The cursed stadium that is Ryan Field has been nothing but nightmares for opposing teams. Whether it’s the high school stadium atmosphere or Northwestern making another comeback, bad things happen in Evanston, Illinois.
Nebraska outgained Northwestern by 135 yards and had six redzone trips against the Wildcats on Saturday. The Huskers came away with two field goals, one touchdown, one missed field goal, one interception and an incompletion on the last play of the game. In all, this was a disappointing performance for the new-look offense.
There were two other opportunities where Nebraska drove into Northwestern’s 30-yard line. One ended due to junior quarterback Adrian Martinez’s ill-advised interception, and the other fizzled out with penalties pushing it back.
In total, Nebraska had 31 plays inside the Northwestern 40-yard line.
EPA stands for expected points added, a concept that involves assigning a value to every spot on the field that accounts for down and distance. Expected points is the value of any given yardage spot. One example would be the Northwestern 1-yard line, which would be worth about 6.99 points.
Added expected points seek to answer a pretty simple question: did a play add points to the drive, or did the play lose points for the offense? The more explosive the play, the more likely you are to score.
For Nebraska, the loss in expected points means that the Huskers offense was struggling to move the ball in any way. A metric that also accounts for down and distance along with field position meant that Nebraska was often behind schedule.
That led to a drastic play calling shift from first to second down inside the Northwestern 40.
There’s a stark contrast between first and second down play calling, along with a lack of second or third and shorts when Nebraska got to, and past, the Northwestern 40.
On 15 first downs, Nebraska ran the ball 10 times. Those run plays lost more expected points in total. And though four runs were successful, one in particular being senior running back Dedrick Mills’ second quarter touchdown, the ground game often put Nebraska at a disadvantage.
Nebraska only passed five times on first down past the 40-yard line and, despite an interception, had three passes go for at least five yards. The Huskers, on the whole, underutilized first down passing.
On first down, Nebraska passed 16 times and ran 24 times.
The Huskers’ success rate on first down passes was 62.5%, and they earned .11 expected points per pass attempt. That includes the Martinez interception, a fateful heave into triple coverage. The Huskers fared better passing on first downs yet continued on with their first down runs.
On first down runs, Nebraska’s success rate was 41%, and it averaged .03 expected points per run. Nebraska fared better passing when the Wildcats defense had to guess what the Huskers would do.
The low success rate meant Nebraska could not get 50% of yards needed on first down to get a manageable second down.
The strategy worked for Nebraska on standard downs, of which the Huskers had 13. 10 out of those 13 plays were successful, creating easy third downs or getting the first downs.
Five of those successful plays came from passing, while the Nebraska success rate was 100% running the ball on standard second downs. When Nebraska needed a manageable play, it usually got it.
But only eight passing attempts came from standard downs on second plays. Nebraska’s manageable second downs saw them passing more, forcing teams to guess when the Huskers would run or pass.
With more yards to go, Nebraska leaned heavily on its passing game with not much success. On passing downs, the Huskers had a success rate of 10%, and an EPA/play of -.64 while passing on those downs.
This is particularly concerning because Nebraska’s ground game is its offensive strength and there will inevitably be rushing losses. At present moment, the passing game can’t make up for the damage.
Another reason for the passing struggles is first down woes. The Husker offense is set on how the team does on first down. If the Huskers can’t get at least three rushing yards on the first down, the Huskers are already in a passing situation.
Nebraska passed only when it needed to, and that was when the Huskers were behind schedule and when runs do get stuffed on first down, Nebraska is already behind.
Nebraska is predictable on standard downs, which make up the majority of plays in a game.
For Nebraska’s offense to fully operate, passing has to not be an emergency option, as such makes it predictable, but a focal point in the offense.