Nebraska offensive coordinator Mark Whipple has reiterated his system takes time. He left Pittsburgh in the offseason after three years of developing one of the nation’s most explosive offenses. His arrival in Lincoln brought a clean offensive slate with a multitude of aspirational transfers. The Huskers’ starting quarterback, running back and top two wide receivers are still playing their first seasons at Nebraska. They came to Lincoln to play in Whipple’s system of Heisman-caliber quarterback and big-time receiver as it merged with a run-oriented Big Ten approach. Ahead of their 10th game, they’re still looking to play a complete game.
Numbers indicate Nebraska’s run-pass ratio of play calling is one of the most even amounts comparative to other teams. The Huskers throw the ball 48.84% of their plays, which is the 65th most out of 131 FBS teams. For context, Penn State ranks just ahead at 64th at 49.16%. So it’s comparable to other successful Big Ten teams. Quarterback Casey Thompson completes 62.9% of his passes through his eight games, which is 59th-best in the country. Of course, that comes with 12 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. (Former Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez is 57th in the country with a 63.1% completion rate, for comparison.)
These aren’t inherently poor numbers. The issue, which has certainly contributed to more than one Nebraska loss this year, is inconsistency. In the season-opening loss to Northwestern, Nebraska scored or attempted points (field goal attempt) on five of its first eight drives. With control of the game and desirous of only melting clock, the offensive output ended. Four punts (three 3-and-outs) and two interceptions in that game gave Northwestern its only win of the season so far (it’s November and that game happened in August). In the shootout that brought the end of the Scott Frost era, Nebraska punted four times (three three-and-outs). Taking out kneel drives, four drives against Indiana went for 0 or negative yards. The first seven drives against Rutgers consisted of five punts and two interceptions.
“Your job is to score touchdowns,” Whipple said about the offense after the Indiana game. “You go three plays, 70 yards then you just start making mistakes.”
Introduce the latest troubles into that equation. Nebraska’s offense completely stalled out after Thompson left the Illinois game. Then came the six consecutive three-and-outs against Minnesota that allowed the Gophers to stage their comeback.
Interim head coach Mickey Joseph has called for a physical run-based offensive approach since before the Illinois game. That approach helps clock management and managing down-and-distance situations. Nebraska also ranks among the middle of the country in third down conversions, moving the chains on 39.47% of third downs. On the Huskers’ current three-game losing streak, however, they converted 3 of 9 against Purdue, 2 of 12 against Illinois and 5 of 16 against Minnesota. Whipple’s challenged the offense to improve on first and second downs to make third down more manageable.
“The system takes time,” Whipple mentioned ahead of the Illinois game. “I probably tend to lose my patience because being in a place for three years you build it up and things that seem easy at Pitt with what Kenny (Pickett) did with Jordan (Addison) are some of the same stuff we’re doing, it just takes time.”
With Kenny Pickett, Pittsburgh ranked 104th in offensive efficiency index during Whipple’s first year there in 2019. The Panthers scored touchdowns on just 17% of their drives, ranking them No. 116 in the country, and two-thirds of their drives accrued at least one first down, ranking them No. 92 in the country. In those same offensive efficiency index statistics, this year’s Nebraska team is ranked 68th overall in efficiency. They are 85th in touchdown success, scoring on 23.7% of drives, and 107th in the country with first downs on only 62.9% of drives. Nebraska is 112th in the nation with turnovers on 15.5% of offensive drives.
Pittsburgh’s offensive statistics and rankings improved the longer he was there and the Panthers won the ACC Championships last year. But it seems unlikely he’ll return for more seasons at Nebraska beyond this and with three games remaining the Huskers are running out of time.