Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Mark Whipple Doesn’t Have to Make Nebraska What Pitt Was, Just Bring the Details

December 12, 2021

Here’s just a hodgepodge of random thoughts after the week that was. Enjoy.

>> Mark Whipple’s offense—what he’ll bring to the table, what he’ll change, who he’ll attract—is going to be so intricately dissected over the coming months. In a literal sense, the hires Scott Frost made this week will make or break his Nebraska tenure. 

The new offensive coordinator was the guy, I’d think, because of what he was able to do with a ho-hum Pitt offense and an overlooked quarterback during the 2021 season. If the Nebraska offense works more effectively next season and the Huskers produce anywhere near the level that Pitt did, Frost will survive another year. The Huskers will have seemingly won more games. If it doesn’t, the Huskers will be back in the market for another new OC because it’ll likely be back in the market for a head coach. 

In that sense, Whipple makes a load of sense. He can afford this roll of the dice. He just has to fix what’s broken. If he can’t, it was already broken before he showed up so no harm, no foul.

Frost has said he doesn’t want to make wholesale changes to his offense, even though the expectation is that he’s handing over the controls. This marriage of minds will be interesting in that regard. 

How much changes? Do the triple-option elements of the 2021 offense—something Nebraska sort of fell into and something that, largely, seemed to work—linger or does Whipple scrap them because that’s not his bag? He’d theoretically have the agency to make that call. 

But where Whipple can help his pass concepts and strategies that have proven successful, Frost can and should still be able to help in the run game. The inside zone, the aggressive (read: fun as hell) way of pulling anyone anytime, the optionality. A true marriage might make for something really interesting. There’s a better than average chance this thing looks nothing like the Pitt thing.

If you factor out sacks, the 2021 Pitt offense was 99th out of 130 FBS teams in run rate. It ranked 85th in yards per rush (again, sacks taken out). The 2020 Pitt offense was 105th out of 127 FBS clubs in run rate and 109th in yards per rush. 

Nebraska’s run rate held steady over the two years—right around 56%, a good 10 percentage points above Pitt’s. 

NU’s offensive profile is remarkably similar to Pitt’s from an efficiency standpoint. It averaged 6.44 yards per play. Whipple’s Panthers averaged 6.45. Quarterback Adrian Martinez engineered an aerial attack that ranked 6th nationally in yards per pass, tied with Alabama and 10 spots ahead of where Pitt sat.

The biggest difference, and the only one that matters at the end of the game, is scoring.

Pitt averaged 43 points a game. 

Nebraska averaged 28. 

Across Whipple’s three seasons as the Pitt OC, the Panthers threw 74 touchdown passes. 

Nebraska, over that same time, threw 31. 

Perhaps Whipple’s biggest selling point is that he didn’t use a Bryce Young to engineer a remarkably potent offense. Sure, the average defensive SP+ ranking among Pitt’s 11 FBS opponents was 84th (only two top-50 defenses faced), but the Panthers went from average to elite at scoring points. 

The number you’ve no doubt seen cited a handful of times already is the amount of red zone touchdown passes Whipple’s Pitt offenses threw in comparison to the number Nebraska threw. How do you get the difference? 

Detail.

If Whipple is the teacher who helped detail Pickett into a Heisman contender—a legitimate one, I’ll always argue—and he’s the teacher who helped detail an offense into a track meet, then he’s the right kind of play for Frost. 

It would seem he made what he had available to him work and work well. The lack of an ability to do that would be one of the bigger criticisms of the Frost era so far. If Whipple can make it work in Lincoln, things get interesting in a hurry. That remains a big if.

>> ESPN’s Bill Connelly used his SP+ numbers from the year to give a look at what the conference standings would be, under his model, with OU and Texas in the SEC and Cincinnati in the Big 12 (among other things). The result is fascinating. 

I’ve argued since the night the Big 12 defection was announced that Oklahoma was miscalculating its ability to jump conferences and maintain the level it has operated at, that one- or two-loss Big 12 seasons would very quickly become four-loss seasons in the SEC. Not that one singular statistical model is proof, but it is interesting to see an OU team that lost one Big 12 game sit sixth in the SEC, and barely sixth at that. 

Connelly’s model says that Oklahoma is 1.1 points better than Kentucky and 1.5 points better than Arkansas. 

No one in or at Oklahoma would believe that’s actually the case on the field. But Lincoln Riley’s departure might have hurt the pride a little. I suppose we’ll find out soon if moving to the SEC will do any permanent damage. 

>> I’m intrigued by the offensive line coach hire of Donovan Raiola. I think he has the energy to make this work at the college level, but he will have the single most important job on this offensive staff this offseason. Nebraska needs him to get it right.

>> Nebraska women’s basketball is currently No. 4 in the NET rankings. 

Amy Williams’ squad is 10-0 and 4-0 away from Pinnacle Bank Arena. I think Jaz Shelley—15.2 points, 6.5 rebounds, 53.4% from 3—is in the running for best transfer addition of the year across the power conferences. NU’s non-conference schedule was incredibly light, but road wins against Wake Forest and Minnesota are good signs. 

It’s too early to worry about where they’re ranked or not ranked in something like the AP poll—which ultimately doesn’t much matter anyway. A two-game homestand on Jan. 4 and 9 against Michigan and Iowa looks like it’ll be incredibly illustrative. 

In fact, NU plays Iowa twice in a week’s span, with a trip to Indiana sandwiched in-between. The (shorthanded) Huskers lost by 36 in Bloomington last year. If NU can get through that stretch of games in January with a 2-2 record or better, the sky’s the limit for this team.

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