Wide receiver Zavier Betts #15 of the Nebraska Cornhuskers catches the ball in front of defensive back
Photo Credit: Eric Francis

The Execution of All Things: Previewing the 2021 Nebraska Offense

August 19, 2021

To mark the return of the I-80 Preview podcast for another season, I took this very long preview of Nebraska’s offense and made it a podcast. That won’t be a regular occurrence, but I’ll did it last week to preview the defense, from here we’ll be back to regularly scheduled podcasting––a game/opponent preview––the Thursday before the Huskers take on Illinois on Aug. 28. Point is, you can listen to this article if you want to, and, since I’m not planning to do that again this year, you could call this a limited edition.

Anyway, subscribe to the I-80 Preview podcast by visiting your local podcast purveyor, subscribe to Hail Varsity here and thanks for listening and/or reading. -BV

Everyone who needed to know, knew that Tom Osborne’s Nebraska was going to run 34 and 36 Trap. That need-to-know group being mostly the opposing coaches charged with stopping it.

That trap—which was probably mistaken for a fullback dive thousands of time over the years—was one of the Huskers’ most-used plays over decades. We know this thanks to detailed play breakdowns at the back of Nebraska’s Osborne-era playbooks. In 1982, the Huskers ran 34/36 Trap on 13.9% of the rushes. In 1995, it was 7.4% and in 1996 it was down to 5.9%. Without knowing much else, you can see the evolution of Osborne’s offense from those percentages, but this trap play, even though less frequent towards the end of his career, was still Nebraska’s second-most used run between the tackles in all of those seasons I just mentioned.

Anyone playing the Huskers of that era could’ve always expected to get a healthy dose of the fullback right up the middle. Why did it keep working?

We could spend an hour here just on that, but you’ve no doubt had that type of in-depth discussion, probably more than once, in the two decades since Nebraska last won a conference title. Briefly, the Huskers were athletically superior to most of the Big Eight at the time. They out-recruited every team but Oklahoma––and sometimes the Sooners, too—then there was the groundbreaking strength and conditioning program on top of that.

Nebraska also had an offensive wizard on the headset. As Homer Smith, a middling head coach but great offensive coordinator at the college level, once said, “Tom Osborne understood what made option plays work and what had stopped them. So, he ran them—he ran almost all of them—but only when they would work. He checked to them versus vulnerable defenses.His smash mouth runs, run action passes, and QB runs kept defenses from mirroring properly against his options. The result was staggering totals of rushing yards.”

The Trap was one of those smashmouth runs. It was hard to stop because, unless you were closely watching the o-line, it looked like the first option in the triple option, the quarterback and I-back would carry out the option fake. Except when the option was the called play, then the fullback was the distraction. It was very rarely the triple option, it just looked that way. Having one of the best ever at knowing when to call which certainly helped those plays work.

Once you take all of those things into account, however, the real reason Nebraska won all of those games over all of those years is because it executed what it hoped to do better than what its opponent hoped to do the majority of the time. The Huskers won more plays.

It’s not a very exciting way to look at things, I know, but there’s a reason every football coach ever uses that word—execution.

Which brings us to the 2021 Nebraska offense.

Nebraska needs to score more points. You know that and I know that. After averaging 30 points per game in 2018—not bad for a transition year, particularly in the Big Ten—Nebraska dropped all the way to 23.1 last year.

This team isn’t built to win that way. I would argue that the defense is pretty close to where it needs to be, entering year four, for this team to win by the blueprint this staff brought from Central Florida.

The offense hasn’t been as close, at least not consistently. Why?

Here are three things to consider as the next Nebraska offense—one that’s pretty green at receiver and running back—takes the field for the first time in just over a week.

1. It’s All About Execution, Right?

Following one team closely tends to create a hero’s journey frame of reference for everything. The hero did this, but didn’t do that, and thus the hero did or did not meet the goal. In a football context, that sounds like this: Our hero gained nearly 600 yards but turned it over three times and thus it lost.

That’s basically the Colorado game from 2018.

We enter 2021, at least in my read of the situation, in heavy hero’s journey territory. Over the past three seasons, Nebraska has done enough right on offense that the current cure-all is to just eliminate [fill in the blank]. Maybe it’s penalties. Maybe it’s turnovers. Maybe its red-zone gaffes. Take your pick. These are things that tend to stick out in losses.

But you could make a case that Nebraska, on offense in particular, already executes at a decent level. More specifically, and less objectively, here’s the case for Nebraska having executed at a level that has not shown up in the win totals yet.

Over the last three seasons, using combined success rate of the offense and defense, Nebraska has “won” 51.4% of all the plays it has played since 2018. That ranks 45th nationally. To give you a sense of the scale here, the top four teams over the past three seasons are Alabama 58.2%, Clemson 57.3%, Ohio State 56.3% and Oklahoma 55.3%. With a nod towards Georgia, which ranks seventh, probably the four teams you would’ve guessed, right?

At the bottom of the charts, it’s UConn 43.2%, UMass 43.5%, Akron 44.5% and Kansas 45.1%. Poor Kansas. Probably could’ve guessed those four, too. The difference between Alabama and UConn then is the Tide wins about 58% of all of its plays, the Huskies 43%. Every other team falls somewhere between.

Despite winning more plays than 65% of the 130 FBS teams over the past three years, Nebraska ranks 102nd in win percentage. That’s not how things are supposed to work. Football games are made up of possessions, or drives, and possessions are made up of plays. Win the majority of plays, and a team should be in a pretty good spot.

Most teams are. Of the top 50 teams in combined success rate over the past three seasons, remember, Nebraska is 45th, just four having a losing record—North Carolina, Mississippi State, Texas Tech and the Huskers. Maybe that top-50 view gives teams clearly better than Nebraska too much weight, so let’s zoom in on its play-winning contemporaries.

Of the 13 teams closest to the Huskers in combined success rate—10% of all FBS teams—11 of those have winning records over the past three seasons. It’s just Nebraska and Texas Tech again as outliers. In fact, the Huskers’ and Red Raiders’ numbers over that span—both success rate and win percentage—are virtually identical and they are the two teams whose records have diverged the most from the percentage of plays they’ve won. If you were modeling either’s record based on their success rates, you’d put them at .500 at worst.

Nebraska’s is .375 entering this season. To be .500 would be four more wins over three seasons.

Is success rate even any good as a stand-in for actual wins then? Yes. The correlation coefficient between combined success rate and winning percentage is 0.9, which is to say combined success rate can explain about 90% of a team’s winning percentage.

The Huskers’ offense is mostly responsible for Nebraska’s top-50 ranking here after three years. Nebraska ranks 25th in three-year success rate on offense, 82nd on defense. Is the problem really the offense, then?

It is when the offense, despite all of that success, only averages 23 points per game. Even 30 points per game, the high for the Frost era, is only a pinch above average. There’s a breakdown happening somewhere, and it’s hard to pinpoint exactly where when looking over the past three years.

Even though I try to avoid hero’s journey-like thinking, these numbers give me pause. If Nebraska is winning plays like a team that should have a winning record, maybe getting there really is a matter of just executing on a few more plays or simply not having those plays the Huskers’ lose be catastrophic losses—a turnover, a back-breaking sack, a botched snap and on and on.

I’m hesitant here because those plays happen in football. You’ll never get them out of the game entirely, but something has led Nebraska to a really crappy exchange rate when it comes to getting wins out of how it’s really playing on a play-by-play basis. While the Huskers have much to prove in the season ahead, this is the primary reason I think the program remains slightly undervalued. Just slightly. If it continues to show a knack for getting less than its earned, it will be a moot point but you would eventually expect any team to get what it has rightfully earned.

One thing you can say for sure about the past three years is that the Huskers’ offense has been on schedule more often than most teams, and that is the most consistent, replicable advantage a team can generate.

That’s even more true in the run game.

2. All of the Runs

Nebraska Cornhuskers running back Gabe Ervin Jr. (22) runs with the ball during the Red and White Spring Game Saturday, May 1, 2021, in Lincoln, Neb. Photo by John S. Peterson.

Raise your hand if you were mildly surprised this fall camp when Scott Frost and his offensive coordinator, Matt Lubick, each noted that Nebraska was second in the Big Ten in rushing. I was, and pretty much all I do in the offseason is play with football stats in a spreadsheet. That didn’t feel true.

But, by yards per game and yards per play, Nebraska was second in the league last year. It hasn’t ranked worse than fifth in the Big Ten the last three seasons in rush yards per play. Pretty good in a conference that’s pretty tough against the run, and that’s without an all-conference running back in any of those seasons.

The first check on those yardage stats I ran was—you guessed it—success rate on rushing plays. The Huskers were as good there as they were the other way. Nebraska ranked second in the Big Ten and eighth nationally in rushing success rate in 2018. Those numbers, like the yardage numbers, dipped in 2019, but the Huskers were back up to second in the Big Ten and 20th nationally last year. Nebraska is gaining yards on the ground and it’s staying on schedule via the run, the latter of which isn’t a given. Maryland gains a lot of yards on the ground, but it hits for big plays and then has a bunch of unsuccessful rushes and then hits for another big one. Nebraska’s run game is more stable than that.

So why doesn’t the run game feel like more of a strength entering 2021? Not knowing which running backs will take the bulk of the carries contributes somewhat. Dedrick Mills didn’t get a ton of credit, but his rushing success rate was 49.4%, better than Luke McCaffrey’s (45.6) and the running backs as a whole (45.3).

I think the bigger reason, however, is those quarterback runs, specifically those of Adrian Martinez. His rushing success rate on 75 non-garbage time runs last year was 69.3%. Remove him and McCaffrey from the equation and Nebraska’s rushing success rate drops 6 percentage points. That’s a pretty big difference and is in line with one of my gut reactions from the past two seasons—Nebraska’s run game often felt like Martinez and too little of anything else.

But the numbers show that wasn’t quite the case. Nebraska’s running backs have had more success than I thought, and that’s with a rotating cast, which could bode well for 2021, where we don’t know if the Huskers have three future all-conference backs on the roster or none at all.

That tells me Nebraska’s run game is pretty strong conceptually. Is it Osborne-level? Of course not. Perhaps no run game is, but Frost did play in that offense, he ran that offense. Results haven’t come as quickly as anyone thought they would through three years, but Frost earned his reputation as an offensive wunderkind for a reason.

Remember Homer Smith on Osborne? Smith said Osborne ran “all of” the run plays. I wouldn’t put Frost and today’s Nebraska in that category quite yet, but it is running often. After rushing 49.4% of the time in 2018, the Huskers have been at 58% and 57% the past two years respectively. Nebraska is one of the heavier run teams in the country of late.

Running that much, and doing it efficiently, without a consistent top option at running back speaks to that. So might the work being done on the offensive line. Nebraska’s rushing stats mirror the line’s production in offensive line yards—good in 2018, slight dip in 2019, trending back up in 2020.

If you feel good about the Huskers’ o-line in 2021, that could also be a good sign.

And, of course, Nebraska returns Martinez, though his carries come with a complication.

3. A Life-Changing Fumbles Hack

November 2, 2019: Nebraska Cornhuskers quarterback Adrian Martinez (2) and Nebraska Cornhuskers running back Dedrick Mills (26) fumble the ball against the Purdue Boilermakers at Ross-Ade Stadium in West Lafayette, Indiana. (Photo by John S. Peterson/Hail Varsity)

Let’s say you are a play-caller provided with the following numbers:

Your three-year starter at quarterback averages 7.1 yards per rush, which includes scrambles but not sacks. On average, he has carried the ball 10.8 times per game and his success rate is 56.8% on those runs. About a quarter of them, go for 10 yards or more, an explosive-rush rate you’ll take every day of the week and twice on Saturdays.

Your starting quarterback also fumbles once every 11.2 carries and loses a fumble to the opposition once every 20 carries. The team’s record when the quarterback loses at least one fumble is 3-10. It’s 8-7 when he doesn’t.

None of this is to put any unfair pressure on Adrian Martinez—and that is who we’re talking about here—those are all real numbers, and this is the sort of story problem Nebraska’s coaching staff has to solve when determining how to use him in 2021.

On the one hand, it’s quite clear what a weapon Martinez is as a runner. To intentionally dull that to any degree would be a difficult call.

What’s less clear is just how much fumbles are hurting Nebraska, and, murkier still, if there’s anything anyone can do about it. If you listened to last week’s episode, you may recall that there’s not much on a broad scale anyone can do about fumbles. Every team is trying to prevent them, but as I wrote in a 2019 story titled “Fumbles Are Dumb,” which you can read on HailVarsity.com if you really want to go deep on this, “to play football is to fumble, to throw interceptions is only to pass.”

Flowery, I know, and completely obvious, but that’s what the data clearly outlines—fumbles happen anywhere at any time. Football’s clown horn may go off at any moment, and the result could be silly or it could be devastating. Sort of like clowns themselves.

Here’s what we can say for certain about Nebraska and fumbling. The Huskers’ 2.4 fumbles per game are the most in college football over the past three seasons. The only other school above 2 per game is Georgia Tech, which still ran a traditionally fumble-prone option offense for one year of the span.

Nebraska’s fumbles lost per game, 1.0, only ranks second-worst nationally because, boy, has Duke had rotten fumbles luck over the past three seasons. (The Blue Devils have lost 66% of their own fumbles.)

And here’s what we can say for certain about Martinez’s share of those fumbles: He accounts for 35% of Nebraska’s total fumbles and 47% of its fumbles lost. Now, he does handle the ball on every play, but I would still label that as fumble prone.

The only potential way to mitigate that is to limit his exposure, but there aren’t real big gains to be had there. Reducing Martinez’s rushing load by three carries per game, if his current fumble rates remained the same, would only reduce his expected fumbles lost by 2.3 over 12 games. Now, those 2.3 fumbles could be pivotal ones. They could also be meaningless ones. No way to know, but the cost is 36 fewer Martinez carries when you know that those plays have produced positive results almost 60% of the time in the past. That could end up being pretty pricey.

A better solution might lay elsewhere. While the Huskers’ run game has been pretty strong all three years under Frost, some increased consistency out of the running backs would help. If Markese Stepp or Sevion Morrison or Gabe Ervin, someone, shows a little big-play ability and Nebraska develops some core runs it can count on, maybe Martinez’s carries come down naturally without the staff having to pay the “cost” up front. That would be nice.

Even nicer? More big plays in the passing game. If the 2021 season is a padlock, I look at more explosiveness in the passing game as the key. The Huskers’ overall explosive-plays percentage, has dropped from 25th in 2018 to 33rd to 52nd. That’s still above average, but for this offensive system explosive plays are the fuel and you wanted the highest grade you can get.

As it pertains to passing, Nebraska’s explosive-pass rate was fairly average at 15.1%. It jumped up to 20.7 in 2019, the Huskers’ run-heaviest year yet under Frost. Nebraska wasn’t running the option, but those numbers were almost option-like. Not quite there, the combo of rush attempts and big-play passing, but they were shopping for houses in the gated, option offense community.

Then things fell off a cliff last year. Nebraska’s 12.6% explosive-pass rate ranked 105th last year as the Huskers struggled to changes at wide receiver. This year’s group is not much more experienced than last year’s group, but it does appear to have greater potential. Having Omar Manning fully available, Oliver Martin up-to-speed and ready and Samori Toure on board is, on paper, already an upgrade.

Gaining yards in chunks is important no matter how it happens, but that’s more likely in the passing game and it was certainly missing in 2020.

What does any of this have to do with Martinez and fumbles? One of Nebraska’s big flaws offensively is that it has had to work too hard to put points on the board. It’s average starting field position on scoring drives since 2018 is third-worst in the Big Ten and it’s even worse on all drives. On average, it has taken the Huskers 7.7 plays to score those points, tied for sixth in the league.

Now, this is sort of a double-edged sword. Maryland and Illinois are one-two in average plays on scoring drives, but we’ve seen the actual win-loss results there. Too few plays is typically saying those offenses can be explosive, but lack efficiency. On the other end of the spectrum, Iowa, Minnesota and Northwestern have all averaged 7.9 plays per scoring drive. The win-loss records are better there because that’s those teams largely playing to the blueprint. Another way to put it, their execution level is high enough to take things slow when paired with, particularly in the case of Northwestern and Iowa, excellent defense.

That doesn’t sound like the design for Nebraska’s offense to me. Ohio State or Penn State—third and fourth-shortest scoring drives by average plays over the last three years—is more the target. Those two were at 7.0 and 7.1 plays respectively.

That’s probably closer to where Nebraska wants to be. Getting there almost has to require a higher-powered passing attack, but getting there would almost certainly mean more points on the board. It might even mean, because more things are working and you’re getting up and down the field more quickly, less exposure to fumbles. Even for Adrian Martinez.

It may not mean an actual reduction in the fumble rate when we get to the end of the year. Nebraska may commit just as many penalties as it has been. If there are more points on the board, however, those penalties and fumbles will be viewed as less dumb.

Maybe it’s not a satisfactory explanation, but it really does just come down to execution. Nebraska has already been winning the majority of its plays. Just winning a few more might offer real returns.

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