Photo by Eric Francis
Nebraska Football

Win's a Win, But Huskers' Offense Remains Fragile

September 23, 2017
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For the next six days at least, Nebraska will be in a tie for first place in the Big Ten’s West Division. Yes, it got there with an ugly-as-expected win over Rutgers, now losers of 15 consecutive conference games. Yes, it’s only possible to be first or last one week into Big Ten play.

But given the week that was, better the former than the latter.

“Winning games is hard,” Coach Mike Riley said after winning his 17th in 30 tries at Nebraska. I would suppose after last week, that game was good. These kids are happy right now.”

Take the wins and the happiness when you can get them this season, because if things don’t change offensively for the Huskers soon, it’s hard to see Nebraska being much better than it was today, which was 10 points better (on its home field) than the Big Ten’s worst team over the past two seasons.

It might seem like a strange time to be writing this column given that the Huskers did a bunch of crowd-pleasing things without two of its best weapons (Stanley Morgan Jr. and Tre Bryant). They ran the ball 47 times for 197 yards. Devine Ozigbo, mysteriously missing from the game plan in the first three weeks, got 24 of those carries and responded with 101 yards. It was the 14th consecutive time Nebraska’s won under Riley when outrushing the opponent.

Puff out your chest, Run the Ball Guy.

My primary takeaway from the 27-17 win, however, was just how remarkably fragile this offense remains. If you want to call it “inconsistent,” that works, too. But why is it inconsistent?

There was a moment in the third quarter when I legitimately thought Nebraska’s offense had a kill switch and you could flip it just by looking at how the Huskers started drives. Here’s what I mean.

Nebraska’s had 50 non-kneel down drives this year. On 26 of those drives the Huskers gained 3 yards or less on the first play (aka possession-and-10 plays). Just five of those drives that started with 3 yards or fewer on the first play resulted in points (two field goals, three touchdowns), and one of the touchdowns came on a drive that started inside the Northern Illinois 5. Against Rutgers, every drive that didn’t gain at least 3 yards on the first play ended in a punt or an interception.

If that seems too esoteric to be meaningful, it’s probably not, but I understand how it could seem that way. And that’s sort of the point. A functioning offense should be able to overcome the occasional tackle for loss or incompletion after taking possession of the ball.

Nebraska’s isn’t that offense right now. It’s fragile.

So what about the 24 remaining drives that did start with more than a 3-yard gain? That part actually looks pretty good. Half of those resulted in points, nine touchdowns and three field goals for a crisp 3 points per drive. Hence the flip-a-switch analogy. So far this season, if Nebraska has even a tiny bit of success to start a drive ­– 3 yards is not a high threshold – it has a chance to score. If it doesn’t, it effectively doesn’t.

Possession-and-10 play gains...

Pct of Drives Ending in Points

Points Per Drive
. . . 3 yards or fewer 19.2%

1.04

. . . more than 3 yards 50.0% 3.00

I’ve got another treat for you, Run the Ball Guy. On those 50 possession-and-10 plays this season, the Huskers have run it 32 times. They’ve averaged 4.34 yards on those 32 plays and those drives have averaged a solid 2.3 points.

Passes? It’s really hard to average fewer yards per pass than run, but that’s what Nebraska has done so far this season. Drive-opening passes have been good for just 3.83 yards on average and, as a result, those drives have been worth 1.5 points. Makes a possession-and-10 incompletion feel pretty costly, but these 50 plays tell the story for Nebraska’s offense so far in 2017.

Possession-and-10 Yards Per Play Points Per Drive
Runs 4.34 2.30
Passes 3.83 1.50

The Rutgers game played out exactly to form in this regard. The last drive of the first half and the two to open the second half started with an incompletion, a rush for a loss of a yard and a rush for a loss of 3. Those drives ended in a punt, pick-six and punt. The game looked lost, but then Nebraska started making gains on its opening plays, and none was bigger than Mikale Wilbon's 11-yard rush with Nebraska backed up at its own 3-yard line. That drive turned into an epic – 17 plays, 8 minutes, one touchdown. 

If the Huskers are to be more like that more often this season, then the offense can’t be as volatile as it was through four weeks. It needs to be more consistent or more resilient, and probably a little bit of both.

If the Huskers can find that increased consistency and resiliency, maybe the 2017 season isn’t sunk yet. As you probably noticed, the Blackshirts only allowed 194 yards on Saturday. Last week they gave up 213. Those are the two best defensive yardage totals of the Riley era. Nebraska’s defense has only given up 17 points in its last 10 quarters of football, too. Nebraska’s offense, via pick-sixes, has given up 21 in the last eight.

Most of the Big Ten era at Nebraska has felt like this, like a team struggling to get on the same page. If the offense and defense aren’t nearly equal in terms of ability, at least they should be able to complement each other.

The Huskers still aren’t there yet, and the ceiling in 2017 is going to be determined by how quickly they get there.

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