Unfortunately for all involved, the Husker offense so far has not been fun to watch by any objective metric. The explosive plays have disappeared in 2020 and fundamental issues, like snapping, have reemerged. That has hurt the offense and defense so far.
Nebraska averages about -.01 expected points added per play for the offense while on defense, the Blackshirts give up about .07 expected points per added play. Both sides of the ball may disappoint but the losses have fallen on the offense in 2020.
A beacon of light for Nebraska’s offense has been sophomore do-it-all wide receiver Wan’Dale Robinson. Robinson started out strictly as a receiver before heading back to running back due to senior running back Dedrick Mills’ injury.
Robinson leads Nebraska skill position players in both rushing and passing with 162 rushing yards and 227 receiving yards. In total, Robinson has had 59 touches for 389 scrimmage yards along with two touchdowns.
An offense that’s yearning for big plays still has Robinson, a lightning rod who averages over six yards per touch. But, even he falls into an all-too-common trap that faces running backs in today’s game: passing.
Out of the skill positions on the above chart, running backs are by far the least efficient while receiving. This season, running backs have had 3,309 targets and a catch rate of 77%. That’s a higher catch rate than wide receivers and tight ends, yet backs fall way behind despite their high catch rate.
Nebraska’s lead receiver is Robinson, who leads the team in targets and also has played more running back since the Northwestern game. Robinson has averaged .07 expected points per target, which is just below average for a college running back in 2020.
That doesn’t make Robinson a replacement-level player because his receiving adds a different, valuable dimension to the offense. On run plays, Robinson performs significantly worse in expected points. He has had 29 carries go for 162 yards and has averaged -.129 expected points added per carry.
There is a distinct advantage to passing for Robinson over carries for the 2020 Huskers. Despite drops or missed passes, Robinson is still much more effective as a receiver than he is a runner.
On first and second downs, Robinson has had 23 catches and 27 carries and the majority of his touches come on first down. With 15 catches and 19 carries on first down, this is the most important down for Robinson and where the majority of his yards come from.
Among Big Ten pass catchers with at least 20 targets, Robinson doesn’t significantly shift the needle, but his receiving has still been much more valuable than his rushing skills. Robinson, while receiving, helps propel the offense forward more so than when he would run the ball.
Other receivers have to make life easier for Robinson, because the longer he’s doing it all, the more stagnant Nebraska’s offense will get. One way the Huskers could remedy this is through utilizing their tight ends, the stronger receiving group of the two.
Junior tight end Austin Allen has made a splash thus far, and he, along with Rutgers transfer tight end Travis Vokolek, have helped create some semblance of an aerial attack. Allen has 14 catches for 169 yards while Vokolek has six receptions for 60 yards. Along with that, the Huskers average about .55 expected points added per tight end target.
Tight ends are the receivers to target in 2020 and Nebraska has the group to be productive when targeted. If Allen and Vokolek continue to get more targets and freshman wide receiver Zavier Betts continues his impressive rise, the trio can do more than enough to keep Robinson fresh while salvaging some offensive production.