Photo Credit: Eric Francis

The Curious Case of Nebraska’s Offense And The Work That Remains

October 11, 2022

Nebraska won its second game in a row last Friday. And for the second week in a row, the Huskers needed a second-half shutout to spur a fourth-quarter takeover.

The Big Ten season in earnest has slowed a Nebraska offense that averaged 36 points per game in its first three games. So how did a penalty-free offense in the opener that scored 35 points morph into one that committed double-digit penalties and scoreless halves?

Most college offenses can look great one week and shoddy in another. It’s about matchups, scheme fits and all the various variables that come with college football. Offensive coordinator Mark Whipple’s system is no different. His admittedly involved offense, one that takes time to fully implement, averaged 21.1 points in his first season helming Pittsburgh’s offense. That involved a shutout loss to Virginia Tech and a 35-34 win over UCF. That average jumped to 29 points in the COVID-laden 2020 season. Three times that team surpassed 40 points, including twice in their final four games. In Whipple’s third year as offensive coordinator Pittsburgh averaged 41.4 points per game and scored less than 27 points just once all season. That also came with a Heisman finalist at quarterback.

Then he came to Nebraska with an assembly of existing talent and a trove of transfers that included Trey Palmer, Casey Thompson, Anthony Grant and Marcus Washington.

“It takes time, but hey, I’m a realist,” Whipple told media members ahead of the Rutgers game. “If we don’t get there I’m not going to be here anyway. I told them that. If we win the West, I’ll ride Mickey’s coat-tails. But it comes down to those guys playing.”

In the first four games Nebraska averaged a starting field position of its own 20, 26, 18 and 23, respectively. In the most recent two games it’s been their own 32 and 24, respectively. While the Huskers have tallied eight scoring drives of 80 yards or more throughout the season, their six touchdown drives in the last two games average 60.83 yards. For context, non-scoring drives in the last two games average just under 15.6 yards, not including the final drives of those two games as the Huskers kneeled the clock empty.

The offense has certainly received a boost from its counterpart. An enthusiastic defense has now shut out opponents in the second half of consecutive games.

One of higher-priority issues for the offense is the offensive line.

“We have to work on our pass protection, but I think when you shuffle them in and out you’ve got to get your best five on the field,” interim head coach Mickey Joseph said before the Rutgers game. “Right now is not where we want them at, but they are getting better every day in practice.”

Quarterback Casey Thompson has been sacked 15 times this season and knocked down plenty more. He briefly left the Indiana game with an injury and needed his shoulder re-examined by the medical team at halftime of the Rutgers game. Joseph, Whipple and Thompson all stressed more communication between the line and backs to prevent blown blocking assignments.

“I know everybody can communicate in a loud environment because they have the music playing, they’ve got the band playing,” senior Trent Hixson said after Friday’s win. “The communication, it wasn’t great in the away environment, but it was good enough to do what we needed to do and we’ve got a lot to improve upon.”

Hixson was asked what Rutgers did to cause so many issues for Nebraska’s offensive line. The starting center answered, “It wasn’t anything Rutgers was doing, it’s what we were doing.”

The starting offensive line went unchanged between Indiana and Rutgers. That’s the first time the line’s starting personnel didn’t change between games since North Dakota into Georgia Southern. With Teddy Prochazka redshirting the rest of the year and Kevin Williams Jr. out, the Huskers have to find a formula of scheme, fits and personnel to keep Thompson upright and in the game.

Thompson has thrown for 1,497 yards with a 65.6 completion percentage and an adjusted quarterback rating of 53.2.

Running back Anthony Grant ran for just 47 yards against a stout Rutgers rush defense. Outside of the Oklahoma game where he ran for a season low 36 yards, that’s the first time all season he ran for less than 100 yards. The Huskers schemed for Rutgers’ rush defense and targeted Grant for a season-high six catches he took for 34 yards. He hadn’t caught more than one pass in a game before that.

The Huskers offense has only a few days of practice to find a rhythm before its next challenge. Purdue is No. 28 in the country by conceding just 327.5 yards per game and tied for No. 44 in the country by limiting opponents to 22 points per game.

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