I’m an idealist. I’m not always an optimist because of it, though. A healthy amount of cynicism is good in lots of cases. Nebraska, since I’ve known it, has had a way of ebbing and flowing between the good and the bad, highest in the summer, lowest in the fall.
Last week, I made a case—certainly not the only one—for why this Husker offense could fly high in 2020. The puzzle on that side of the ball is starting to become a picture instead of just pieces flopping about trying to find their partner. Many have hope for Adrian Martinez yet, many have expectations for Dedrick Mills, and this year’s group of wideouts fits much better than last year’s did.
This is the counterpart to that piece. The rebuttal to that argument. Why wouldn’t Nebraska’s flashier side of the ball take a leap? Or, at least, why wouldn’t it take a statistically significant step forward?
Two key factors, both of which have to deal with situation.
The first is game situation.
Nebraska had a lead on just 35.1% of offensive snaps last season. That was with a defense that was perhaps one of the better collective groups Nebraska has had in several years. The Husker offense was allowed to idle without falling hopelessly behind on multiple occasions because of a defense that produced timely turnovers.
Having to replace an entire defensive line is hard. The secondary has the potential to be gnarly, yes, but even the best corners can’t hold up if there’s no pass-rush. What would be worse, they’re rendered completely useless if the offense doesn’t have to throw it. Nebraska hasn’t been anywhere near good enough against the run for three years straight now; if it drastically improves that element this season, it’ll come as a shock to most. If it goes the other way, it would be hard to overcome.
On paper, it looks as though the offense is going to have to carry the load.
Scott Frost’s offense wants to score fast and force the other team to play catch-up. But Scott Frost’s Nebraska offense wants to run the ball more than Scott Frost’s UCF offense did. The run rate last year was at 59.9% when in 2017 the Knights ran the ball on 52.7% of plays. The Knights got 5.43 yards per run play while the Huskers got 5.05 (national average was 5.09).
Nebraska wanted to run, run, run. Even when it’s more dynamic tailback refused to go where he was supposed to. Even when it meant bumps and bruises to, at one point or another, all three scholarship quarterbacks. And even when it meant a knockout blow to its most dangerous offensive weapon. Nebraska just kept pounding the ball.
It ran the ball 54 times against Iowa (sacks removed) despite averaging 3.6 yards per run. (That afraid to throw it? Or committed to a philosophy? That answer may come this season.)
Unlike 2018, Nebraska ran and ran even when it wasn’t productive.
On inside plays with a zone-blocking scheme, Nebraska’s bread and butter (roughly 25% of all runs in 2019), the run gained 3.1 yards each time.
Nebraska might be trending more toward Frost’s time calling plays at Oregon than those Knight offenses. If that’s the case, and everything becomes built off of the run, what happens when the offense falls behind? What happens if the scoreboard reads 17-7 after the first quarter and NU is on the wrong end of it? Then an opponent can start leaning on Big Red at the line of scrimmage and things get dicey.
Not all in the Big Ten are built like Wisconsin. But, all will gladly run the ball if presented with the opportunity.
Nebraska needs to be explosive offensively. If it runs to set up the pass, the pass needs to be exceptional.
On play-action a year ago (43% of Adrian Martinez’s dropbacks), Martinez completed just 52.3% of his passes for 5.9 yards a throw. In 2018, he completed 69.2% of those throws for 8.1 yards a pop. Was that just about teams not respecting the run the same year over year? The hope (and my belief) is that guys like Omar Manning and Zavier Betts and Alante Brown can come in and take the top off, give Martinez someone to throw it up for who is actually likely to come down with it. The 5-foot-9 JD Spielman was not that, and Kanawai Noa caught just 41.5% of his targets.
But they’re starting out behind the eight ball. The second situational factor is the pandemic. There’s no way around it. Nebraska could potentially be crippled by this in ways other teams aren’t.
The entire offense is built around rhythm and timing and feel. Has Martinez thrown a pass to Betts or Manning yet? How many did he get to throw to Brown in the two days Nebraska was on the field for spring ball?
While I think it’s important to understand the tight end usage and usage of guys like Noa and Mike Williams and Kade Warner were impacted by Martinez’s time (or lack thereof) to go through all his progressions, it is also true he showed a preference for Spielman and Wan’Dale Robinson when the going got tough. He trusted them.
Is a four-week period in fall camp—something being discussed, per SI's Ross Dellenger—going to be enough time to build trust between him and Manning or Betts?
Nebraska has been fighting to get those lost spring practices back in one way, shape, or form because it knows how critical it is to this still-fledgling offensive group. It’s the same reason Athletic Director Bill Moos talked about an extra 15 bowl practices and not bowl revenue when he addressed his desire to return to the postseason.
And we’ll know rather quickly who was keeping up with the playbook during their time away. Nebraska’s isn’t heavy in formations, but it’s complex in what is done out of those formations.
If new offensive coordinator Matt Lubick is as detailed in the nuances of the wideout position as his peers have said he is, are those new receivers going to be able to meet the standard right away?
Nebraska’s season is backloaded. The final five games are more like a descent in Dante’s Inferno. If Nebraska isn’t bowl-eligible by the time it’s leaving Piscataway, New Jersey, on Oct. 24, it might not get there at all.
(This is getting doom-and-gloomy… sorry.)
A major burden on Martinez’s shoulders last season was the feeling that he had to get everything back at once. He needed the 20-point play on the 75-yard pass. He needed to uncork a bottled up offense. At key moments, he felt the pressure of unmet expectations, as did his teammates.
If the entire offense isn’t pieced together by Week 1 when Nebraska hosts Purdue, Rondale Moore, and David Bell, what kind of pressure does that side of the ball feel? Does it get worse if Moore and Bell are running free up and down the field?
If it isn’t 3-0 when Luke Fickell and a very strong Cincinnati team (with a defense that ranked 31st in YPP against, 17th in tackles for loss, and 10th in takeaways) come to Lincoln, will it feel like the season is hanging in the balance?
As Scott Frost enters Year 3 at Nebraska, he needs 11 wins to have a better record after three than Mike Riley had after three. Frost has a long runway and a different situation, so it’s not a sound comparison. All it takes, though, is one national writer to pen the words and suddenly people are tossing around “hot seat.” If Martinez doesn’t produce, regardless of what’s going on around him, the temperature rises.
Is it fair that Nebraska’s clock begins so suddenly when the season kicks off? No, it’s not. Not considering what Frost has to work with. But at no point in the Frost tenure has NU had a comfortable margin for error. That didn’t project to drastically flip this season, and the pandemic, with all the shutdowns it brought, exacerbated the situation.
And how could I forget the offensive line??
One reader a week ago said optimism based on the addition of freshmen means living beyond realistic expectations. “We need to develop talent and stop relying on it to show up ready to play,” they said. While I don’t quite agree with the premise when it comes to skill players, that sentiment absolutely applies to the lines on either side. It seems an assumption at this point Bryce Benhart is taking the right tackle spot and Matt Farniok is moving to left guard and the offensive line will be better for it.
What if it isn’t? What if that, too, takes time to fully come together?
Time isn’t something Nebraska had this spring and summer. It had time to think, but no time to get better. And time isn’t something Nebraska will have when the season begins.
We could get Frost’s best coaching yet. We could get a bounceback season from Martinez. We could get points often and big plays everywhere and smiles all around.
But none of those things are a given.