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Mailbag: Red Zone Offense, Second-Half Offense, Creating on Offense (and Other Stuff)

November 18, 2020

It’s Wednesday, and Wednesday is mailbag day. Let’s get to it.

What’s wrong with the offense in the Red Zone and what would you do to fix it? (@Corn_Huskers) 

Jacob Padilla: Well, the problem right now is their overall red zone offense. Everything has gone wrong at different times, so it’s hard to pin it on anyone or anything in particular. The quarterbacks have thrown two interceptions in the red zone and missed other open receivers. A receiver has dropped two touchdowns he probably should have caught. Scott Frost admitted he got a little conservative in the red zone after those interceptions. Because Nebraska has struggled so much passing in the red zone, teams are focusing in on stopping the run and making it tough for Nebraska to have success that way. Frost is going to have to figure some things out with his play-calling, but Nebraska also needs to execute better too. 

Brandon Vogel: The sample size is still so small at this point that the two touchdown drops Jacob mentioned probably change the conversation significantly. I did a medium-sized dive on the red-zone numbers for all of the Frost era in last week’s I-80 Preview podcast, and my general theory is this—Nebraska is still looking for the kind of receivers (and that would include tight ends) who can win down there when space gets tight. It’s not a cure-all. Penn State had two guys any team would love to have in Jahan Dotson and Pat Freiermuth, but with the game on the line the Huskers were able to stop eight red-zone passes. The real solution here is to score from farther out on the field. I’m not joking, though I know you can’t just dial up the 30-yard touchdown pass at will. Nebraska’s offense is really station-to-station right now, so it’s missing those big plays. You see that most clearly in the red zone this season where a defense knows it only has to defend the dwindling amount of field at its back. 

What can Lubick, Frost, and Austin do to create more offense? (@CarnesRegg) 

Mike Babcock: Figure out how to make the passing game more of a consistent threat, with some down-the-field threats. Austin’s guys need to continue to eliminate the false start/holding penalties. Against Penn State there was one false start, no holding penalties. Against Northwestern there were six, five on offensive linemen. 

Greg Smith: I’m with Mike. Priority one for me is creating more explosive plays to make the passing game a threat. Right now defenses just don’t have to worry about Nebraska’s passing game. Perhaps that starts with actually taking chances down the field. 

Derek Peterson: We should see a fly sweep every week. That should be in the plan. Then you can run stuff off that when you have success. Part of it is just having success with the stuff you’re calling because it sets up other stuff. Greg sent me an Oregon design earlier this week and asked if we’d seen it. It was a swing pass to the field with a QB pin and pull to the boundary. The QB picked up 20 yards. I’d assume you have to be able to consistently hurt the defense with the swing pass to get to that, which Nebraska hasn’t for a bunch of reasons. The big problem is either the base stuff hasn’t been consistent enough or the personnel on the field aren’t comfortable running the variations yet. Nebraska’s getting there. I think Frost can help with a little more consistency in his play-calling. Both Frost and Lubick have now said they were more conservative in the second half against Penn State to protect the defense. Wasn’t a fan of that. The M.O. is to win by burying teams with offense. Keep scoring when you have a team on its heels. No fear of failure. 

Frost infamously said at his intro press conference that the Big Ten will have to adjust to NU. Is it fair to say that the Big Ten HAS adjusted to NU and now he must adjust to the Big Ten? (@TwinTwisterDad) 

MB: I thought that might have been a bit injudicious for Scott to say that, though maybe it was intended to impart confidence in players. The Big Ten has forced him out of what he wanted to do, and yes, he’s adjusting to the Big Ten. After he recruits the type of players needed to succeed in the Big Ten, maybe his system will work and we’ll see it resurrected. The Huskers started fast against Penn State and McCaffrey is a fast-paced quarterback. So is/was Martinez. But leaving a defense on the field for 91 snaps in any conference, not just the Big Ten, is an issue—unless you can figure out how to run maybe 92. 

Will Frost ever figure out how to get his team to show up for the third quarter. Are we getting outcoached in the second half? What is it? (@westgatehusker) 

BV: I don’t think it’s being outcoached, though the ability to make adjustments (or lackthereof) is probably the simplest solution. I don’t immediately reach for that one, however, because most of the Frost era has, to me, shown that this staff is very accomplished from an Xs-and-Os point of the view, but this era also continues to show that there’s more to winning football games than a good scheme. Here’s the most concrete thing I can say about the second-half struggles: Frost is a take-the-ball-first-and-go-score coach. When his team wins the toss, it almost always takes the ball. That’s a perfectly good strategy, though it might be the contrarian strategy. Most coaches like to defer as it offers a team the chance to “double-up,” with, if the game breaks this way, a positive drive at the end of the first half and at the start of the second half. That’s what you have to live with if you take the ball and want the chance to score first (which is pretty powerful if you manage it). The result often is that Nebraska doesn’t have the ball a ton over the “middle eight,” the last four minutes of the second quarter and the first four minutes of the third quarter. So far under Frost, Nebraska has run 275 plays over the middle eight to its opponents 363. While the Huskers have outscored teams 92-61 at the end of first halves, they’ve been outscored 45-7 over the start of second halves. It’s a narrow difference when you add it all up, but in total the Huskers have lost the middle eight for the Frost era. In 2019, SportsSource Analytics found that Power 5 teams that win that section of the game, which Bill Belichick made a thing, won the game 76% of the time. That doesn’t totally answer why Nebraska has struggled so often in the third quarter, but I do think a portion of it is that the Huskers often start the quarter on their heels, which is the price they’ve decided to pay for the opportunity of a fast start. 

Did you see a noticeable improvement from Luke over Adrian against Penn State? (@gus_kathol) 

JP: To a certain degree. He completed over 60% of his passes, which certainly wasn’t the case for Martinez against Northwestern. I can’t remember McCaffrey straight missing on some of those short passes Nebraska needs the quarterback to complete to keep this offense moving. That being said, McCaffrey certainly wasn’t great against Penn State. I think the win had more to do with the defense, special teams and Zavier Betts than the quarterback change. But it was his first start, and Martinez’s lack of progress is why Frost went with the younger option – the upside appears to be greater at this point. 

MB: To some degree, McCaffrey’s performance has to be evaluated in the context of his first start. The catch is how Martinez played in his first season compared to now, which is how McCaffrey is being compared. So an element of this remains, what has happened to Martinez in two-plus seasons? As Jacob says, McCaffrey wasn’t great. But it was his first start, still with limited experience. Context is important in the quarterback discussion. 

GS: I think Luke was better than Adrian but not by a lot. To Jacob’s point, he was a better passer completion percentage-wise, which is very important in this offense. I also think we should be cutting McCaffrey some slack as a redshirt freshman in judging him against a three-year starter.  

Why haven’t we seen any wide receivers from the 2019 class besides Wan’Dale? Are any of them close or have they gotten lost in the room at this point? (@InDaWilderness) 

JP: Neither Jamie Nance nor Demariyon Houston made the travel roster the first two games, which indicates they aren’t particularly “close.” We did hear that Houston played an important role on the scout team last week, so that’s a sign that he’s contributing in some way even if he’s not getting on the field on game days. They’re only redshirt freshmen, so there’s plenty of time for them to keep getting better and make a move. But at this point, it looks like the newcomers have jumped ahead of them. It’s also worth noting that Darien Chase was ahead of the other two last year and probably would have at least been in the mix had he not decided to transfer closer to home. 

Now that we are through “half” of the season, what are your revised predictions for W/L record? Seems at this point there are two toss-ups and two very winnable games left. We could actually end with a better record than most of us expected to start the year… (@InDaWilderness) 

JP: I predicted 4-4 at the start of the season (not including the crossover game), and I was leaning closer to 3-5 than 5-3. At this point, I’m still seeing 3-4 as the most likely finish. I still need to see a little bit more before I predict a win over Iowa or Purdue, but the other two are winnable. 

MB: Like Jacob, I considered 4-4 as a best-case scenario for the regular season, on the assumption there would be a complete/reduced regular season. And I’m not yet convinced the Huskers will get four more games in. But I’m thinking reasonably two more wins might be realistic if they do, yes, Illinois and maybe Minnesota. Unreasonably, could the Huskers win out? Just asking. I don’t think so. But these are crazy times. 

GS: I had them at 5-3 before the season. The Illinois game will tell me a lot. I can see them winning out but I can see them losing out. There isn’t a great team left on the schedule, but I don’t see any pushovers either. I’ll go with 4-3. 

DP: Ask me again after this weekend. 

What B1G teams have been the biggest surprises this year (good and bad)? And what unfortunate team are you secretly most glad stinks or rocks this year? Personally, I love that Minnesota is getting its butt kicked. (@InDaWilderness) 

MB: Biggest surprises, Indiana and Penn State. Also thought Minnesota might seem a bit more formidable. Hopefully, that can still be said after Nebraska plays the Gophers. 

Erin Sorensen: I’m surprised at Penn State, I guess, because I figured the team would be much better than it is. I am also surprised by Minnesota, who I also thought would be better. With that said, I’m really not all that surprised by anything in 2020. Teams are playing under the weirdest of circumstances, and it’s a crapshoot every single week. Ohio State is good, as we assumed it would be. The rest is just, to say it again, a crapshoot. 

BV: Penn State is the biggest surprise, but on the positive side of things Indiana has been impressive. The Hoosiers returned a lot from last year, so it’s not a total surprise they are where they are, but they’re just emerging as a really sound, well-coached program that does a lot of the overlooked things needed to win football games. Really impressive work there by Tom Allen. 

DP: Minnesota has probably been the most surprising, specifically on offense. Mo Ibrahim has carried them on the ground, which is important because Tanner Morgan seems to have taken a big step back. I thought they’d show last year wasn’t a fluke.  

Could we see Nadab Joeseph this year? (@HuskerNation540) 

JP: We could. Nebraska still has five more games left, and if nothing else, we’ve seen a few different guys rotate in and out on special teams through the first three games. Joseph was a late addition to the class and is only a sophomore. However, we’ve seen at least 10 defensive backs play either on defense or special teams including five corners, so Joseph has some ground to make up. 

We just finished a big election this November. I’m curious, what is the winning percentage for Nebraska football when a Democrat President is in office versus a Republican in office in the last 30 years? (@JacobKrueger5) 

BV: Something divisible by four made more sense to me, so I went back 40 years to 1980. I also used the inauguration date as the starting point for each of these, so Jimmy Carter presided over Nebraska’s 1980 season and Ronald Reagan’s term, for football purposes, began with the 1981 season. Over the past 40 years the Huskers are 198-89-1 (.689) with a Republican president in office and 173-47 (.786) with a Democrat president in office. 

Top three scorers for Nebrasketball this year Teddy, Trey and ??? (@blackshrtnation) 

JP: I’m definitely taking Teddy at No. 1, but I’m expecting pretty good balance beyond that. I don’t necessarily know that I’d lock McGowens in as a clear No. 2, though. I think Lat Mayen and Dalano Banton will probably be in the mix to average double digits as well and I could see those three finishing in any order. 

ES: I’m excited to see Teddy in action for Nebraska. I had the opportunity to watch him at Boys Town—I was coaching the cheerleaders while he was there so I spent many days in the Boys Town Fieldhouse—and his ceiling is high. I’m trusting Jacob otherwise, as he knows this team far better than me, but I am looking forward to seeing Teddy.  

Who do you got winning the Class C1 championship? Also, AC football rules. #GoAC (@PBlak69) 

JP: The Patriots are on one heck of a run. That trio of Cam Foster at quarterback, Tyler Slechta at receiver and Hyatt Collins at running back is tough. But Pierce is 11-0 and has outscored its opponents by more than 300 points this season. The Bluejays will run it down your throat with a number of backs and then hit you over the top with a big pass play. I’m going to have to take the favorites here, but Adams Central has knocked off the first and fourth seeds on their journey to Friday’s C1 championship so it wouldn’t be a shock at all to see them hoist the trophy at the end of the game. 

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