For this week’s column, we’re talking about Scott Frost. Just kidding. I wouldn’t do that to you. We’re actually going to discuss the games. Nebraska still has a coach, you know? No, this week, it’s all about the offensive line and the fact that Nebraska’s hopes and dreams for a bowl game pretty much hinge on their ability to turn things around.
If you’re like some, you think quarterback Tanner Lee needs to do more for Nebraska to, at the very least, win two of its final four to earn bowl eligibility. But, Lee threw for a career-high 431 yards against Purdue and Nebraska won by one point. He can’t be slinging it 50 times a game over the course of the next four, Nebraska needs some semblance of a run game to balance things out.
Remember when all anyone wanted to talk about was Nebraska throwing it too much and not running enough? Now, there are legitimate questions as to whether Nebraska should abandon the run and keep the backs involved with screen passes and check downs, or go up-tempo to try and catch defenses off balance and spread thin. Totaling 84 yards in two games will do that to you, especially at a place like Nebraska, but this boils down to one thing.
Experience be damned, Nebraska needs its upperclassmen on the line to buck up.
More time in the system hasn’t translated to better play this season. The Huskers will have three fourth-year juniors starting up front Saturday against Northwestern: left tackle Nick Gates, left guard Jerald Foster and center Cole Conrad. Foster is a captain. He and Gates have started every game this season and have a combined 56 appearances between them. Conrad is relatively new to the center spot but has 20 games of experience under his belt and eight starts, including the first three this year.
It hasn’t shown. Between the three of them this season, they have been flagged for holding seven times, with four of those belonging to Gates alone. Foster also has three false start penalties, leading the team. Those are mental mistakes that can’t happen for a team with as small of a margin for error as Nebraska has.
Keeping Lee protected on drop backs actually hasn’t been as big an issue as you’d think, though (it’s been problematic but not terrible). Offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf doesn’t like his quarterback getting hit and Lee has faced pressure this season, sure, but the sacks haven’t really been there. Nebraska ranks sixth in the Big Ten in sacks allowed with just 12 and its closer to first (8 allowed by Minnesota) than it is to eighth (20 allowed by Penn State).
Even the advanced numbers look good. Nebraska ranks No. 14 in the country in adjusted sack rate, according to FootballOutsiders.com. In a metric adjusted to account for opponents’ sacking ability and placed on a scale where 100 is average and anything above that is good, Nebraska comes in a 214.6.
Certainly that success would spill over into run blocking, right? No, not really. That’s actually where the bulk of the Huskers’ problems come from.
A surface level stat for you: Nebraska has 84 rushing yards in the last two games. Okay, they were down 35-0 at half against Ohio State and ran it six times the entire second half. They had 8 yards on 15 carries at halftime against Purdue and there’s not a whole lot of situational garb that can defend that, but they completely abandoned the run in the second half. Understandable why the numbers were low, right? Right??
Venturing back towards the advanced metrics says no. When five yards are available on a play, according to Football Outsiders, Nebraska gains those five yards 34 percent of the time. That’s an opportunity rate that puts the Huskers at No. 109 in the country, almost 16 percentage points behind Ohio State (which leads the nation) and just under 10 percentage points behind Wisconsin.
An even deeper dive and you start to feel worse, like Cory here.
Nebraska has logged a rushing attempt 240 times this season. I went back and charted them all. I took away sacks and kneel downs (yes, Nebraska has had those this year) but kept in plays that began as a designed pass and ended in Lee scrambles (yes, Nebraska has had those too). Of those 240 attempts, 44 percent have gone for 2 yards or fewer. Once more for emphasis: 44 percent of the time, Nebraska is gaining two yards or less with the run. On three separate occasions this season – Northern Illinois on Sep. 16, Ohio State on Oct. 14 and Purdue last Saturday – more than half of Nebraska’s carries have gone for two yards or less.
A good time to mention Nebraska ranks last in the conference in attempts per game? That’s probably why.
Uglier than that, Nebraska has gained exactly 0 yards on 11.3 percent of its carries this year, and it hasn’t even gotten back to the line of scrimmage on 8.3 percent. According to Football Outsiders, the Huskers’ stuff rate – run plays that, well, get stuffed at or behind the line of scrimmage – ranks No. 92 in the country. For what it’s worth, Wisconsin ranks No. 16.
Good teams in the Big Ten run it well. It’s no coincidence that the top two teams in the conference right now – Wisconsin and Ohio State – rank one and two, respectively, in rushing yards per game. Nebraska ranks next-to-last.
How do they fix it? Head coach Mike Riley said he doesn’t have a magic formula, just that the Huskers need to start winning their one-on-one matchups up front. That has to be the case Saturday against a Northwestern run defense that ranks fifth in the conference in yards surrendered per game, followed by Penn State (on the road, yuck) and its sixth-ranked run defense, followed by Minnesota (on the road) and its seventh-ranked run defense. True freshman right tackle Brenden Jaimes has been nothing short of stellar this season, a bright spot in an all-but-gloomy campaign. He has held his own on the right side and we’ll get to see what redshirt freshman Matt Farniok can bring at guard Saturday, but the left side of that line needs to step things up.
I don’t really have a magic formula either, unless you want to do that “first letter of each paragraph” thing, but the line has to turn it around. I’ve fired off a lot of numbers in the last 1,100 words but I’ll leave you with the only five that really matter from Riley: “You’ve got to block ‘em.”
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.