On the Huskers' Search for Offensive Comfort
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

On the Huskers’ Search for Offensive Comfort

September 20, 2019

Nebraska’s first four plays of the Northern Illinois game are, in a number of ways, pretty symbolic of the season as a whole so far. 

First, here’s the sequence:

The first- and second-down throws just look like misses from quarterback Adrian Martinez. On third down, Martinez goes deep over the middle to JD Spielman for 41 yards. The big gain allows the Huskers to go tempo and Martinez hits Kanawai Noa on the very next throw for another 17 yards. Off, off, then boom, Nebraska’s in business. 

The offense through three games has run 203 plays, according to the official statbooks, and 16.7 percent of those plays have accounted for 68.4 percent of the total yardage. That seems pretty significant. (And it means a 2.37 yards-per-play average on the non-explosive stuff.) To say being reliant on explosive plays is a bad thing is taking things a step too far, but the fact the Huskers’ have been a little more boom-or-bust than normal is at least worth examining. 

The question is why? 

You can watch the game and come away thinking, “This seems off.” There has been something about Martinez through the first three games that seems not right. He’s gone from 54th in ESPN’s total QBR ranking as a freshman to 85th in the early stages of his sophomore campaign; the expectation was for him to go the other way. NIU was the performance that aesthetically looked the best, but it also represented the extreme for this all-or-nothing way of play. 

Should there be any worry about the offense?

“The first two weeks we were shaky at times, then this past game I felt like this is whenever we’re finally going to hit the ground running and teams are going to have to start being scared of us,” Wan’Dale Robinson told me. Unless you’re planning to contend for a CFP berth, the nonconference is more about finding your rhythm than looking pretty. There’s a certain level of confidence from everyone that comfort is close, partially because the first three weeks have been so uncomfortable and the team has 30 or more in three straight.

“This offense is going to be crazy.”

For the purposes of this piece, those first two misfires from Martinez are the focus, because they aren’t actually misses. That was the message this week from the coaching staff. NIU opened the game in a 3-3-5 stack, and after a collective moment of “Um, what on Earth is this?” from the offensive coaches, there were adjustments to be made. All game long, Northern Illinois showed defensive looks Nebraska didn’t prepare for. 

Here’s a first-year head coach (for the second week in a row) with all offseason to prepare for Nebraska. Nothing about the NIU defense was what Nebraska expected. Martinez wasn’t flying blind, but he wasn’t just playing on instinct either. 

“We've played three defenses where, so far this year, we didn't get what we were expecting in any one of the games, which is unique,” Scott Frost said Monday. “I've never had that happen before.”

The response against the Huskies was going heavier than normal on 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends). To this point in the season, a two-tight end look has meant run a majority of the time, though its usage against the Huskies was more balanced than normal. That could allude to a tweak for Big Ten play.

Or, as Husker offensive coordinator Troy Walters intimated on Wednesday, it was just what NIU necessitated. (“We got in 12 personnel — Hippo — and they kind of settled down a little bit, so we felt it was a good advantage,” Walters told me.) Which is really the point; through three weeks, Nebraska has had to move away from the truest version of itself on offense. 

Frost said his group was too scheme-y in Week 1, but I don’t think that necessarily means he overloaded the guys with a completely indigestible playbook. Frost has said on multiple occasions he has been trying to manufacture the perfect play — put the exact right player in the exact right position to find success at the exact right moment in the game. That’s not the free-flowing, adaptive way this offense has flourished in the past. That’s what you do when you’re having the game dictated to you.

“Those guys were a four-down operation and they came out in stacks,” offensive line coach Greg Austin said of NIU. “It was a big-time growth moment for Cam Jurgens. … Cam is the key to the deal because he’s the one that has to make the initial front declaration. 

“When we first got out there, I was like, ‘Oh crap, they showed up in odd stack,’ which we never practiced, not even in fall ball, because our defense runs an odd space, not odd stack — it’s a totally different defense, totally different gap fits and they can do so much more out of the odd stack.”

No one has panicked, everyone has been calm on the headset, generally speaking, (“Hell yeah,” Austin said when asked) because for this coaching staff, they know the wrinkles and what to do when presented with an unexpected look. But a redshirt freshman making his first, second and third start ever at center? Not so much. A quarterback who is still, mind you, a true sophomore working on recognizing post-snap coverage adjustments and how that influences his progressions and reads? Not so much.

That’s why, coaches have said privately, Martinez’s perceived struggles this season aren’t necessarily a product of regression or hesitancy or anything of the ilk. There’s a lot of input right now, more so than would be preferred. Not quite paralysis by analysis, but Martinez is having to make the best of less-than-ideal situations. 

Now, that doesn’t explain away some of the fumbles or either of the interceptions or some of the anxious feet the quarterback has had in the pocket, but here’s putting it another way. Timing was off in Week 1 and the personnel wasn’t where Nebraska expected them to be. In Week 2, the stuff that worked in the first half was built out of preparation and a lot of the stuff that didn’t work in the second half was poor execution in the face of some degree of improvisation. Week 3 saw the offense produce at its highest level to date while operating completely on the fly.

Back to those first two plays against NIU.

“We had rehearsed for X, Y and Z, things to look for, the first pass was going to be to the boundary and the second one was going to be to the field, but the way they had their defense structured, that was going to be a problem for us,” quarterback coach Mario Verduzco said. “The way they had it structured we couldn’t hand the ball off, so the RPO for all intents and purposes is dead. I was gratified, after looking back on it, that [Martinez] basically burned both of them. He took a peek but it just wasn’t going to happen.”

The guys to look at on the two plays are No. 29 in white and then No. 7. Hindsight is 20/20, sure, but with that extra nugget of information, it makes those two reads make a whole lot more sense, doesn’t it? 

“I was impressed,” Verduzco said of Martinez’s identification of the necessary adjustments after the initial drive against NIU. “You’re going to play a Beethoven symphony and all of a sudden you get up there and it’s Dvořák and you go, ‘What the hell is going on here?’”

To Martinez’s credit, he’s still averaging 242 yards a game through the air and upped his yards-per-play average while passing from 7.5 last year to 9.7. That’s while the run game as a whole has worked to find its footing. 

Yes, some of Nebraska’s struggles are simply a result of poor execution. The in-game adjustments so far have been as simple as “OK, instead of this call we’ve got to make this call and this is what we’re doing on the keep side.” That’s the flexibility of the system allowing the Huskers to not completely toss the gameplan in the garbage. 

“I’ve said it a bunch of times, I wouldn’t trade him for anyone else in the country for what we do,” Frost said of Martinez on his Husker Sports Nightly radio appearance Thursday night. “I think he can play better, he knows he can play better.

“We’ve looked great at times, we’ve kind of stubbed our toe a little bit and we haven’t been consistent enough,” Frost said. “Sometimes it’s the quarterback, sometimes it’s not and it looked like the quarterback. Adrian’s still just in his sophomore year, and the sky is the limit for him.”

There were some interesting barbs during the first two weeks (“barbs” is probably too strong a word). After the South Alabama game, Martinez dealt with public criticism both internally and externally for really the first time in his career. After Colorado, Frost commented he was nervous about putting the ball in the air in overtime. But after all the angst, the vibe is still one of optimism. 

Things can still get rolling. Things can still get crazy, like Robinson predicted. On the doorstep of Big Ten play, Nebraska knows the randomness of defensive coverages throughout the first three weeks is probably over. Conference teams aren’g going to drastically alter what they do for the Huskers. 

“Now,” Robinson told me, “I feel like they’re just going to go out there and let us play and make plays.”

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