With Huskers Heading Back to Minnesota
Photo Credit: Aaron Babcock

With Huskers Heading Back to Minnesota, Let’s Talk Progress

October 11, 2019

A week ago, Scott Frost was asked if this was a harder job than he expected when he took it. He was asked if he was on schedule. “I don’t have a schedule,” he answered. “My schedule is to get better.” Frost didn’t ask for the preseason ranking; he didn’t include Nebraska in his ballot. But a runaway offseason hype train and a Heisman-ish quarterback had expectations sky-high. None of which is to say anything about what this same staff did in Year 2 at their last stop. 

But an overtime loss to Colorado, a stomping on national TV by Ohio State and three very uncomfortable wins against lesser opponents has made everyone involved just a little antsy. 

People want to talk about growth, both real and perceived, within the program. 

With Nebraska visiting Minnesota this week for the first time in two years, that conversation has never seemed more timely. In 2017, Nebraska gave up 54 points to a Minnesota team that had scored 44 in the three weeks leading up to the game and 0 in the two weeks following. That was the infamous “Oh nooooooo” game. Athletic Director Bill Moos has said that was the one that sealed the fate of the last head coach.

So let’s talk about progress. 

In Bo Pelini’s first 18 games, he went 13-5. Mike Riley went 11-7. Frost is 8-10 at Nebraska. 

It’s a nice framing that’s been used for a flawed argument. Riley’s start says more about what Pelini left him, does it not? Because Riley’s close was all Riley, which is why Frost now has the job he has. So that would mean Frost’s start says more about Riley’s end. Right?

Over a two-year window on the offensive side of the ball, there isn’t much left over from that November day in 2017. Adrian Martinez wasn’t the quarterback, Maurice Washington wasn’t the running back, Jack Stoll wasn’t the guy at tight end, Wan’Dale Robinson wasn’t on the field. Cameron Jurgens wasn’t the center. Frost wasn’t calling plays. The style of play was 180 degrees different.

Matt Farniok, Brenden Jaimes and JD Spielman were the only significant pieces of that outfit then that are still around now. Jaimes has grown into a stalwart left tackle. Farniok has grown into a captain. 

Aaron Babcock

Comparing that offense to the one now is like comparing apples to Monster energy drinks, but consider this: Nebraska finished that 2017 season ranked 100th in success rate. It was successful on a down 39.2% of the time. In 2018, that number jumped to 47.7%, the 16th-best mark in FBS football.

Through six games this season, Nebraska is down to 42.7%. While the discussion is a bit more nuanced than that, I think this is a good indicator as to why the progress debate is raging; why is that number closer to 2017 through the first six games of Year 2 than it is to last season’s number? I don’t think even Scott Frost knows that definitively. 

Nebraska’s breaking in a new center and dealing with all the offensive line inconsistencies that come with that territory. That’s probably a good place to start. 

Another number to consider: Nebraska ranked 79th in points per play as an offense in 2017, averaging 0.363. Last year Nebraska was 66th at 0.380. Through six in 2019, the Huskers are at 0.408. A lot of that has to do with a passing game that’s grown in explosiveness. 

Two of the most basic measures of health for an offense — how efficiently are you moving the ball, how often are you scoring points — and the Huskers have grown. 

(Also, Nebraska’s running the ball nearly 15 times more per game than that 2017 team. That one’s for you, Run the Ball Guy.)

Defense is where the question becomes indefensible. 

“I just see improvement. I see them getting better every time we go out,” Frost said Monday. “I would have never expected to win a 9-6 game or a 13-10 game, but a lot of credit to Coach [Erik] Chinander and the rest of the D staff and all those guys on defense. We didn’t play very well on defense against Ohio State and in the fourth quarter out in Boulder, but other than that our defense has played really well all year. We’ve got to be a little more consistent, but there’s definitely been some vast improvement and the majority of the time this year, I’ve been really pleased with their play.”

Nebraska is better at. . .

  • . . .defending the run: 5.6 yards per carry allowed in 2017 (124th), 5.0 in 2018 (t-107th), 4.05 this year (t-65th)
  • . . .defending the pass: 7.3 yards per attempt allowed in 2017 (t-66th), 6.7 in 2018 (t-35th), 6.4 this year (t-34th); completion percentage against was also 64.5% in 2017 and down to 58.1% this season
  • . . .defending in general: 6.3 yards per play allowed in 2017 (112th), 5.8 in 2018 (75th), 5.1 this year (t-50th)
  • . . .getting off the field on third down: 43.1% of third downs converted in 2017 (99th), 43.2% in 2018 (105th), 35.8% this year (59th)
  • . . .sacking the quarterback: 14 sacks in 2017 (t-119th), 25 in 2018 (t-76th), 16 already this year (t-24th)
  • . . .generating negative plays: 44 tackles for loss in 2017 (129th), 63 in 2018 (t-101st), 47 already this year (t-10th)
  • . . .taking the football away: 12 takeaways in 2017 (t-115th), 20 in 2018 (t-57th), 11 already this year (t-15th)
  • . . .keeping the other team from scoring: 0.523 points per play allowed in 2017 (120th), 0.434 in 2018 (87th), 0.346 in 2019 (t-48th)

Key in on the takeaways and negative plays, as those are hallmarks of this defensive scheme. Players not only understand the scheme (not to be taken for granted given the last one in place here), but believe in it. Guys fly to the football. 

Freshman outside linebacker Garrett Nelson comes into the game, opposing offenses identify him and dial up an RPO to his side of the field knowing he’s going to overplay the ball because he’s itching to make an impact, he does exactly what they expect and he still ends up involved in the tackle because he’s immediately reversing ground and running his tail off to get to the ball-carrier.

“I see the growth in attitude, shared attitude,” said inside linebacker and captain Mohamed Barry. “It starts with attitude. You don’t come with a mindset that you want to get better, that you want to be dominant, that you want to be the best in the nation, it will never happen. I think our approach to our work is because of our mindset every day. That makes our coverage better, our tackling better, it has made our defense in general better. 

“I would say attitude is the biggest thing we’ve changed, even coming into that Minnesota game last year. … We turned into a different team just off attitude.”

Ben Stille lived through that Minnesota game in 2017. He spoke out in this tunnel area underneath the stadium connecting the visiting locker room to everything else. It was as gloomy a scene as you’d expect. 

I think about that one often.

Stille can still describe plays from the game. He remembers the opening kickoff Minnesota housed and the feeling that sent through the Nebraska sideline. He remembers the long, gashing Gopher runs and why they happened. 

This group has come a long way from that one that didn’t want to tackle a quarterback who transferred to Tennessee State after the season.

“Guys going in there not knowing if we can win, guys going in there thinking maybe we’ll win, guys going in there thinking, ‘Maybe I can win my one-on-one matchup,’ versus guys knowing they can,” he said. “[Now there are] guys going in there to dominate. Just people doing their jobs. Knowing you can rely on people to do their job.” 

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