential answers? If Nebraska was so locked in on prep for an odd look that it had nothing to counter an even defensive front with, isn’t that a significant coaching error? To have that in your first game of a new year is remarkable, a crucial game in a crucial year on top of that.

On most Saturdays, and on this Saturday, there are prolonged reminders that the scheme works. Receivers run open. Running back Markese Stepp found acres of green grass on a wheel route and wideout Wyatt Liewer found himself all alone in the end zone after a well-executed switch route from a trips package. 

And the sought-after result continues to elude.

In its first game under a new coach on the sideline for the first time since 2017, and playing with a backup quarterback who couldn’t cut it at Rutgers, Illinois looked like it had a firmer grasp of what it was supposed to look like than Nebraska.

Observers could see the makings of an identity. There is no discernible identity opposing coaches can point to with the Huskers, unless you count Frost being out-coached game in and game out as one.

There’s an interesting disconnect between what Frost sees, what he says, and then what the public sees. Without knowing why that disconnect exists, or even acknowledging it’s there, it’s hard to start producing answers.

“The one thing we’ve never gotten around here is the spark,” Frost said. “We need to win a couple of close games, string some wins together, get some momentum.” And that seems to be the answer Frost is running with, because it’s not the first time that’s been said either. There isn’t something tangible that he can point to and say “we do this and it gets better,” instead Nebraska keeps resorting to blanket statements like “we need to clean up the mistakes.”

It’s college football, every team makes mistakes. Nebraska shouldn’t have to play a perfect football game against lesser talent to walk away with a win. And yet…

Players have to execute the plays, yes, but the man who promised a high-octane offense has yet to deliver and he might be running out of time. A preseason No. 1 darling in Oklahoma looms on the horizon, a potential watershed moment for this regime that looks all the more daunting now than when Nebraska tried to escape the game this spring. 

It’ll face Fordham and Buffalo before then. Forget the sell-out streak, Nebraska has bigger things to worry about. 

“We want to flip the script, we don’t want to have that shit happen over and over again, we’re tired of it,” said center Cam Jurgens.

The offense is working while at the same time short-circuiting, and, before its too late, Nebraska is going to have to figure out how to fix that which continues to prove unfixable.

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