On Nebraska and Purdue
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

On Nebraska and Purdue, Frost and Brohm, Offensive Ties and Creativity

November 01, 2019

Sixteen different college football coaches make at least $5 million a year. The sidelines of Ross-Ade Stadium on Saturday will feature two of those coaches. Nebraska paying top dollar for a savior isn’t a surprise. It’s Nebraska. But, Purdue? Purdue paying top dollar—or, if you want to be specific, top-10 dollar—for its coach to lift the program from the doldrums is a little more interesting. 

Both head coaches, Jeff Brohm at Purdue and Scott Frost at Nebraska, came from the Group of 5 ranks and both brought with them high-flying, fast, and fun offenses. A year before landing in West Lafayette, Brohm’s Western Kentucky Hilltoppers led the country in scoring. Frost’s season before the big job saw his UCF Knights do the same. Both used explosive passing games to compliment efficient running.

With the right quarterback and electrifying playmakers, things work and they work rather well. Both teams enjoyed varying levels of offensive success last season behind all-conference caliber signal-callers. 

Last year, Frost called Brohm one of the best coaches in the country. 

While the Purdue coach has taken exception to some of Frost’s other remarks, I’m sure he’d feel the same way about his Big Ten West peer. 

Brohm’s alma matter, Louisville, came calling this offseason and the Boilermakers were forced to back the Brinks truck up to his front door. Brohm stayed, which was a win, but those have been few and far between in the months since. Injuries have devastated his 2019 squad and the Boilermakers have limped to a 2-6 record while having to rely on a redshirt freshman quarterback because the ground game is nowhere to be found. 

The similarities between these two programs appear as if they’ll continue. Nebraska’s ground game has regressed this season and its star quarterback hasn’t played a game in four weeks. The Huskers are 4-4 in a year where they thought they could spend early December in Indianapolis. Now they’re fighting to spend their Christmas somewhere other than Lincoln. 

In three years, Brohm is 15-19.

In two years, Frost is 8-12. 

Frost’s rebuild is vast and unforgiving. Brohm is simply building. Neither program should have buyer’s remorse, but throwing around that kind of money will soon demand wins returned at a commensurate rate. 

One of these sides has to win Saturday, though it’s hard to put your own money on either outright. Probably a little easier to look at that over/under number and smash the over. Both defenses present opportunities for points. 

Which should be a welcome sight. These two programs have been idling because the offenses can’t get right (and because injuries). Offensive line issues have plagued both. Nebraska only recruited two big guys up front in Frost’s first class and he’s sort of stuck with who he has at this point. Brohm criticized his own line’s physicality earlier this season, saying the “cute” stuff can’t happen unless they figure the issues out up front. 

In-the-trenches play is perhaps the biggest difference between G5 and Power Five football. The cute stuff works in the American and the C-USA even when you aren’t firing at 100% efficiency. The Big Ten is a lot less forgiving.

Nebraska gains a first down on a drive only 66% of the time this season (103rd), Purdue’s offense is at 63.3% (111th). In terms of success rate, Nebraska is only four-tenths of a percentage point above the national average; Purdue is 3.7 percentage points below. 

When things click, they click. If Purdue scores at least 35 in a game this year it’s 2-0, when it fails to hit that mark its 0-6. Nebraska, by the same benchmark, is 3-0 when clearing 35 and 1-4 when falling short. 

Brohm has high-end recruiting classes the likes of which Purdue hasn’t seen in a while. Freshman receiver David Bell (third in the Big Ten in yards and receptions) has done well to ease the extended loss of Rondale Moore. Moore himself is already, in Year 2, one of the best players in the country. 

Frost is doing a lot of the same things when it comes to talent acquisition, but he faces serious depth concerns. 

One comment from Brohm’s first year feels relevant:

“Just because it worked last year doesn’t mean it will work this year,” Brohm said in April 2017, per JCOnline. “We’re going to have to do some different things and do the best job we can and somewhat try to out-coach and do things a little differently. We’re not just going to be able to line up and play base football and say we’re going to win the game. We’re going to have to be creative with it.”

That stands in stark contrast with Frost’s approach under similar circumstances. Brohm said that in the face of depth concerns in Year 1. Frost, in Year 2, has been steadfast in his approach and processes. After Colorado, he said the coaching staff can’t scheme receivers open all the time, and that one has stuck with me. During this recent slide, he has stressed the need to be a smarter, more physical football team. 

Nebraska needs to be more consistent in its fundamentals, yes, but when Frost has dialed up the creativity this season—I-formation running, flexbone running, direct snapping, faster than normal tempo—he’s found success outside the norm. 

Absences, for one reason or another, play a role, but neither of these programs will find the kind of replicable success they want until they can present a defense with a ground game that forces defenders to remain in the box. 

Ground Attacks in ‘19 Nebraska Purdue
YPP 4.3 (73rd) 2.4 (129th)
Rushing success rate 42.3% (63rd) 34.0% (121st)
Expl. run percentage 14.2% (65th) 10.4% (121st)
Stuff rate 21.1% (89th) 24.6% (120th)

Here’s where the two men differ. Rushing, for Nebraska, is crucial to everything else. Nebraska’s RPO game is built on having success with inside zone running. As we’ve seen this season, if that base play isn’t hitting, nothing else is. That 2016 season under Brohm for Western Kentucky, and every Purdue team since, has featured an offense that threw to set up the run.

"Purdue does a great job with their schemes," Frost said Thursday. "They're going to give some stuff we haven't seen and try to give us some tricks and gadgets that our guys can't fall for. Experience is going to matter, attention to detail, and whoever is out there has to do a good job."

Maybe Nebraska should do the same.

Perhaps Saturday presents a get-right game of sorts. Purdue will still be without its starting quarterback, Elijah Sindelar, and most likely without Moore, but the Boilermakers air it out and Nebraska was just picked apart by a team committed to doing the same. Nebraska could have Adrian Martinez back behind center as it faces a defense next-to-last in the conference in takeaways and yards per carry allowed. 

Good-on-bad versus good-on-bad. Whose good wins out? (Or, I guess, whose bad?)

When Frost joined the conference, and then Brohm chose to stick around, the hope was that the Big Ten West would have some coaching characters to match the East and some challengers to the Wisconsin crown.

Right now, that dream seems still a ways down the road. Purdue is in a lost season. Nebraska is trying to avoid the same. In a coin-flip game (the Vegas line is four, S&P projects a one-point margin), which offense can be more creative? 

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