Midterm Report Cards: Nebraska's Disjointed Offense
Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Midterm Report Cards: Nebraska’s Disjointed Offense

October 16, 2019

With the Huskers’ season at a natural midway point, we’re handing out report cards this week on Hail Varsity dot com for the offense, defense and special teams. We started with the defense on Tuesday, and now it’s the offense’s turn today.

“We need to come off the ball better up front, we need to tackle better, we need to block better on the perimeter, we need to run more precise routes. All the little things. 

“We can scheme up any offensive play or call that you want to and if those things aren’t firing on all cylinders and we don’t win those things, it doesn’t matter what we call. I thought at times we did things pretty well tonight but it’s just not reliable enough for us to finish drives. Particularly on offense, we had a few big plays but we don’t have enough weapons right now to count on those plays scoring, and that means we have to sustain drives and in order to sustain drives you need to be more reliable and make fewer mistakes.”

Scott Frost, post-Minnesota

The question that prompted that response from Frost was about gauging progress after the team returns from its bye week, and its no coincidence that most of his answer had to do with the offense (and I’m not just talking about Frost being an offensive guy).

Nebraska’s offense limped into the bye week, both literally and metaphorically. On the physical side, Nebraska’s top two quarterbacks and its top two receiving options both head into the break pretty banged up. As a unit, the Huskers have managed to find the end zone just three times in the last three weeks, and two of those touchdowns came with the games already decided.

Under Frost, the offense was supposed to lead the way. That’s what happened when he was offensive coordinator at Oregon and that’s what happened when he was head coach at UCF. However, in year two at Nebraska, the offensive numbers are down almost completely across the board from year one.

Nebraska had a lot to replace offensively, but with Frost at the helm and Adrian Martinez behind center, most expected the Huskers would be able to figure it out. Instead, the whole unit has been disjointed as each group has struggled in one way or another.

The Quarterbacks

Quarterback is as good a place to start as any. Position projections for the Huskers in 2019 likely included a second year leap for Martinez, but that hasn’t really happened. Martinez’s yards per attempt average is up by a full yard, but his completion percentage is about five points lower and he only has seven touchdowns in six games (plus five interceptions). On the ground, he’s averaging half a yard less per run and just hasn’t quite looked like the same dynamic, decisive runner he was as a freshman, and he hasn’t quite solved his fumble issues.

Noah Vedral has had his bright spots in relief of Martinez, most notably the drive that set up the game-winning field goal against Northwestern, but he didn’t exactly light the world on fire when Nebraska needed him to start in place of the injured Martinez against Minnesota. He’s completed 19 of his 33 attempts for 206 yards and ran the ball 23 times for 85 yards in four games.

Martinez has taken some heat this season, and more than a few fans were even calling for Vedral to replace him, but that proved to be silly against the Golden Gophers. Martinez isn’t the reason Nebraska is losing, but he’s also not really the reason they’re winning either, which has been part of the problem. Ultimately, though, it’s hard to know how much blame to put on the quarterbacks considering the situation around them.

Midterm Grade: C+

The Offensive Line

“The situation around them” I was referring to above starts with the protection up front, which has been far from spectacular. Nebraska brought three starters back and plugged in a pair of redshirt freshmen in the other two spots, and the results to this point have not been encouraging.

Nebraska is 13th in the Big Ten in sacks allowed this season with 19, ahead of only Illinois. The Huskers have struggled to get any sort of consistent downfield passing game going in part because they haven’t been able to protect their quarterbacks long enough for those routes to develop. Penalties have been frequent, and they’ve come from everyone on the line.

Run blocking hasn’t been where it needs to be either. he Huskers are averaging over a yard less per carry compared to last season and they’ve struggled to find any run plays that they can consistently execute. There are flashes where the line puts it together and springs whoever is in the backfield for a big gain, but those plays aren’t consistent enough to sustain drives.

Snaps have been an issue on and off again throughout the season for Cameron Jurgens, but he cleaned that up against Minnesota and Nebraska still couldn’t get anything going offensively. 

Compounding the poor play of the starters is the fact that it still seems like none of the reserves are ready to truly push the guys in front of them. Redshirt sophomore Broc Bando, who had been working as the No. 2 left tackle, replaced Trent Hixson at left guard against Minnesota, but that’s the only change we’ve seen so far this season and it remains to be seen if that was permanent or a one-game thing.

There are issues throughout the offense, but it all starts up front.

Midterm Grade: D

The Running Backs

Despite the inconsistent blocking, all three of Nebraska’s primary non-quarterback ball carriers are averaging over 4 yards per carry.

Dedrick Mills is second on the team in carries behind Martinez and first in yards, averaging 4.6 yards per tote. However, 183 of his 350 yards came in two games — Northern Illinois and Ohio State. He’s carried the ball 54 times for 167 yards (3.1 yards per carry) in his other five games. Mills has certainly settled in after a rough first couple of games back at the Division I level, but Nebraska has still struggled to establish him as a consistent threat to eat up yardage,

Maurice Washington got off to a terrific start to the season (when he managed to stay on the field), totaling 268 yards on the ground on 35 carries (7.7 yards per carry) and 149 yards through the air on eight touches (18.6 yards per reception) with three total touchdowns. In the last three games, however, he has a total of 43 yards on 19 touches (2.3 per).

Nebraska’s most reliable runner has been a wide receiver, or at least a Duck-R. Wan’Dale Robinson is averaging 4.4 yards per carry and has ran for 4 yards a pop or better in five of his seven games. With Washington’s unreliability and the staff’s desire to redshirt Rahmir Johnson, the Huskers have had to use Robinson in the backfield more than they likely anticipated, but he’s answered the bell.

Washington’s issues aside, I think Nebraska’s issues in the run game have had more to do with the linemen and the perimeter blocking than the talent of the running backs themselves, though Nebraska clearly doesn’t have anyone as consistently producting as Devine Ozigbo back there right now.

Midterm Grade: B

The Tight Ends

The tight end clearly is a big part of this offense. Nebraska has had at least one tight end on the field for almost every offensive snap this season, and the Huskers have gone with two tight ends on nearly a third of their plays.

However, for whatever reason the tight ends are rarely a priority in the passing attack. In seven games, tight ends have drawn just 27 targets compared to 33 targets for running backs and 122 targets for wide receivers. The tight ends have caught 20 of those targets for 223 yards, a 74.1 completion rate.

Jack Stoll is third on the team in both receptions (15) and yards (175), and he’s caught a touchdown as well. While Stoll may not have much wiggle after the catch, he’s shown the ability to make some impressive catches and he’s not easy to get down once he’s picked up some momentum.

Austin Allen is the second part of what has become a two-man rotation (Kurt Rafdal has one reception on the season and hasn’t been playing much if at all on offense since early in the season), and he’s caught four of his seven targets for 39 yards. 

The blocking has been up and down by the tight ends, and there are still occasionally issues with their route-running, but they’ve made the most of the targets they’ve received this season.

Midterm Grade: B-

The Wide Receivers

If the line has been the most disappointing part of the offense this season, wide receiver is probably No. 2. 

Though Nebraska eased him into the offense early in the season, Robinson has lived up to the immense hype he received prior to the season and is leading the team in receptions with 27 for 336 yards and two touchdowns. He’s incredibly dangerous in space, whether you throw him the ball or hand it off to him.

Though he’s still leading the team in receiving yards with 469 on 24 receptions (a healthy 19.5 average), JD Spielman hasn’t quite had the season many expected of him. He’s had three quality games (112 yards against Colorado, 76 against Northern Illinois and 160 against Illinois) but he’s totaled just 121 yards in his other four games. Nebraska just hasn’t been able to get him the ball as consistently as it would like.

Still, Robinson and Spielman have 81 of Nebraska’s 182 targets between them, To reiterate, Nebraska is throwing to one of those two on nearly 45% of its passing plays. Somebody else needs to step up, and it hasn’t really happened yet.

The rest of Nebraska’s receivers have combined to draw 41 targets with 23 of those belonging to California graduate transfer Kanawai Noa. Noa has only converted those targets into seven catches and 74 yards (though he does have a touchdown in there) and no other receiver has had the ball thrown to him more than six times. Noa has been one of Nebraska’s best blockers on the edge and continues to get significant playing time because of that, and Mike Williams (three catches on six targets for 51 yards) has been the other receiver rotating in all season long.

Perhaps the return to health of Kade Warner (three catches for a career-high 38 yards against Minnesota) will provide Nebraska with another reliable receiving option to complement Spielman and Robinson.

I’d probably give Robinson an A, Spielman a B and the rest of the receivers a collective C-.

Midterm Grade: C+

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