Minnesota Offers Nebraska the Perfect Test at Precisely the Right Time
Photo Credit: Aaron Babcock

What Is the Immediate Future of Frost’s First Nebraska Offense?

December 03, 2017

Scott Frost is here, and you are excused if you’re still jumping around your living room with excitement. Come back to me when you’re done. Now it’s time to get started and Frost has plenty on his plate with recruiting and salvaging this class, building a staff and then meeting the team. But, if he hasn’t already, he’s going to be in for a chilling surprise when he looks at just how much work needs to be done on the field.

Frost is leaving an unbeaten UCF team that boasts the nation’s highest-scoring offense. Frost’s Knights ranked 10th in offensive efficiency, sixth in yards per game and third in yards per play. Nebraska in 2017? Tied for No. 84 in points scored, No. 57 in offensive efficiency, No. 85 in total offense and tied for No. 67 in yards per play. Frost has his work cut out for him and the root of the offensive issues lay on the ground.

After an embarrassing home loss to Ohio State on Oct. 14, I wrote about the need for the offensive line to step up and tracked Nebraska’s run numbers up until that point on the season. It wasn’t pretty. Well, once the Huskers capped the season with another embarrassing home loss, this time to Iowa on Nov. 24, I decided it was time to finish those numbers off. It still isn’t pretty.

The criteria again: sacks are out, kneel downs are out, quarterback scrambles have stayed. In 339 such runs this season – 60 less than the Knights had, by the way – Nebraska gained 0 yards or less 17.4 percent of the time. The Huskers’ stuff rate – that is runs stuffed at the line of scrimmage – ranked No. 102 out of 130 FBS programs, according to FootballOutsiders.com.

Forty-four-and-a-half percent of Nebraska’s runs gained fewer than 2 yards. Often throughout the season, offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf talked about the struggle to run the ball, saying the run game was “feast or famine,” but the Huskers just simply didn’t do enough feasting. Only 12.7 percent of Nebraska’s runs this season gained 10 yards or more, and yes, that means at any given point Nebraska was more likely to gain 0 yards on a run than it was a first down.

And even when the Huskers earned 10-plus, those carries weren’t eating up large chunks of the field. Thirty-three of the 43 “explosive” run plays earned 10-15 yards. Only twice this season did the Huskers pick up more than 25 yards on a single run.

UCF did that 13 times. Nebraska had no runs that topped 50 yards, UCF had five. In fact, the Knights matched Nebraska’s season total for explosive runs with 12 minutes left in the second quarter of its seventh game.

What about those 3- and 4-yard carries? Add those into the equation and the Huskers were earning less than 5 yards on runs 66.3 percent of the time. It’s fine if you’re gaining small chunks on the ground one after the other, but that’s not what was happening and even then, that’s not something that’s conducive to playing from behind (which Nebraska did a lot of) or keeping defenses honest. Quarterback Tanner Lee’s struggles come into focus a bit more when you see what he had to work with as a complement.

Now, UCF’s “magic number” on runs gaining 2 yards or less doesn’t look much better than the Huskers’ – 43.1 percent of the time – and the Knights actually had a higher percentage of plays go for negative yardage – 11.8 percent compared to 8.8 percent for Nebraska – but that was the nature of the Knights’ run game. They were going to gain a lot or nothing at all, and they gained a lot often. Nearly 41 percent of the time in fact. Of their 399 runs, 163 gained 5 yards or more. The Knights’ ground game absolutely benefited from an explosive aerial attack that ranked second in the country in yards per attempt (10.2), but guess what, Nebraska was a top-30 pass offense too. There’s no excuse for the run numbers being as bad as they were.

So, what’s normal in terms of percentage breakdowns like this, because it’s important to have some kind of frame of reference for these numbers. Since finding a national average would require going and tracking every run from every game for every team (maybe that’s a job for the dog days of summer, or at least at a Big Ten level), I looked at what opposing teams did against Nebraska this season. Again, the numbers aren’t good.

Over the course of 12 games and 434 total carries, Nebraska’s opponents earned 2 yards or less on 35.5 percent of runs. They earned exactly 0 yards on 4.8 percent of carries and lost yardage 6 percent of the time. Conversely, opponents gained 5 yards or more 47.2 percent of the time (yikes) and had an explosive play percentage of 16.8.

Using that stuff rate metric again, Nebraska’s defensive line stopped opponents at or behind the line of scrimmage less than any other team in FBS football. The Blackshirts ranked dead last, No. 130. In opportunity rate – or times when 5 yards are available and the defense gives up those 5 yards – Nebraska ranked No. 129.

Your average team is probably going to fall somewhere in between Nebraska’s numbers and Nebraska’s opponents’ numbers.

If Frost is going to find success, this is the place to start.

When Nebraska had more runs (my version of “runs,” not simply a higher number in the box score) than its opponent, the Huskers were 3-1. When it had less, 1-7. Simply running it more won’t do the trick though, it has to get better production. Frost’s offense will undoubtedly help. It uses a lot of window dressings and different formations to put a defense on its heels, and then utilizes speed at the skill positions (hello JD Spielman) and a smart, mobile quarterback (hello… Tristan Gebbia?) to chew up yards and set up the play-action game.

When athletic director Bill Moos held a press conference to announce he had fired head coach Mike Riley, he was asked about what kind of offense he likes. His answer was foreshadowing.

“I for one like a balanced attack,” he said. “I think you do need to run the ball. More importantly, I think you need to stop the run. They’re both important. I do feel in recent years and to some degree dating back earlier than Nebraska, a dual-threat quarterback is needed that can stretch the defense. If you have a good one, it’s nearly impossible to stop. Then you throw a little option in with that, a couple big tight ends and gifted receivers.”

That describes UCF’s 2017 offense. It does not describe Nebraska’s 2017 offense. But, if Frost can bring a little bit of that Orlando magic back to Lincoln, it could very well describe Nebraska’s future offense.

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