Confused? Catch up with the BTBS Primer. And if you just don't like or care about numbers, skip them -- I always attempt to explain what they might be telling us afterward. For most of the season's BTBS Preview pieces to date, I have been referring to the previews I wrote over the summer. I am not going to do that this time -- thanks to the unexpected emergence of quarterback Taylor Martinez and linebacker Lavonte David, my summer Nebraska previews were rendered mostly moot in record time. Quoting those pieces would do little good, so we're starting anew on this one! And we're breaking this up into two pieces -- offense today, defense tomorrow.
No team in the country is more dependent on the concept of Leverage than Nebraska. They have one of the best offenses on standard downs (1st downs, 2nd-and-6 or less, 3rd-and-4 or less) and the best defense in the country on passing downs. But on the flipside, their offense is extremely vulnerable on passing downs, and their defense can be pushed around a bit on standard downs. The winner of this game will be largely determined by how each team does early in a given set of downs. We will obviously go into much greater detail below, but that is the entire game in a nutshell.
Close your eyes for a moment and imagine how you think an offense would rank when they have a super-young quarterback with explosive rushing ability, the quarterbacking instincts of a redshirt freshman, and an iffy supporting cast. Now open your eyes and look at the data below.
Standard Downs S&P+: 12th
Redzone S&P+: 28th
Q1 S&P: 3rd
1st Down S&P: 4th
Rushing S&P+: 19th
Standard Downs: 16th
Adj. Line Yards: 42nd
Passing S&P+: 39th
Standard Downs: 18th
Sack Rate: 57th
That's basically how you'd have guessed the data would look, right?
- High explosiveness (PPP)
- Iffy consistency/efficiency (Success Rates)
- Great on standard downs, shaky on passing downs
- Best on first downs and in the first quarter, progressively worse afterward.
With the terrifying Taylor Martinez running the show (and yes, despite what happened against Texas, he is still pretty terrifying), Nebraska is reliant on early-down success ... but it's worked for them for the most part. We expected this offense to be atrocious this season, and it appears it probably would be if not for the surprise impact of Martinez. We heard a lot about Martinez from fans and press in the offseason, but 90% of "Check out this newcomer--you're going to be amazed!!" offseason hype fizzles out the moment the season begins. For Martinez, the hype wasn't actually hype enough.
Nebraska On The Ground
QB Taylor Martinez: 100 carries, 870 yards (8.7/carry), 12 TD
RB Roy Helu, Jr.: 74 carries, 500 yards (6.8/carry), 5 TD
RB Rex Burkhead: 71 carries, 437 yards (6.2/carry), 3 TD
Pct. of Carries: QB 42.2%, RB 56.1%, WR 1.7%
This offseason, I spoke of the Nebraska running game -- led by Roy Helu, Jr., and Rex Burkhead -- as one of the most overrated in the country. Helu had his moments last season but was far too inconsistent and injury-prone to be trusted; Burkhead, meanwhile, really got a lot of hype for what were basically two or three decent games. The running game was one of the two main reasons (along with the depleted defensive line everybody was hyping) I spoke very harshly about what I considered to be undeserved preseason hype.
At least I got the defensive line part right, I guess. Martinez changed everything in regard to how this offense functions. Virtually the moment he ripped off his first long run in the opener against Western Kentucky, all the writing I had done on Nebraska over the summer was rendered moot.
This is a good running game dictated almost entirely by Martinez. Helu and Burkhead are certainly solid, but neither are as good as some of the other backs Mizzou has faced this year -- Demarco Murray, Christine Michael, Mikel Leshoure. The blocking they receive is only adequate too. The hope is that the Missouri defensive line that dominated Colorado and Texas A&M without Aldon Smith and won the battle against Oklahoma, can do the same against the Huskers' front five. This is a potential advantage for Mizzou ... at least, it better be, because Martinez only needs to get one step on you to go to the house.
Martinez is obviously the X-factor here. As we saw against Kansas State, when he is getting good reads on the ends and linebackers and is able to go as long as possible before committing to either the handoff or the keeper, he is incredible. But against Texas, he wasn't able to wait -- Texas' linemen were making him commit and react faster than he wanted to. The Mizzou line will need to occupy as many blockers as possible to clog running lanes and make Martinez dance. If Martinez and/or the running back of choice is having to make moves in the backfield, Mizzou is in good shape. If they're getting six or seven yards upfield before anybody gets a hand on them, Mizzou has almost no chance in this game. Nebraska relies on early-down yardage for success, and they want to get as much of that as possible on the ground.
Nebraska Through The Air
Taylor Martinez: 66-for-111 (59.5%), 1046 yards (9.4/pass), 8 TD, 3 INT
WR Niles Paul: 26 catches, 358 yards (13.8/catch), 1 TD
WR Brandon Kinnie: 21 catches, 281 yards (13.4/catch), 3 TD
WR/TE Mike McNeill: 11 catches, 191 yards (17.4/catch), 1 TD
RB Rex Burkhead: 8 catches, 104 yards (13.0/catch)
TE Kyler Reed: 5 catches, 174 yards (34.8/catch), 3 TD
Pct. of Catches: WR 77.5%, TE 10.0%, RB 12.5%
If you are expecting run, Nebraska has a pretty good passing game. They rank first in the country in First-Down Passing S&P+, and for very obvious reasons -- opponents are playing the run. The Huskers run 75% of the time on standard downs, sixth-most in the country. In this regard, they really are a lot like those mid- to late-1990s Husker offenses -- they will bludgeon you with the run, then finish you off with a play-action bomb. Oklahoma State was so focused on the run, however, that they Martinez actually had a great day throwing the ball. They only ran the ball 60% of the time on standard downs, and Martinez repeatedly found Niles Paul for nice gains.
If you make Taylor Martinez pass, however, chances are good that it will not work out very well for them. Martinez's pocket instincts are not very far advanced (neither were Brad Smith's as a redshirt freshman), and his throwing motion and accuracy leave a lot to be desired. Plus, while his receivers have shown flashes for years (particularly Niles Paul), they suffer some pretty crippling lapses and either disappear for stretches or fail to hold onto the ball.
Look at the splits from the Oklahoma State game. We heard a lot about Martinez's brilliant passing day, but that was as much because of play-calling as anything else:
Standard Downs Passing vs OSU: 52.4% Success Rate | 0.88 PPP | 1.404 S&P
- Passing Downs Passing vs OSU: 26.7% Success Rate | 0.48 PPP | 0.743 S&P
Teams always pass better on standard downs than passing downs, but the spread isn't typically that wide.
The name of the game for Nebraska is staying out of passing downs however possible, and recent play suggests they will try to do that more often with the pass than they did at the beginning of the season. If the defensive line is getting a good push, and if Carl Gettis, Kevin Rutland and company are able to maintain discipline and stay on their man (and the front seven is stopping the run well enough that Mizzou's secondary doesn't have to over-compensate), then things will go just fine for Mizzou. If Mizzou is kept completely off-balance by the early-downs pass and is suddenly getting gashed by huge runs, however, they will need to score a lot of points to win.