Prior to Saturday’s 25-24 comeback victory against Purdue, Nebraska was 0-9 under coach Mike Riley when attempting at least 40 passes on offense.
The Huskers were 0-5 in 2015 alone when throwing that many times, 0-1 in 2016 and 0-3 in 2017 prior to defeating the Boilermakers.
With their running game nearly non-existent and trailing for nearly three-fourths of its offensive plays, the Huskers attempted 50 passes, a rare occurrence at Nebraska.
The 50 pass attempts on Saturday is the highest for Nebraska since Riley arrived in Lincoln and is only the second time it has reached that mark in the last 10 seasons, according to sports-reference.com. The only other time during that stretch was in 2014 against USC in the Holiday Bowl, a 45-42 loss.
In comparison, the Huskers had at least 50 pass attempts six times under Bill Callahan. (OK, I won’t mention him again.)
Before last Saturday’s win, it seemed almost guaranteed Nebraska would lose if it attempted 40 or more passes based on its record with those numbers. Somehow that trend finally ended.
What was different this time?
Well, let’s start with the completion percentage. Lee completed 64 percent of his passes; the highest percentage Nebraska has had in the 10 games in which it had thrown that much.
A higher completion percentage likely means a higher average of yards per attempt. The Huskers averaged 8.62 yards per pass attempt totaling 431 yards; also the highest marks in those 10 games.
It’s one thing to complete passes, but turning those into successful pass plays is another as it keeps the offense on track.
In order for a play to be considered successful, the offense must gain at least 50 percent of the yards to gain on first down, 70 percent on second, and 100 percent on third and fourth down.
Nebraska had 25 successful pass plays against Purdue, a 50 percent pass efficiency rate on 50 attempts. This season, the Huskers are averaging a success rate slightly below 40 percent on all of its pass plays.
All of these statistics combined increased the Huskers’ chances of completing the comeback against Purdue.
If the odds of winning when throwing 40-plus times are so low, why do Riley and company do it?
A combination of two things pretty much leaves them no choice. Those two factors are score differential and a lack of run efficiency.
In the 10 games Nebraska has thrown it at least 40 times under Riley, it has trailed by at least two-possessions and in some instances three or four.
As for the run game, it has generally lacked efficiency, especially in the past two games. The Huskers were successful on less than 25 percent of their run plays against Purdue on Saturday and Ohio State prior to the bye week—Nebraska had 47 pass attempts in that 56-14 loss.
Nebraska had less than 45 yards rushing in both of those games.
As I wrote about last week, these two factors are hurting the balance of the Huskers’ offense, making it one-dimensional.
Looking forward, unless Nebraska can overcome a couple hurdles this week against Northwestern, it might find itself throwing more than 40 times for the third straight game.
The Wildcats rank 17th in the FBS in rushing defense, allowing 118 rushing yards per game this season. In their last six games, they’ve held their opponents to an average of 94.83 rushing yards. That average would move them into the top 10 nationally.
The Huskers, who rank 108th in the FBS in rushing yards per game, want to run the ball more effectively against Northwestern, but with a number of injuries on the offensive line, that task only gets harder.
If Nebraska does attempt 40 or more passes this week, the odds, again, aren’t in its favor.
Over the last 12 seasons under coach Pat Fitzgerald, the Wildcats have a 33-12 (.733) record when their opponent attempts 40 or more passes—including a 30-28 win against Nebraska in 2015. The Huskers had 48 pass attempts in that game.
In a triple-overtime upset against No. 16 Michigan State last Saturday, Northwestern forced the Spartans to throw 49 pass attempts in regulation, alone. Michigan State finished the game with 57 attempts.
It’s not a for-sure loss if Nebraska attempts that many passes against Northwestern, but history has proven it is not a good sign.