Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Special Teams Gaffes Are Daggers, but Nebraska’s Inconsistent Offense Has Sharpened Them

September 26, 2021

Caleb Lightbourn couldn’t consistently punt the ball where it was supposed to go. So he was replaced with Isaac Armstrong. Armstrong had good moments interlaced with wonky moments. When he graduated and left, Nebraska used Will Przystup and Tyler Crawford, both of which drew the ire of the Husker head coach for not being able to consistently put the ball where it was supposed to go. Daniel Cerni was brought over from Australia on scholarship with an incredibly raw knowledge of American football to provide consistency in the punt game. He has also not been able to put the ball where it’s supposed to go. 

Scott Frost hammered home that point Saturday night as he tried to diagnose what went wrong in Nebraska’s 23-20 overtime loss to Michigan State. 

The Huskers gave up a 62-yard punt return score to tie the game at 20-all with less than four minutes to play. The coverage unit went to one side of the field. The ball sailed to the other, affording MSU return man Jayden Reed a clear path to the end zone. 

“It’s pretty simple,” Frost said after the game when asked about the play. “That’s a punt where we’re supposed to kick the ball to the right sideline and the ball went to the left sideline.”

He continued on the next question, one more broad and not specific to the special teams disaster: “We have guys at the university specifically for the reason to punt it and we have a couple of 10-yard punts that almost cost us and right when we need it the most we kick it to the wrong side of the field. Some of the coverage guys didn’t see it and it cost us the game.”

He mentioned the punt again in his next answer.

“It’s a mental toughness to … punt the ball where you’re supposed to,” he said later when asked about the mindset of the team as it sees the same mistakes plague games. 

He mentioned the punt again when asked about the defensive performance Nebraska’s Blackshirts put forth. (Michigan State had 14 yards of offense on 15 second-half plays, no first downs, and five three-and-outs.)

Now, no doubt Nebraska’s latest special teams gaffe was a crucial piece of a crushing loss. It was a disaster of a play. It was clearly put in the wrong spot. Call it a dagger right to Nebraska’s heart, if you want. But coaches routinely fall back on the “series of plays decide games, not just one” way of thinking to shield their players after tough losses. 

It’s curious to see Frost, whose offense has been a non-starter so often since the 2018 season ended, direct so much blame in the postgame to one specific specialist. 

Games can be won or lost on special teams, absolutely. Nebraska has proven this. Nebraska has also helped special teams mishaps cut deeper than they should. Saturday showcased that plainly. 

The following is going to read like disjointed notes about the offense scribbled in a notebook. Bear with me. My brain is broken, I think. 

Frost’s offense has been held to 20 points or less now 12 times in 37 games. Nebraska was held to 20 points or less nine times in Mike Riley’s 38 games.

Nebraska had the ball for 23 minutes and 18 seconds in Saturday’s second half, ran 48 plays against what was a clearly gassed defense, and scored 10 points. 

After going up 20-13 midway through the fourth quarter, Nebraska went three-and-out on its next two possessions with a chance to ice the game.

Under Frost, Nebraska has had the ball with at least four minutes left on the clock in regulation or in overtime, with a chance to tie the game or take a lead, on 15 different occasions. 

Nebraska has failed to score a point on 14 of those possessions. 

It has one field goal, the game-winning kick against Northwestern in 2019, converted by safety-turned-emergency-kicker Lane McCallum. 

On those 15 possessions, Nebraska has averaged 3.8 yards per play. It has an 8.8% sack rate on those possessions (the national average in 2019, the last full season, was 7.0% for context) and five interceptions. 

The thing you hear folks say about rebuilds is that a team will go through a cycle if it’s on the right track. Lose big, lose small, win small, win big. Nebraska looked a team hoping to move from the ‘lose small’ to ‘win small’ camp, and considering its performance against Oklahoma a week ago, many expected that step was right there for the taking. 

Late against Michigan State, it looked like Nebraska was taking it. 

Instead, the Huskers had three drives in the final four minutes against the Spartans with a chance to go win the game, and they averaged 3.6 yards a play, punted once, sat on two timeouts to go to overtime despite only needing a field goal, and then turned the ball over on the opening possession of overtime. 

Already this season, Nebraska has had five drives at the end of a game with a chance. It has averaged 2.9 yards a play.

The team’s inability to run the football when it needs to sticks out like a sore thumb. The offensive line is approaching the danger zone. Everything is on the shoulders of the quarterback. Adrian Martinez has to be rolled from the pocket on fourth-and-short to have a chance at making a play. Nebraska has been unusually incapable of capitalizing on opportunities. Saturday was the latest example of the defense being left out to dry. 

Adding in real possessions in the last four minutes of the second quarter to get a feel for how effectively Nebraska is operating its quick-strike offense, Nebraska has failed to produce points on 38 of 49 possessions. 

(That 49 number includes a little judgment, excluding such drives where, for example, Nebraska got the ball with 7 seconds left in the second quarter or was running out the clock in the fourth quarter.)

Tempo was supposed to be a weapon, now it only seems to draw false starts.

It seems like Nebraska routinely has possessions where it generates chunk plays but leaves points on the board, doesn’t it? It seemed like an abnormally common occurrence. It had seven drives against the Spartans that featured a big play and only produced two touchdowns.

According to SportSource Analytics, teams score points on 63.2% of possessions that feature at least one big play. 

Under Frost, Nebraska has scored points on 56.4% of possessions featuring a big play. 

Those possessions have ended with seven points 44.0% of the time.

They have ended in a turnover 19.7% of the time. You dig into the drive data and see four-play drives that begin with a chunk play and then immediately sputter at an alarming rate, drives that feature multiple explosives with field goal attempts or punts from opponent territory.

A drive this season against Illinois featured the following: an 18-yard gain, a 24-yard gain, a 28-yard gain, an offensive pass interference penalty, a holding penalty, and a 19-yard punt from the Illinois 43-yard-line.

Remove games against non-Power Five opponents and Nebraska’s scoring percentage insignificantly slips to 56.0%.

The even bigger plays, the 20-yarders, started in an encouraging place this year but have declined in frequency as the competition level has shot up. NU produced 20 of them in its first three games, a rate of 8.9%. It has 9 in the last two weeks, a rate of 6.1%. Of course that has much to do with the quality of opposing defenses but Nebraska’s offense can’t function without creating explosives and that number can’t keep going down as they move forward.

There have been all manner of explanations for why this or that hasn’t worked, why the margin for error remains razor-thin. Lots of statements about intolerance of mistakes and commitment to special teams and no fear of failure. Frost defended special teams coach Mike Dawson Saturday night.

“Coach Dawson’s doing as good a job as he knows how to do,” Frost said, “as good a job as I know how to tell him to do.”

And execution continues to elude. I don’t know the answer. I sat for a good hour on my couch trying to process the last seven or so minutes of regulation after it ended. If so many different aspects of the game continue to malfunction despite the parts being swapped out, what does that say about the one putting the thing together? 

Other Thoughts:

>> Give Erik Chinander credit: Nebraska looks like a Big Ten defense, and a damn good one at that. 

There has been development up front, both on the line and at linebacker. JoJo Domann and Luke Reimer look like linebackers who will have long NFL careers. The Davis brothers became better players, and now it looks like Damion Daniels has followed suit. Chinander correctly identified Tony Tuioti as a guy who could make them better when they had an opening.

Michigan State running back Kenneth Walker III entered Saturday night’s game leading the country in rushing output—164.3 YPG, 8.7 YPC—and was held to 39 yards on 16 carries in regulation by the Huskers. 

While you’re at it, give Frost credit for believing Chinander could do exactly what he’s done when Frost decided to bring him to Lincoln and to former Athletic Director Bill Moos for allowing it to happen. Frost has taken flack for bringing his entire staff from the AAC to the Big Ten. On defense, it has worked. 

>> The Big Ten power rankings after week four are a mess.

  1. Penn State (1)
    The class of the Big Ten, I guess.
  2. Iowa (2)
    The best team in the West.
  3. Michigan (3)
    A win’s a win. Michigan is 4-0 and Ohio State isn’t.
  4. Ohio State (4)
    Here by… default? Can’t justify dropping them lower.
  5. Michigan State (7)
    Win your clunkers. Sparty is 4-0.
  6. Maryland (8)
    Again, 4-0. Can’t have them lower.
  7. Purdue (12)
    A win over Illinois should count as half a win.
  8. Rutgers (11)
    Noah Vedral has them playing with confidence.
  9. Minnesota (6)
    So about that 2019 Tanner Morgan season…?
  10. Indiana (10)
    Nice get-back game for Michael Penix, not so much for the other side.
  11. Wisconsin (5)
    Just a bad offense. Call a spade a spade.
  12. Nebraska (9)
    Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
  13. Northwestern (13)
    Next week will be fun.
  14. Illinois (14)
    It’s a bad football team.
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