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Nebraska: Beyond the Box Score Offensive Preview

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UPDATE: When you're done here, read the defensive preview here.

Confused?  Catch up with the BTBS Primer.

Nothing brings together restless Mizzou fans like chatting about Nebraska, right?  Today we take a look at a team Missouri has played (and Mizzou fans have hated) every year since 1922 ... and won't play again for a long time after October 30.  The Huskers have been on the minds of a lot of Missouri fans this summer ... for both the hype and the Big Ten bid they have received.  Can Mizzou knock them off and steal the final Big 12 North title?  Or are the Huskers actually worth they praise lavished upon them?


Record: 10-4 (6-2 in Big 12)
: 17th
: 18th
Scoring Margin
: +206 (+14.7/game)
Conference Scoring Margin
: +45 (+5.6/game)
Wins (F/+ Ranking in parentheses)
: #10 Oklahoma (10-3), #37 Arizona (33-0), #54 Missouri (27-12), #60 Kansas (31-17), #72 Baylor (20-10), #79 Colorado (28-20), #90 Kansas State (17-3), #100 Florida Atlantic (49-3), #110 Arkansas State (38-9), #113 UL-Lafayette (55-0)
: #4 Virginia Tech (15-16), #5 Texas (12-13), #22 Texas Tech (10-31), #82 Iowa State (7-9)

By all means, the 2009 season was a nice one for Nebraska.  Their identity flipped almost 180 degrees, from a nice offensive team with holes on defense (2008: 17th in Offensive F/+, 68th in Defensive F/+) to an offensive debacle (85th) with an incredible defense (4th).  How much of the offensive struggle was due to injury (Zac Lee, Roy Helu Jr., and Rex Burkhead all sported iffy limbs at times), and how much of the defensive domination was due to Ndamukong Suh alone, we will not find out until the fall.  But what we know for sure is, the defense made them capable of beating anybody (they were 1-2 versus Top 10 teams and two one-point losses from 3-0) and the offense made them capable of losing to anybody (they lost at home to #82 Iowa State and were outgained in six of eight conference games).  They were a very volatile team in terms of being very close to a much better or worse record, but when the dust settled, they won ten games and got hot enough at the end of the season to give predictable pundits all the ammo they needed to start the same "Nebraska's back!!!" engines they kicked up in 2005, 2006, 2007 (ESPECIALLY 2007) and late-2008.

Between a piece for Corn Nation's Cornhusker Kickoff, the 2010 Football Outsiders Almanac, and our own 2010 Missouri Football preview (COMING SOON!!), I've written, uh, quite a few words about Nebraska this summer.  (And here come some more.)  And every single one of those words has been torn in two conflicting directions:

1) Nebraska has an absolutely perfect schedule this year and absolutely should be the favorite in the North because of it (Texas and Missouri at home, with the toughest road games at Washington and Oklahoma State).

2) If Missouri had put together the exact set of circumstances (dominant defense leads to North title, near-upset in Big 12 title game, and easy bowl win ... and loses transcendent star in offseason), they would be ranked in the #15-20 range to start the season.  But Nebraska being Nebraska, they shoot straight to, in some cases, the Top 5.  "But wait, wasn't Missouri a Top 10 preseason pick in 2008," you ask?  Yes. And they finished 2007 ranked fourth.  Nebraska finished 2009 ranked 14th, lost their best-by-far player, and is expected to rise ten spots.

The analyst in me notes that 2010 is set up absolutely perfectly for Nebraska to make another nice run to double-digit wins; if their offense improves just enough to balance the slight regression that is likely in the defense, then Nebraska has the schedule to do some damage.  The Missouri fan in me rages against the fact that we've soared right past "Another nice season for Nebraska!" to "National title contenders!!", something that wouldn't have happened if any other North team had pulled the same feat in 2009.  Like I said, it's a conflicted place to be.


Head Coach: Bo Pelini
Record at Nebraska: 20-8 (11-6 in the Big 12)

One thing on which we can all agree: Bo Pelini has done a really nice job so far in Lincoln.  We will find out this season what he is capable of with out the safety net that Suh provided (the Suh-fty net?), but one can't deny that in 2007, Nebraska lost to Missouri and Kansas by a combined 117-45, and in 2009, they beat both on the road by a combined 58-29.  We can all talk about circumstances (Gabbert's ankle and the rain, Suh's incendiary play, etc.), but facts are still facts.  While the offense regressed significantly in 2009, Pelini and his brother, Carl, figured out which buttons to press on the defense, and if the offense can improve by just a moderate amount, things are looking pretty good as Nebraska gets ready for the (sigh) move to the Big Ten.


Overall Ranks

F/+: 85th

S&P+: 87th
Success Rate+: 103rd
PPP+: 79th

Standard Downs S&P+: 69th
Passing Downs S&P+: 60th

Redzone S&P+: 78th

Q1 S&P+: 96th
Q2 S&P+: 36th
Q3 S&P+: 49th
Q4 S&P+: 77th

1st Down S&P+: 51st
2nd Down S&P+: 98th
3rd Down S&P+: 32nd

Rushing Ranks

Rushing S&P+: 93rd
Rushing SR+: 101st
Rushing PPP+: 79th

Standard Downs: 60th
Passing Downs: 108th

Redzone: 75th

Adj. Line Yards: 79th

Passing Ranks

Passing S&P+: 86th
Passing SR+: 100th
Passing PPP+: 75th

Standard Downs: 75th
Passing Downs: 43rd

Redzone: 68th

Adj. Sack Rate: 65th
SD Sack Rate: 54th
PD Sack Rate: 30th

Whatever the reason -- injury, conservatism, lack of talent -- Nebraska's offense was really, really bad in 2009.  They had their moments, of course.  For three minutes, they torched a Missouri defense without Carl Gettis, and they did manage 396 yards against a solid Arizona defense.  But for the most part, they were ... not good.  They have gotten a lot of hype this season for their supposedly awesome running game, but no.  They occasionally broke a nice run, but they were woefully inefficient, both on the ground and overall.  They were slow starters, they were conservative in the red zone, they didn't run block very well, they were average at protecting the passer, and for some reason they were extra awful on second downs (go figure).  Of the 30 categories above, they ranked in the nation's upper half in nine of them, the nation's upper quarter in one (passing downs sack rate).  Units can improve a decent amount from one season to another -- just ask the Nebraska defense -- but this is a case where NU could use a little new blood, and there is very little to be found.  Unless receiver Brandon Kinnie, or incoming JUCO tackle Yoshi Hardrick, or redshirt freshman quarterback Taylor Martinez has a Suh-esque breakthrough, Nebraska will be relying on the exact same cast of characters from 2009 to execute a turnaround in 2010.  Easier said than done.

Rankings History

Category 2005
F/+ N/A* 32 23 17 85
S&P+ 56 33 7 18 87
Success Rate+ 68 52 8 13 103
PPP+ 47 26 8 20 79
Rushing S&P+ 61 41 14 50 93
Passing S&P+ 55 25 8 10 86
Standard Downs S&P+ 80 28 12 13 69
Passing Downs S&P+ 41 30 2 25 60
Adj. Line Yards 47 19 17 80 79
Adj. Sack Rate 102 81 11 50 65
* F/+ data does not exist for offenses and defenses until the 2006 season.

As I have mentioned many times here and at Football Outsiders, the best predictor for future success is past success.  And to be sure, Nebraska has recent history beyond 2009 on their side.  They were a solid offense with Zac Taylor behind center, and for the 16 or so games in which Joe Ganz had the reins, the Huskers were downright good.  But when Ganz, Nate Swift, and two draft picks from the offensive line departed after 2008, Nebraska's offense imploded to a much larger degree than Missouri's did with larger losses.  Despite recent history that suggests decent big-play ability and a solid passing game, they just weren't very good at anything in 2009.  That said, my work with FO projections has shown that four-year history is as predictive as one-year history, so for that reason alone, a bit of a bounce-back should be expected, especially if everyone is healthy.  But how much improvement is it reasonable to expect?


Image via

2009 Unit Ranking: 68th (9th in the Big 12)

Projected Depth Chart
Zac Lee (6'2, 215, Sr., 58.6% comp. rate, 7.1 yds/pass, 14 TD, 10 INT; 171 rush. yds, 1 TD)
Cody Green (6'4, 225, So., 53.2% comp. rate, 5.1 yds/pass, 2 TD, 2 INT; 158 rush. yds, 2 TD)
Taylor Martinez (6'1, 195, RSFr.)

Missouri fans enjoyed laughing at Nebraska fans' insistence that Joe Ganz was a real-deal quarterback.  To be sure, he was no Chase Daniel, but his abilities were affirmed as much in his 2009 absence as in his 2008 performance.  Junior college transfer Zac Lee took over and fought through a bit of an elbow injury to produce spectacularly mediocre results.  He completed 58.6% of his passes, 52.8% against teams not from the Sun Belt Conference, and threw 14 touchdown passes to 10 interceptions.  He was briefly supplanted by Cody Green, but Green was no great shakes either.  With Lee missing the spring to heal his elbow after minor surgery, Nebraska fans discovered a new, great hope: Taylor Martinez.  Easily the fastest of the quarterbacks, Martinez brings an excitement to the position that neither Lee nor Green do.  The problem: he's a redshirt freshman.  If Nebraska is really pretending to have national title hopes, can they win with a redshirt freshman who is raw in every way?  Probably not.  Anything is possible, but I would expect Lee to keep the starting job when all is said and done.  Clearly he proved that you can win the North with him at the helm (and Suh on your defense), plus ... hey, you can't fight fate: Nebraska has won the North two straight seasons in which they have a JUCO transfer named Zac as quarterback (Zac Taylor won the North in 2006).

Running Backs

2009 Unit Ranking: 74th (8th in the Big 12)

Projected Depth Chart
Roy Helu, Jr. (6'0, 220, Sr., 1,147 rushing yds, 5.2 per carry, 10 TD; 149 receiving yds, 7.8 per catch)
Rex Burkhead (5'11, 210, So., 346 rushing yds, 4.3 per carry, 3 TD; 90 receiving yds, 6.9 per catch, 1 TD)
Lester Ward (6'3, 225, So., 38 rushing yds, 3.8 per carry)

Like Derrick Washington, Helu did not have the breakthrough season many expected him to have in 2009.  But his fall was not quite as stark as Washington's, primarily due to a couple of well-timed big games.  Helu rushed for 169 yards against Virginia Tech (6.0 per carry) and 138 against Oklahoma (6.9 per carry) and threw in a nice 156-yard effort against Kansas to boot.  When he's on, it's the quarterback's job to simply stay out of the way.  Unfortunately, due to both injury and plain old inconsistency, he's not always on.  In conference play, he averaged over five yards per carry just twice (Oklahoma and Kansas) and averaged under four yards four times (it would have been five, but he busted the long 41-yarder against a defeated Mizzou squad to ice that miserable game).  In his final four games of the season, he carried 53 times for just 185 yards (3.5 per carry).  He is injury-prone, but when he's on, he's certainly an effective back.

But forget Helu.  Husker fans have trained their eyes on their latest offensive savior, Rex Burkhead.  When one of ESPN's Twitter accounts (I think it was the College Football Live one) asked fans which player was the best young player around whom you could build a team, Husker fans flooded the internets to vote for Burkhead.  Because of two good games.  Like Helu and Lee, Burkhead was dinged up for a decent chunk of 2009.  Before he got hurt, he managed 23 carries for 118 yards in five games, certainly not a bad total.  After missing five games, he returned for the final four and was all over the map.  Six carries for 17 yards against a bad Kansas State rushing defense, then 18 carries for 100 yards against Colorado's decent front seven.  Seventeen carries for 22 yards against mighty Texas, then 17 carries for 92 yards in the Holiday Bowl.

What?  You thought, from the myth that has been built around this guy, that he had rushed for 225 yards against Arizona?  Not so much.

I hate talking down about Burkhead because for a freshman, he really did alright.  A per-carry average of 4.3 yards for the season is nothing to write home about, but again, he was a freshman.  It's just that, when all was said and done, the Helu/Burkhead combination was firmly in the bottom half of the conference's rushing duos, and though both could produce better results when healthy ... again, how much can you improve in one offseason with the exact same personnel?  Improvement from junior to senior season is typically rather marginal, so what we've seen from Helu so far is likely what we will see again in 2010.  Burkhead, however, could improve by a decent amount.  So ... five yards per carry, then?

Wide Receivers / Tight Ends

Image via

2009 Unit Ranking: 75th (10th in the Big 12)

Projected WR Depth Chart
Niles Paul (6'1, 220, Sr., 796 receiving yds, 19.9 per catch, 4 TD; 48 rushing yds, 1 TD)
Curenski Gilleylen (6'0, 215, Jr., 302 receiving yds, 17.8 per catch, 1 TD)
Mike McNeill (6'4, 235, Sr., 259 receiving yds, 9.2 per catch, 4 TD)
Brandon Kinnie (6'3, 220, Jr., 141 receiving yds, 9.4 per catch)
Khiry Cooper (6'2, 195, So., 80 receiving yds, 6.2 per catch)
Antonio Bell (6'2, 190, So., 3 receiving yds)
Will Henry (6'5, 215, Sr., 1 receiving yard)
Nick Failla (5'10, 185, RSFr.)
Ty Kildow (5'7, 175, RSFr.)

Projected TE Depth Chart
Dreu Young (6'4, 255, Sr., 78 receiving yds, 15.6 per catch)
Kyler Reed (6'3, 230, So., 54 receiving yds, 9.0 per catch)
Ben Cotton (6'6, 255, So., 43 receiving yds, 8.6 per catch, 1 TD)

Depending on which games you saw last season, you might think Niles Paul is an all-conference caliber receiver ... or you might not even recognize his name.  In four games last year (Missouri, Iowa State, Kansas, Arizona), Paul recorded 20 receptions for 522 yards and three touchdowns.  Over the course of a 14-game season, that's a 70-catch, 1827-yard, 11-touchdown pace, which would earn you All-American status.  However, in the other ten games Nebraska played, Paul recorded 20 receptions for 274 yards and a touchdown.  For an entire season, that's a pace of 28 catches, 384 yards and one touchdown, which would have placed him seventh in the Missouri receiving corps in 2007.  Again, players tend not to take extraordinary leaps forward as a senior (Carson Palmer and Ndamukong Suh aside ... and even Suh was really good as a junior), so what we see with Paul is likely what we will continue to get.  He is not really capable of burning good cornerbacks with regularity (of his 105 receiving yards against Missouri, 69 came in two catches in the fourth quarter, when Carl Gettis was hurt and out of the game), but he is patient (almost to a fault) and will exploit weaknesses when they come.  Again, how you view Paul depends on how you view Nebraska -- he is certainly decent enough to be the No. 1 receiver on a North title contender, especially with NU's defense, but is he the No. 1 receiver on a national title contender?  I just can't imagine so.

Beyond Paul are a group of receivers of varying shapes, sizes and styles.  Curenski Gilleylen was a big-play threat, but not in Big 12 play.  He caught eight passes for 255 yards and a touchdown during the non-conference slate, and only nine for 47 when Big 12 play started.  He is Nebraska's second-leading receiver, but not really.  Meanwhile, Mike McNeill converted from a small tight end to a big wide receiver this offseason.  He has good hands and is an interesting option ... and I have absolutely no idea how they plan to use him.

Perhaps the most interesting player in the WR corps is Brandon Kinnie, who seemed to take on more responsibility this offseason and could be the possession threat Nebraska was missing last year.  Paul and Gilleylen were both big-play guys, but sometimes you just need to be able to move the chains.  If Kinnie and McNeill are used effectively in 2010, Nebraska might not be so woefully inefficient.

Offensive Line

Image via Nebraska State Paper

2009 Unit Ranking: 56th (9th in the Big 12)

Projected Depth Chart
G Ricky Henry (6'4, 305, Sr., 14 career starts)
G Keith Williams (6'5, 310, Sr., 20 career starts)
T Marcel Jones (6'7, 315, Jr., 12 career starts)
C Mike Smith (6'6, 285, Sr., 26 career starts)
T D.J. Jones (6'5, 310, Sr., 3 career starts)
T Yoshi Hardrick (6'7, 320, Jr.)
G Jeremiah Sirles (6'6, 310, RSFr.)
C Mike Caputo (6'1, 275, Jr.)
G Brandon Thompson (6'6, 290, So.)
T Brent Qvale (6'7, 320, RSFr.)

The numbers don't paint a kind picture of Nebraska's prowess in the trenches last season.  They did not open up tremendous holes in run blocking, and while they seemed to pick up blitzes rather well (30th in Passing Downs Sack Rate), that might have been Lee's own conservative, "throw it away" tendencies as much as anything.  But no matter how good they were or were not last year, they are certainly more experienced this time around.  They return 75 career starts (as a point of reference, Mizzou returns 80), and they add a couple of redshirt freshmen and giant Jermarcus "Yoshi" Hardrick to the mix.  Hardrick is a four-star JUCO transfer (He was Rivals' #13 JUCO signee in this past recruiting class), and while four-star JUCO transfers certainly have a dicey track record, his addition certainly can't hurt from a depth perspective.  This should by all means be a decent line ... but again ... one capable of leading the way to a national title?


I've been harping on the title talk a lot, but I think it's legitimate to do so.  When the preseason polls come out, Nebraska will almost certainly be a Top 10 pick ... and it's still hard for me to take that seriously just yet.  I have read where some are comparing Nebraska of 2010 to Alabama of 2009 (all defense, mediocre offense), but that is faulty in many different ways.  Alabama's offense ranked fourth in Offensive F/+ last season.  In fact, the worst F/+ ranking a national title offense has produced in the last five years is 15th (Florida 2006).  And they all had devastating defenses.  Is this offense capable of beating Texas, then either beating Oklahoma or Texas again, and THEN winning the national title game?  We know the defense is good.  But the expectations are just a little off-kilter right now.

Honestly, Nebraska fans should be annoyed by this too.  Expectations have officially set this season up to be a disappointment if Nebraska only goes 11-3, wins the North, and goes to the Cotton Bowl or something.  For a program that has not finished in the top ten since 2001 (in that time period, three other North programs have pulled that feat -- Kansas State, Missouri and Kansas), that would be a great season.  But expectations and perceptions have laid out a specific script ... one I'm not sure Nebrsaka's offense is capable of fulfilling.

Tomorrow: the Blackshirts.