Two quotes first, from two different points in time.
The first: “Right now our offense moves exceptionally well when he’s at quarterback.” That was Husker head coach Scott Frost two weeks out from the season-opener against Ohio State and he was talking about redshirt freshman Luke McCaffrey.
And the second: “To me, when it comes to tempo, he moves the ball more productively and faster. He looks to the sideline, gets set up, everybody’s set up and he snaps the ball quick. It’s all about getting the defense on their toes and making them tired.” That’s running back Dedrick Mills two games into Nebraska’s season and he was talking again about Luke McCaffrey.
This is not to denigrate one quarterback or the other, but in reading the tea leaves, Nebraska seems to have an answer to a question that has cropped up this week: What happened to Frost Fast?
Tempo at Oregon was a Chip Kelly staple, and all the Kellian football disciples that came from his tree used tempo offense as a weapon to generally good degrees of success. Frost is no different. His offense at UCF, when up and running, was one of the fastest in the country.
Pace for them wasn’t just running more plays than everyone else. They were middle-of-the-pack at around 73 a game. But there was only one offense in the country that averaged fewer yards per point than Central Florida that year (and it had Saquon Barkley) and no one averaged more points per play.
Nebraska has been 97th and tied for 73rd in two full seasons under Frost in scoring efficiency and tied for 66th and 69th in per-play scoring efficiency
Tempo for Frost begins with that initial first down, then his offense can shift, hold the defense from substituting, and break off chunks of the field at a time.
Nebraska hasn’t been able to do that for a litany of reasons.
“Part of being able to go tempo is having positive plays,” offensive coordinator Matt Lubick said Tuesday. “When you’re moving the ball and you have a drive going, it’s a lot easier to go tempo. When you have a negative play or a false start and you’re behind the chains, you want to make sure you have the right play call and everyone’s in the right spot and you’re attacking what you want to attack, and tempo doesn’t always let you do that.”
Against Ohio State, the Husker offense only got in 56 plays. With the best team in the conference, you have to be clinical. Tempo is tough when their athletes might even be better than yours.
Against Northwestern, Nebraska’s offense ran 88 plays. There was a noticeable difference in the tempo with which NU’s offense operated when the quarterback position changed hands at the end of the third quarter.
“Luke’s personality in general, he’s a sparkplug,” Frost said Monday. “He’s just got energy that exudes out of him.”
All that energy means nothing if the offense can’t get rolling. Nebraska has six three-and-outs in two games so far (24% rate, a little above where you want to be) and it has four penalties on first-down plays.
When the play is clean, first-down production hasn’t been a problem, as the Huskers have averaged 7.3 yards per play on those downs. That’s good! The issue so far has been that if the penalty or the mental mistake doesn’t come early, that doesn’t mean it’s not coming at all.
Forced to sustain a drive, Nebraska is more likely to short-circuit than it is to finish, and it isn’t getting help from explosives the way it would like to (5.6% of plays have gone for 20 yards, compared to 8.4% in 2019 and 8.3% in 2018).
In the past, Frost has worried too about what tempo would do to his defense.
“Part of the reason we haven’t gone light speed around here is we didn’t want to leave the defense on the field that long,” he said.
Nebraska’s defense practices against Nebraska’s offense during the week, so if tempo is used on the field inside the Hawks Training Complex, the defense would presumably be getting the same kind of conditioning as the offense. There’s been some debate recently about whether there actually is an asymmetrical relationship between an offense and a defense fatiguing based on plays run. (This is a good place to start.)
But Frost has been careful to protect a defense that, until now, hasn’t had much depth.
Nebraska has talent in its secondary, with four upperclassmen starters and guys like Myles Farmer and Quinton Newsome pushing the group into more of an “open competition” this week. Nebraska can roll through as many as four safeties and four corners.
It has a rotation at outside linebacker that seems to be rounding into form. If Will Honas is healthy moving forward, it has a solid three-man rotation at inside linebacker. On the defensive line, Nebraska has maybe as many as seven bodies to cycle through the three spots
“We’re starting to see the depth emerge,” said defensive coordinator Erik Chinander on Tuesday.
One might be able to say the defense has carried the team through much of these first two games.
“I’m really impressed and happy with how they’re coming along,” Frost said. “That will free us up to potentially get a little more aggressive with tempo on offense.”
And that won’t bother Chinander.
“You gotta be able to handle everything,” he said. “Whatever he wants to do on offense is up to him. In my opinion, when you develop depth, which is starting to happen, we should be happy to go out on the field. We’re never happy that the offense turns the ball over, that’s not good for the team, but we should be happy (because) you get another opportunity to make a sack, you get another opportunity to make a TFL, you get another opportunity to make an interception.
“Let’s be fired up when we get to go out on the field, whether we get to go out for 25 series or 15, it doesn’t matter. Let’s go play football. We all came here to play football, not sit on the bench. Whatever he wants to do on offense, that’s up to him, that’s great, but we just gotta be able to go play when it’s our turn. When the bell’s called, we gotta answer it.”
Look to see if there’s a change in tempo against Penn State. It might signal a healthier Husker offense.
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.