I thought the unique nature of Nebraska’s opener, featuring two special teams touchdowns, two safeties, two onside kicks, a touchdown celebration that starts at the 40-yard line, and 100 combined passes in a game wouldn’t be topped this year. Sadly, I was wrong. Way wrong.
Somehow, in one game, Nebraska’s offense managed a fumbled exchange, two Pick 6s, 7 drops, consecutive penalties putting them in 1st and 24, 3 sacks, and two QB rushing touchdowns from a guy who hadn’t scored a rushing TD since he was a high school senior in 2012. It also featured three consecutive terrible punt return decisions from a senior who was once an All American in doing it. Because, with the defense finally figuring things out against a weak offense, why the *^#$ not, right?
Fair warning. If you’re expecting a post making you feel better about this season, it’s not coming so close the browser now. If you’re forging ahead, we’ll take a look at how the entire Nebraska offense has come off the rails.
College football is an imperfect game played by imperfect young men, many of whom have yet to hit full emotional maturity. [Cue joke about whether men ever hit full emotional maturity]. With that, one of the most important in-game things a coaching staff can do is create and maintain the confidence of its team. Not only starting the game with it, but also maintaining that certitude even when the first big negative play hits. Because it always hits.
Unfortunately, this is an area where Nebraska has struggled for nearly 15 years, and despite changing coaches and new players, the one constant has been a Nebraska team that often blinks when faced with its first sign of adversity. For at least the Northern Illinois game, and perhaps longer, Nebraska coach Mike Riley wasn’t able to fix that problem.
Nebraska got the opening kickoff and promptly went 65 yards in 6 plays. Suddenly, the Nebraska offense people thought they’d see in 2017 was on the field in front of them. So of course, let’s cue up the circus, call a bubble screen, and watch your best blocking WR completely whiff a block while the opposing CB guesses right, steps in front of the pass, and heads 87 yards the other way for a TD.
Hey, it happens. It really shouldn’t at this point, but it does. Facing what was an undermanned Northern Illinois squad, the confident response would be to rally back immediately, get another drive going, and keep yourself focused on the prize 58 minutes down the road. But this Nebraska team has rarely been able to show such focus, and ultimately in year 3 that’s on the coaches.
So Nebraska’s offense promptly returns to the field and goes 3 and Out, capped by this short yardage “run” play:
If you’re scoring at home, that’s who I consider two of Nebraska’s better linemen, Nick Gates and Tanner Farmer, getting beat directly in the hole. Farmer can’t control his man at the point of attack, and Gates gets ridden all the way across the line on his reach block. One missed block and this play is salvageable, but two makes it DOA. Simply put, that’s not good enough from two upperclassmen who have started a combined 37 games heading into NIU.
But it also evidences something that Nebraska’s offensive line is struggling with badly: communication and the confidence that comes with it. Opposing defenses have picked up on Nebraska’s offensive line struggling to get calls correct when faced with any sort of defensive line movement or run blitz. With every starting linemen except Matt Farniok having two full years in this offense, that shouldn’t be happening much.
Yet it is. Over and over and over. When you can’t get the call in correctly, you lack confidence in the play and tend to hesitate on who to block rather than simply executing your assignment. NIU frequently slanted its defensive linemen in some sort of run blitz, or in the passing game, ran twists and stunts at a far greater percentage than you would normally see. The end result was 3 sacks, numerous big hits on quarterback Tanner Lee, and a run game that didn’t make it to 100 yards for the 6th time in the last 29 games.
Nebraska’s OL has to fix this in a hurry or it’s going to be a long, long season. Is there reason for optimism? Maybe, maybe not. Nebraska is breaking in a new center, and though filled with upperclassmen, the line isn’t particularly experienced, ranking 86th in the country in returning starts among offensive linemen. There may be some hope that they can get better as the season goes on with more experience. Still, miscommunication and missed assignments have been the hallmark of this offensive line for the last two years, indicating it may be more about the coaching than the players.
In any event, the maxim remains true that the closer you are to the ball at the snap, the more important you are to the play. And right now, Nebraska’s guys closest to the ball are simply missing way too many assignments to be a productive offense. That’s a confidence issue that tends to show up in the worst times.
One of the other major points of coaching is creating consistency in your team’s level of play. Whether good or bad, defense or offense, a coordinator is always looking for patterns from his unit. Got a corner that can never press cover to take away quick routes? Play off man and find a way to give him help over the top so he can drive immediately to still take away short routes. Right side of the offensive line struggling to move the defense off the ball? Lean on the left side in big moments and find a way to pull them across the ball to help as needed on runs to the right. Got a hot receiver? Find easy ways to get him the ball through screens, slants, and other easy access throws.
But when a position coach, or even worse multiple position coaches, can’t create that consistency, things start to go poor. Because it’s tough to fix “it” when it changes from series to series or down to down. That’s exactly where Nebraska’s offense finds itself, though, as every position group on the field is struggling to find consistency.
I’m not going to beat up on the offensive line again, so I’ll focus instead on perhaps the most disappointing position group on offense: the wide receivers. What was considered a strength before the season, and indeed perhaps the unit that could carry the offense, has been anything but in 2017.
Because of recruiting misses, I can understand that the group lacks depth. I can also understand that the same recruiting issues have resulted in breaking in young or inexperienced players like JD Spielman, Tyjon Lindsey, and Bryan Reimers. If the “itis” infecting this group only grabbed those players, I’d be fine.
But it hasn’t, and in fact some of the most disappointing efforts have been turned in by Stanley Morgan and De’Mornay Pierson-El. If you’ve read this website since it started, you know I’m a big Stanley Morgan guy, and I also think wide receivers coach Keith Williams has done an excellent job developing him. Nebraska leaned hard on Stanley in the backside of 3×1 formations last year, and it continues to do it this year. Yet for whatever reason, it’s just not clicking for him right now. The Savage Professionals had 7 drops on Saturday, and 3 of them belonged to #8:
With his 18 receptions in 2017, Morgan also has 5 drops. Again, it’s just not good enough, and especially from a guy who has NFL aspirations. This inconsistency makes it difficult for an offense when your go-to guy is no longer worthy of that moniker. Or at least not consistent enough to carry it right now. And don’t get me wrong, Morgan has made some fantastic catches already this year and Saturday bubble screen notwithstanding, he’s still a monster blocker. He’s also currently first in the Big 10 in receiving yards for a reason. But you can’t keep laying the ball on the turf to go with it.
And it’s not just Stan either. Coach Dubs’ other WRs have 4 drops to go with 30 receptions. Add it all up and you get 1 drop for every 6.3 catchable balls. You just can’t play offense that way, especially in a system that requires your wide receivers to make plays, and Coach Dubs has to find a way to create more consistency from his guys.
The Elephant In the Room: Tanner Lee
You thought I was going to forget the most important person in Nebraska’s offense? Hardly. I saved Tanner Lee for last because he’s had perhaps the most bizarre start I can remember for a college quarterback in at least a decade, if not more. On the one hand, he’s second in the Big 10 in passing yardage. On the other hand, he’s last in the country in interceptions thrown.
Yet in looking at Lee’s numbers, you have to dive down to provide some context to his first three games. As with other position groups, it’s a mixed bag. At times, and I discussed these concerns in my season opening post, he’s held onto the ball way too long instead of quickly finding a check down to the RB or TE. He’s also tried to force the ball down the field too often. Those moments are all too obvious. But what isn’t so obvious is that his raw numbers are also a function of poor play around him. Of his 7 interceptions, 4 were caused by missed blocking assignments or drops. He has 120 passing attempts, and as I hinted at above, right at 10% of them have been dropped.
What I really want to focus on, though, is how frequently he’s been in high leverage situations already this year. What is a high leverage situation? One where the game situation tilts things, sometimes heavily, in your opponent’s favor. If you’re a baseball guy, this is a closer having to come in with no outs during the 8th or 9th inning in a tie game and inheriting a runner in scoring position. Let the guy score and the game is likely over for your team. So you better throw strikes and find a way to get guys out without yielding a single hit. Easier said than done.
In football, high leverage situations are down and distances where the offensive options are reduced and the defense only needs to defend one or two things. For our purposes, let’s call it 3rd and 7+ yards and fourth down situations. It’s not a perfect definition, and you could also define it by score (down 10+ points in the second half), but we’ll go with 3rd/7+ yards and fourth down. Here, the offense has to get substantial yardage on a single play, or it’s punt the ball and play defense. And we know what an adventure that’s been in 2017.
So why are high leverage situations bad? Much like the closer against the wall in the 9th inning, the situation dictates predictability from the offense. Far more often than not 3rd and long is going to be a pass, and that’s why I call it the Charlie McBride down: the defensive coordinator’s options abound because he rarely has to worry about playing the run. He can bring the heat in a multitude of ways. Or he can drop 7 guys in deep coverage while running a zone pressure package to create confusion for the offense. In other words, big advantage to the defense.
And with that, it’s natural for a QB’s efficiency to go down in high leverage situations. Even the GOAT QBs fall victim to the phenomenon of high leverage situations. Baker Mayfield led the country in QB Rating in 2016 with a 196.38, but it dropped to 151 on 3rd/7+ and down to 136.3 on fourth down. Jake Browning was the next Power 5 QB at 167.52 overall. But he dropped to 73.55 on 3rd/7+ and down to 128.27 on fourth down. Boy wonder Sam Darnold was next, at 161.07 overall but only 138.55 on 3rd/7+ and dead 0 on fourth down (with only 1 attempt however). In other words, high leverage most often equals big decreases in production even for great QBs.
For Tanner Lee, he’s too often had to live in high leverage situations in 2017. Of Lee’s 120 pass attempts, 25 attempts have come in high leverage situations. That’s an insane 21% of his throws. To contextualize that a bit, Mayfield was in high leverage situations 13% of the time in 2016, Browning checked in at 12%, and Darnold was at 15%. Unless you’re playing a series of chump defenses, putting your QB in high leverage situations 20+% of the time is going to be a disaster.
And it’s no different for Lee. His interceptions have come in the following situations:
- Interception #1: Oregon, 1st and 10, Down 7-0, Q1/13:42 (bounced off Stanley Morgan’s facemask)
- Interception #2: Oregon, 3rd and 15, Down 35-14, Q2/2:02
- Interception #3: Oregon, 3rd and 6, Down 41-28, Q4/14:35
- Interception #4: Oregon, 1st and 10, Down 42-35, Q4/2:17 (missed block causes deflection interception)
- Interception #5: NIU, 2nd and 3, Tie 0-0, Q1/11:41 (missed block allows CB to jump bubble screen)
- Interception #6: NIU, 3rd and 9, Down 14-0, Q1/1:26 (missed block causes deflection interception)
- Interception #7: NIU, 4th and 14, Down 21-17, Q4/1:44
Three interceptions have solely been Lee’s fault. Two of the three have no doubt come in high leverage situations. 3rd and 15 and 4th and 14. The other one didn’t come in a classic high leverage situation, but it did happen on 3rd and 6 and chasing two touchdowns in the fourth quarter. In other words, in the most pressure packed moments, Tanner Lee has blinked. And though it’s analytically convenient to look at the raw numbers and put it all on him, in reality his trends aren’t much different than the best college QBs in those situations.
So how did Nebraska find itself in the high leverage situations above? The typical ways. Sacks, penalties, and poor first down runs. Lee’s second interception came after Jerald Foster gave up a sack to make it 2nd and 20:
His sixth interception came after Matt Farniok got called for a hold and then Jerald Foster doubled down with a block in the back the next play to set up 1st and 24 from Nebraska’s 6-yard line. His seventh interception came after Matt Farniok gave up a sack to make it 4th and 14 from Nebraska’s 16-yard line. In other words, a lot of Lee’s troubles can be traced directly back to poor offensive line play that led to high leverage situations.
But that shouldn’t let Lee off the hook either. Just because you’re put into a high leverage situation doesn’t mean you have to force the ball down the field and into coverage. Again, football is math and real estate. Long third downs mean the defense has to cover less real estate and can commit more defenders to it instead of guarding shorter areas. So understand it, appreciate that punting isn’t necessarily a bad thing (even when your defense is ranked 90th in yards per play allowed and 93rd in total defense), and make ball responsible decisions.
And for the love of God Coach Cav, find a way to get your guys to pass protect. If you can do that, Tanner Lee can still have a productive initial campaign for the Huskers.
Wrapping It Up
A couple of quick hitters to wrap up. First, I’ve added PayPal donation tabs to the “About This Site” section of the website. I don’t ever want to charge anything to readers, and I’d rather not spam you with ads either. That said, the site does have some maintenance costs for servers and data storage, and if you like the website and want to help defray some of those costs, I’m greatly appreciative for it. We’re doing this Bernie Sanders style (no political endorsement there), so maximum donation of $5. I’ll consider larger donations and you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss them, but I’d prefer to keep them small.
Second, individual college football seasons are rarely linear. Sometimes teams look great early and then fall off completely at the end (see Nebraska circa 2010). Other teams struggle early before finding their stride late (see Nebraska circa 2008). Do I know what kind of team the 2017 squad is going to be for the remainder of the season? Nope, and certainly less than I thought I knew a week ago. You can’t play with the type of inconsistency we’ve now seen for 3 weeks and create any sort of certainty for your fans.
But I’d venture to guess questions about the season will be answered early on in the Rutgers game. Chris Ash is a great defensive coach, and he’s going to probe all the offensive issues that Nebraska has shown the last two weeks. With 3 guys out who have started games this year (Bryant, Knevel, Farniok), Nebraska needs to find an answer quickly when he does. If they do, then we can start talking about regaining some momentum. But if not, I think this season has the chance to go downhill in a hurry.
In year three, the current coaching staff owns it either way. We’re not in perfect shape from roster holes left by the previous staff, but we also shouldn’t be in “lose to Northern Illinois” shape either. Here’s hoping they figure it out and find a way to peak when it matters in conference play.