Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

On a Defense Trending Up, a Quarterback Firing Downfield, Nebraska’s Run Game, the Option (!!!), and More

September 12, 2021

Let’s look at a third-down conversion for Buffalo on Saturday. 

It’s third-and-8. The score is 14-3 in favor of the Huskers. Nebraska had a chance to double up after a late second-quarter score and take a three score coming out of the halftime break, but it has gone scoreless in the frame. The offense did that thing where it produces explosives on drives that end without points (27-yard pass on the first drive, missed field goal; 16-yard pass and 21-yard run on the third drive, punt).

Buffalo is just kind of hanging around. This third down play is the final play of the frame. As shown above, the Bulls convert. Husker corner Cam Taylor-Britt tries to break on the throw but he’s late. 

Had he taken the conservative route, Buffalo likely would have still come up a yard or so short of the sticks. My guess is he’s trying to undercut the throw and pick the ball. Instead of taking it or making the stop, he misses both the ball and the tackle.

Immediately after this play, a few things race through my mind. 

Buffalo was 11-for-22 on third down against the Huskers. Nebraska got the Bulls there a ton—and with an average of 7.2 yards between the Bulls and the line to gain—but were a little too susceptible.

Buffalo quarterback Kyle Vantrease was 11-for-15 for 122 yards on third. Eight of those 11 conversions came via his arm. Half his yardage on the day came on third downs. 

Through three games now, Nebraska is giving up third downs at a 40% rate, a clip that ranks 84th nationally. It’s a dip from the level Nebraska was playing at on third downs over the back half of last season, another poor start to the year. 

Alternatively, on paper Nebraska has been mostly effective defending the pass overall. At just 5.5 yards per pass play allowed, the Blackshirts currently rank 28th nationally in per-play pass defense. They’ve got four interceptions against just three touchdowns. They had just five interceptions in eight games last year. Of course, the quality of the competition is worth mentioning. 

But watching the games, you get the feel Nebraska has been somewhat leaky at times, that Nebraska isn’t quite playing to its potential in the secondary, maybe not living up to the talent level back there. That bears out, too. NU ranks 60th in passing success rate allowed and 86th nationally in pass play EPA allowed (defined here). 

You see that in the third-down conversion up above. 

Nebraska gives up 12 through the air on third-and-8 to keep the drive moving,

In a traditional sense, that’s a poor play. Taylor-Britt will likely get asked by DB coach Travis Fisher and DC Erik Chinander why he went for the boom rather than the safe play only to bust. When Nebraska plays better teams with more explosive offenses, you have to be able to get off the field on third down. It’s fine to take chances against an offense that hasn’t threatened you all day, but not so much when the other side is coming off a 76-point performance. 

But this play to me feels like the perfect encapsulation of what this defense—as I understand it—strives to be and why it’s often misunderstood. 

Perhaps this isn’t the majority—social media is the loudest minority after all—but it still feels like some are hesitant to acknowledge growth on defense. Bottom line, Nebraska is 14-21 under this regime, so in a general sense there hasn’t been enough growth, but the defense feels like a “damned if they do, damned if they don’t” situation more than should be the case. 

In holding Buffalo to just three points on Saturday, Nebraska matched its best defensive effort in a game since joining the Big Ten in 2011. In October of that inaugural season, NU held Michigan State to three points. 

“But it’s Buffalo! That’s what they’re supposed to do!”

It also marked the fourth straight game Nebraska has not allowed a touchdown in the fourth quarter. 

Over the last eight games Nebraska has played, the Blackshirts have allowed only two fourth-quarter touchdowns. 

During that stretch, opponents are averaging 8.9 second-half points against Nebraska. In 46 real drives faced (a few one-play, kneel-downs have been taken out), NU has yielded 71 total points. A 1.5 PPP is pretty good. Nineteen real fourth-quarter drives have yielded 23 total points (1.2 PPP).

(The national average for PPP last season was 2.3, per It was 2.2 in 2019.) 

Again, the quality of competition matters for context and Nebraska has played Buffalo, Fordham, Rutgers, a COVID-ravaged Minnesota squad, Purdue, Iowa, and Illinois twice in those eight games. Not exactly a murderer’s row of offenses. Still, a defense can only play whoever is in front of them, and though you get no love for stuffing outmatched opponents, you get crucified if you don’t. 

It’s just tough to keep teams out of the end zone in today’s game. Offenses are incredibly advanced. The rules are designed to protect offensive players. 

The national average for scoring last season was 28.7 points per game. The national average for scoring in 2019 was 28.7 points per game. The national average in 2018 was 29.4. The national average in 2017 was 28.6. The average offense is going to produce about four touchdowns a game.

And NU’s defense has done what it has needed to in that regard. It directly allowed 21 points to Illinois (and you could argue even more should be taken off their record if you wanted). It allowed just seven to Fordham and just three to Buffalo. 

If we take the “need to develop a star pass-rusher” piece of it and set that aside, because that’s still a big work in progress, they’ve mostly done their job this year. I look at Taylor-Britt’s play on third down and think, “Yeah, this is generally working how it’s supposed to.”

Chinander asks his defenders to shoot their shot. The scheme is not perfectionist-driven, rather excitingly opportunistic. Try to make a play and if you miss you have 10 other teammates there to back you up. 

Taylor-Britt went for an interception. He was late, but he went for it. Nebraska needs more turnovers from its defense. The Blackshirts had seven in eight games last season and that wasn’t good enough. 

Nebraska’s currently 91st in havoc rate produced as a defense (tackles for loss plus passes defended plus fumbles forced). It has five takeaways in three games, better than last year but an average rate nationally right now. 

Chinander’s scheme worked at Central Florida because the offense on the other side was putting stress on opposing offenses to keep up and that opportunistic flare tipped the possessions scale in what proved to be an insurmountable way every time out. So far at Nebraska, he hasn’t had the offensive counterpart he enjoyed in Orlando, and that has burned Nebraska. 

The mind wanders to what Nebraska could do if it had an above-average offense to pair with this defense.

You don’t want to give up third downs, but I can’t get too upset with Taylor-Britt for going for broke. He’s been emboldened to do so.

Inside linebacker Luke Reimer picked off Vantrease on the very next play. 

Nebraska scored one play later to make it 21-3. 

Other thoughts:

>> Adrian Martinez’s stat line was pretty clean on Saturday: 13-for-19 for 242 yards and two touchdowns, nine runs for 112 yards, zero interceptions, zero fumbles, zero sacks. 

The last three are the big ones. 

The fourth-year quarterback had a really rough opener against Illinois, but he has bounced back nicely in the last two weeks.

Exhibit A (find him in the upper-right quadrant):

And Exhibit B:

>> Martinez had 14 completions of 20 yards or more in seven games last season. He had only three for 30 yards or more. 

He has 12 in three games so far this year, including seven for 30 or more. Only Ohio State’s CJ Stroud (13) has more 20-yarders. 

And that’s with a rotating cast of characters at wideout. 

>> Martinez got 90 of his 112 rushing yards Saturday from scrambles. That makes 242 yards on scrambles in three games, or 83% of his total rushing output (sacks are removed). 

On traditional run plays, Nebraska is averaging 3.9 yards per carry. That’s including quarterback runs but excluding quarterback scrambles, of which there have been 15 (13 for Martinez, two for Logan Smothers). The number is the same for plays on which the ball is handed off to a tailback.

Need more from the ground game. 

>> It was a good sign to see Husker head coach Scott Frost dial up a shot on first-and-10 from NU’s 32 in the fourth quarter Saturday. Buffalo had just missed a 50-yard field goal attempt to keep the score at 21-3. There was 6:03 remaining in the game and it was mostly academic. 

Still, Frost called a deep shot to wideout Samori Touré and Martinez found him for 68 yards and a score. A one-play touchdown drive that put Nebraska up 28-3. 

NU could have elected to run the ball and kill the clock. I suspect Frost wanted to build some confidence within his offense and chemistry between his quarterback and top pass-catcher. Touré is up to 306 yards and two scores on 13 catches this year. He’s averaging 23.6 yards a catch. Nebraska’s leading receiver last year had 461 yards in eight games.

With a backup quarterback on NU’s next drive, Frost called option and Smothers pitched to wideout Will Nixon for what should have been a 13-yard touchdown. It was called back on a head-scratching illegal forward pass call. Frost proceeded to take two timeouts with the clock stopped at 10 seconds and Nebraska holding a 25-point lead specifically to unleash on the officiating crew. 

Some could call it running up the score, but good on Frost for doing so. Nebraska’s offense needs to know that feeling of being able to score at will. 

Frost has been more exciting as a play-caller of late. Again, against poor competition, but we haven’t seen much of that. Frost, in the past handcuffed to a degree by his personnel and the group’s execution, has shown more triple-option elements and a greater propensity to fire downfield. 

The orbit motion option package involving a wideout (usually Touré) has been a fun, new (relatively) wrinkle, one I hope continues. Frost has used a ton of rub routes, presumably as man-beaters in an attempt to answer the separation question. Martinez looks a natural running the old-school option. 

It looks like Frost is gaining confidence right along with the offense in recent weeks. Need that to continue.

>> Touré has looked much more the route-runner he was billed. He and Martinez seem to have good rapport right now.

>> With Ohio State falling to Oregon and once again looking surprisingly sub-par at the line of scrimmage, there’s a new No. 1 in the Big Ten power rankings.  

Previous week’s rank in parenthesis.

  1. Iowa (2)
    This looks like one of the best Iowa teams Kirk Ferentz has had.
  2. Penn State (3)
    Sean Clifford hasn’t made a big mistake through two weeks, and with that defense that’s all you can ask for.
  3. Ohio State (1)
    That defense looks rough.
  4. Michigan
    The defense is playing lights out. The two running backs are doing the same.
  5. Wisconsin
    Graham Mertz has yet to throw a touchdown pass this season, but Wisconsin seems to have found its next running back.
  6. Maryland (7)
    Taulia Tagovailoa looks awesome at the moment.
  7. Minnesota (6)
    Win’s a win, but the Gophers were outscored 23-10 in the second half by an upset-minded Miami (OH) team.
  8. Indiana
    A nice get-back game but questions remain on offense.
  9. Michigan State
    This Spartan offense has gotten really good QB play from Payton Thorne. The run game looks punishing. Mel Tucker has a good group. 
  10. Purdue
    Jack Plummer (74%, six touchdowns, no picks, 75.3 QBR) is enjoying a wonderful start to the year.
  11. Nebraska (13)
    Trending up, but NU will need a good performance against OU to erase the memory of that Illinois game, which looks worse by the week.
  12. Rutgers (11)
    Pounced on Syracuse mistakes but was held scoreless through the first two and a half quarters.
  13. Northwestern (14)
    Indiana State looks bad.
  14. Illinois (12)
    Illinois looks very bad. Like, 3-9 bad. 
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