Might Nebraska’s offense be able to solve two questions with one answer?
The red zone has been the dead zone for the Husker offense. And, of late, Nebraska is having a devil of a time getting the ball to its best player on the team. This is an offense that has been bottled up in every way possible. Could more Wan’Dale Robinson be the solution to a number of ailments?
Maybe it’s as simple as looking back to a 2019 game against Illinois. Fast-forward the tape to the third quarter and the 9:45 mark. Nebraska has the ball first-and-goal from the Illini 3-yard-line.
A freshman Wan’Dale Robinson motions across the formation from left to right. At the snap of the ball, tailback Wyatt Mazour fakes a handoff that would take him back to the left as the Husker offensive line blocks down. Tight end Jack Stoll, lined up on the right side of the formation, takes the outside linebacker to his right.
Robinson gets the handoff on a fly sweep and walks into the end zone for six points.
That was one of his 88 carries last year.
When Nebraska said this spring and summer that role as a rusher would be reduced, it’s now apparent it really meant it. Robinson doesn’t have a single rushing attempt through the first two games of the 2020 season. And after sitting right around 12 offensive touches per game a season ago, Robinson has 10 total after two games.
Problem No. 1 for the offense.
“We need Wan’Dale to be a bigger part of the game plan, so we’re going to do what we need to,” coach Scott Frost said on Monday.
Without being privy to what goes on in the offensive brain trust’s meeting rooms, one might question whether Wan’Dale’s usage can be helped by simply dialing up a few jet sweeps or throwing him into the backfield and giving him a few handoffs. But, as was the case a year ago, with the interconnectedness of Nebraska’s offensive woes, no fix is that simple, right?
“Actually it is,” offensive coordinator and wideout coach Matt Lubick said. “It’s a little more complicated than that, but (that stuff) is stuff we can do. And we’ve got to do it more.”
Robinson began a good deal of plays against Northwestern in the backfield before motioning out wide. So, Nebraska is moving him around, but to this point, it’s been more postering than attacking.
If you inverted his movement—start him in the slot and bring him either across the formation for a quick handoff, or bring him into the backfield for something—you might still be able to include the window-dressing that forces a defense to tip its hand while getting him closer to the ball at the play’s inception.
It’s important not to undervalue the role defenses have played through two weeks. In Ohio State, Nebraska played arguably the best team in the country with a blue-chip-laden defensive group. In Northwestern, Nebraska played arguably the best defense in the conference.
Those two, Lubick said, have done some things with their coverages to key on Robinson. That was to be expected when JD Spielman transferred away this offseason.
What isn’t helping the matter are the errors by those around Robinson.
“You might have a specific play where he’s getting the ball but then all of the sudden you’re in a long-yardage situation and now that play’s not ready,” Lubick said. “You can’t call that play. Part of it’s the specific situation.”
Ten of Nebraska’s 17 penalties in two games have come with the offense facing first or second down. Four of those 10 have come on first.
And as Jacob Padilla found in his film review Tuesday morning, quarterbacks just missed Robinson several times against the Wildcats when he was open or set up.
“We’ve had a lot of plays designed for him the first couple weeks and it hasn’t panned out,” Frost said. “But that spot, that’s kind of the focus of our offense.”
Frost remarked that he’s regularly had slot receivers in his scheme put up good-to-great numbers. Robinson missed time as a freshman, but seemed on track to be one of the Big Ten’s brightest young stars. Ten catches for 81 yards in two games isn’t what any expected.
So maybe expect some force-feeding. If Nebraska goes to a new quarterback, quick and easy plays for your best wideout would seem a safe route to go. If Nebraska goes with its regular starter, the same kinds of plays can help jumpstart things and rebuild confidence.
“There’s very simple ways that we can get (Robinson) the ball,” Lubick said. “He’s proven he can carry the ball in the backfield, he’s proven he can carry the ball on fly sweeps. That’s something we talk about, not just with Wan’Dale, who’s a big-time playmaker and we’ve got to get him the ball more, but how do we get all our playmakers the ball in what they do?”
And that question can go a long way toward solving problem No. 2
Nine drives have reached the opponent’s 20-yard-line and only three have yielded touchdowns for Big Red this season. That’s a clip that currently ranks dead last among the 102 FBS teams that have played multiple games so far.
In 26 games under Frost, Nebraska has gone to the red zone 104 times and come away with touchdowns exactly 50% of the time. For reference, the 2020 average is 64.7%.
Put another way: since the start of the 2018 campaign, Nebraska has averaged 2.05 yards per pass in the red zone (2020 average is 4.14) and is completing attempts at a 41.1% clip (2020 average is 53.8%). Now, the team has been above average running in the red zone, but as wideout and captain Kade Warner said Monday, a one-dimensional offense does not a good outfit make.
Simply avoiding those short-yardage situations would help, of course. If Nebraska could recapture some of the explosiveness it had in 2018, there wouldn’t be such emphasis on the red zone. Nebraska would be scoring before it got there.
Only four teams that have played multiple games (again, 102 teams have) have fewer 20-yard pass plays than Nebraska. Only three have fewer 20-yard plays period.
How can NU manufacture more?
“Getting the ball in playmakers hands that can create explosive plays. A lot of big plays are made when (there’s) what you would call a routine play designed to get 6, 7 yards and guys break tackles,” Lubick said. “When we have a chance to make the one-on-one catches or the big throw, we’ve got to make it.”
But Nebraska also just has to be better at executing what the staff dials up in short-yardage situations.
This isn’t to advocate for the same kind of usage the sophomore had a year ago. He’s a wideout. Not a between-the-tackles running back. Still, maybe it really is just as simple as giving Robinson the ball as early as possible and letting him use his speed.
“We’re working on that,” Lubick said. “And we can do a better job getting him the ball.”
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.