Nebraska's Rushing Attack Got Better in 2018
Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Nebraska’s Rushing Attack Got Better in 2018, Even Better Than UCF’s

December 11, 2018

Around this time last year, I looked at Nebraska’s final rushing data from the 2017 season. Not just the yards per carry or the box score figures, but a closer look at what kind of yardage Nebraska was producing from the ground game and how often.

It was all bad. 

The criteria, one more time: sacks and kneel downs would be removed from the rushing numbers (they're not really runs after all) but designed pass plays that end in quarterback scrambles would stay in. 

Now that the 2018 season is over, I wanted to know if there had been as much improvement on paper as there was on film.

A Full Year's Look:

Play Result 2017 NU 2018 NU
Neg. – 2 yds 44.5% 33.9%
3-4 yds 21.8% 20.2%
5-9 yds 20.9% 25.0%
10-plus yds 12.7% 20.9%
0 yds or less 17.4% 17.9%
5 yds or more 33.6% 45.9%

The top number is probably going to be the one that jumps out first to a lot of people — I'm going to call those "empty runs" for brevity — and the percentage of runs gaining 0 yards or fewer actually bumping slightly makes it even more interesting. In 2017, Nebraska was a team that couldn’t even come close to staying on schedule; it ranked among the 30 worst teams in the country by stuff rate. But, Central Florida’s percentage of empty runs in 2017 was close (43.1 percent) and its percentage of negative runs was actually higher than the Huskers (11.8 percent compared to 8.8 percent for Nebraska). 

I thought that would be the case with Frost at Nebraska as well. Central Florida was a boom-or-bust ground game. It would get a lot or it would get a little. To some extent, Nebraska was like that in 2018 as well, but not to the same degree. The Huskers’ ground game was actually better in Year 1 than the Knights’ were in Year 2 both in terms of efficiency and explosiveness.

Just looking at the year-over-year comparison, Nebraska was nearly 10 percentage points better at limiting empty runs than it was a season ago. You thought that would improve, but not as drastically as it did. The Huskers were also better at picking up regularly-scheduled yards. Getting five yards every other run does wonders for a play-caller. And Frost’s Huskers were setting up the next play better than Frost’s Knights were (UCF got 5 or more 40.9 percent of the time).

Nebraska also had more chunk runs than UCF did a season ago and doubled its own 2017 season. Nebraska logged its 45th explosive run (10 yards or more) on the third play of the fourth quarter against Northwestern on Oct. 13. The Huskers had 44 in 2017; they topped that mark before the end of their sixth game. 

That, more than anything, might explain the overall offensive improvement. Nebraska went from a team more likely to gain nothing than 10 yards, to a team that was ripping off 10 every five carries. The Huskers also went from 10 runs of at least 20 yards to 31. Central Florida had 22 a season ago. 

Everyone deserves credit for that.

Nebraska’s play-calling was more imaginative and less predictable this season. Frost and company did well to get Nebraska’s playmakers the ball in space but the offense moved from a 55-45 pass-heavy attack to a 47-53 run-leaning approach.

The running backs were more dynamic, too. Senior Devine Ozigbo earned every last yard on his way to 1,000 after the offseason of work he put in. Ozigbo overhauled his game, becoming a better reader of where the defense was trying to get him to go, becoming a little more patient at the line of scrimmage and becoming a lot more explosive once he got past that line. Then there was freshman Maurice Washington, who came in and provided the perfect amount of lightning to pair with Ziggy’s thunder.

And, of course, there was the offensive line. Football Outsiders uses “opportunity rate” as a metric to try and separate rushing credit between a ball-carrier and his blockers. They describe it as such: "The percentage of carries (when five yards are available) that gain at least five yards, i.e. the percentage of carries in which the line does its job, so to speak."

Nebraska's offensive line "did its job" 33.8 percent of the time in 2017. That was good for 112th nationally. This season, the opportunity rate soared to 53.8, good for 12th nationally.

Half and Half:

With the 0-6 start and 4-2 finish and all the talk about Northwestern being that turning point, I was also curious what these tables would look like if they were broken up by the first half and the last half of the year.  Would there be a large enough difference in the numbers to be significant?

Play Result First Six Games Last Six Games
Avg. runs 37.8 34.8
Neg. – 2 yds 38.8% 28.7%
3-4 yards 17.6% 23.0%
5-9 yards 23.8% 26.3%
10-plus yds 19.8% 22.0%
0 yds or less 19.4% 15.8%
5 yds or more 43.6% 48.3%

It's worth noting Nebraska's first six games included opponents whose average S&P+ ranking against the run was 31st while the last six games included opponents whose average run defense rank was 66th (plus an FCS team).

Still, there's improvement enough there in both the empty runs and the on-schedule runs to make note of. Nebraska's offense hit for 450 yards in four of six games both in the first half of the season and the last half, so perhaps the bump in efficiency played a role in the Huskers being able to turn those yards into more points.

Honestly, this sort of modest improvement was what I expected from the year-over-year comparison. That theory that Nebraska had a Year 1 and a Year 2 all wrapped into one 2018 season is looking better by the day.

Bonus:

One last thing, because quite a few people asked for this the last time around. Here's Nebraska's rushing success by direction.

Direction* Percentage of carries Yards per carry
Left 20.0% 8.81
Middle 50.9% 6.69
Right 29.1% 7.13

* The program used to track runs only identified directions during Nebraska's seven home games and the Iowa game. Michigan, Wisconsin, Northwestern and Ohio State did not categorize runs by direction. I'll chart the other four games at a later date but thought 8-of-12 was likely enough to give a general look at tendencies.

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