Nebraska Preview: Offense and Special Teams

Whatever consternation Texas fans have for Nebraska's defense, you can take that and multiply it by... well, zero, and apply it to Nebraska's offense.  Perhaps that is a bit over the top, but it's no secret that Nebraska's success this year has been mostly due to their solid D.  Even with the hiccup against Texas A&M, the burnt orange faithful is confident that the Horns will eat up Nebraska's paltry attempts to score.

Is this confidence valid?  As I did for the defense, I'll list some of the offense's generic stats:

Scoring offense (72nd):  25.6 ppg
Rushing offense (67th):  1769 total yards, 4.12 ypc, 18 TD
Passing offense (93rd):  59.9 comp%, 2248 total yards, 7 ypa, 15 TD, 9 Int
Total offense (93rd):  334.8 yards per game, 5.4 yards per play

I'm not a big stats guy, but the difference between their defensive statistics and their offensive statistics is rather obvious.  Nebraska has a legit top 20 defense, and Husker fans would argue top 10 or top 5.  You can make the case that their offense isn't even in the top half of college football.

As for their special teams, here are the numbers:

Punt returns (37th):  10.95 average, 2 TD
Kickoff returns (38th):  23.00 average
Punting (38th):  41.98 yards per punt, 5.5 average return
Kicking (1st):  68.32 yards per kick, 26 touchbacks, 19.78 yards per return (23rd)
Field goals (32nd):  16/20

I'll primarily talk about their offense and finish up with a brief discussion of their special teams.

Quarterback

Zac Lee has had a rocky year.  He has looked good against their weaker non-conference opponents but has looked mediocre to awful in most of their important games, particularly away from Lincoln.  After that disaster against Iowa State, Zac Lee was benched against Baylor and the first quarter of the Oklahoma game.  Lee entered the OU game and didn't do much but hand the ball off, but he did have a touchdown pass off an OU turnover.

But aside from all that, the Huskers are the North champs.  Yay, Zac Lee.

Lee is an extremely limited QB.  He's not particularly dangerous with his legs (he did have a 32 yard jaunt against Kansas, though) and there's nothing impressive about his arm.  On the pecking order of QB's we've faced this year, he's somewhere near the bottom.  At the least, he has only 7 interceptions all year and is truly a game-managing, caretaker QB, helping him achieve an okay QB rating despite pedestrian numbers overall.  Nebraska's coaches have tried to simplify things for him when he returned to the starting lineup, and he has rewarded them with relatively steady performances. 

Lee can be rattled, pressured, and forced into mistakes.  Nebraska will try to play ball control offense, shield Lee with a strong running attack, and take calculated shots from that.  If he is forced to sling the ball to play catch up, and it can get ugly in a hurry for NU's offense.

The backup, Cody Green, was the ill-fated starter against Oklahoma.  He's not a threat to throw at all, but he can run and Nebraska may turn to him to get something going on offense.

Runningback

Roy Helu Jr.
Rex Burkhead

Helu Jr. had a shoulder issue in the middle of the season, but he has looked good most of the season and came up with good performances in the important three-game stretch against OU, KU, and KSU.  Colorado did a decent job limiting him, but Helu Jr. runs with power and he's deceptively quick.  He's no Jamaal Charles so he won't rip off huge runs or blow up angles, but he will make purposeful decisions behind his offensive line and get the tough yards.

Rex Burkhead is the backup and is doing a respectable job.  He's got some talent and he has decent hands.  Burkhead is good for several carries, and he had a strong 18 carry, 100 yard game against Colorado.  Still, expect to see a whole lot more Helu Jr.

The Husker's low team rushing ranking above is a little deceptive; Helu Jr. and Burkhead both rush for over 5 yards per carry, and Helu Jr. ranks 35th in the nation in rushing yards.  This team can run. 

Wide Receiver/TE

Niles Paul
Curenski Gillelyn
Chris Brooks
Menelik Holt
Mike McNeil (TE)

Niles Paul has some speed and he's averaging over 19 yards per catch with 35 receptions on the year.  He's not a guy that will carve you up, but he's the player the Huskers look for when they take one of their few big chances, and he's not even that fast.  He has had big games but he only has three touchdown receptions and did absolutely nothing against Oklahoma.  Literally.  He had zero receptions.

After him, the receivers are utterly forgettable.  Gillelyn is a bit of a deep threat but that's it, and only Holt is a big target at 6'4.  This is definitely not Texas A&M.  At the very least, you can't say they don't want to block; if anything, the Nebraska coaches know their offense's limitations and get these guys to get their hands on defenders to help their runningbacks.

Mike McNeil is a decent tight end.  He leads the team with four touchdown catches and Lee will look for him on relatively easy passes in the flat and near the goalline.  Like the receivers, he's a willing blocker.

Again, compared to the rest of our Big 12 schedule, this receiving group is pretty low on the list.

Offensive Line

LT: Mike Smith
LG:  Keith Williams
C:  Jacob Hickman
RG:  Ricky Henry
RT:  Marcel Jones

This unit has had good performances but also some struggles here and there.  The struggles have normally come from the right side of the line; Nebraska lost former starters Matt Slauson and Lydon Murtha from this part of the line to graduation, and the new guys haven't been as strong.

They had their problems against Oklahoma but ultimately did enough to pound out 140 rushing yards and get the win, and they're a more physical bunch than most of the teams we've seen despite lacking monster size.  Furthermore, they haven't given up too many sacks, although they don't pass a lot anyway.

Mike Smith is their most experienced guy and their best lineman, but he is no Russell Okung.  On the opposite side, while Marcel Jones sees the most snaps D.J Jones is listed as the co-starter.  The right tackles are vulnerable off the edge and are still inexperienced and prone to mistakes.  The O-line as a whole has had issues with penalties and they are not the most consistent bunch.  I think Oklahoma State has a better offensive line, and I'm confident our D-line can make plays against them and draw penalties.

Special Teams

Their main punt and kick returner is Niles Paul, and he's done a decent job and has one punt return for a touchdown.  As far as their kickers, Alex Henery is a good place kicker and their punter has had some recent success pinning back their opponents close to their goalline.  It's an all-around good unit, and they are fully capable of taking advantage of sloppy kickoff coverage and using the kicking game to win the field position battle.  Without D.J. Monroe, our kickoff returning ability took a hit, and it doesn't help that Nebraska has been good in coverage.

Conclusion

I think there's only one way this offense has success against us:  We tire out and they have a significant field position advantage.  And that can only happen if A) Their defense stuffs our offense and/or causes turnovers and B) Our special teams screws up.  They are physical enough in the run game to wear us down if our offense thinks it's okay to screw around like earlier in the season, and that's exactly what they'll try to do.  You can't say Nebraska is suffering from delusions of grandeur; Zac Lee will not be dropping back like Drew Brees and challenging us with his arm, at least if Nebraska can help it.  That being said, I wouldn't be surprised to see a lot more daring on Nebraska's part, such as playaction passes downfield and a trick play or two.  They have a lot less to lose than we do.

At face value, it might seem prudent to come out immediately with 8 man fronts to dare Zac Lee to do something about it.  At the same time, our rushing defense has been fine without doing that and there's no reason to do so until Nebraska shows they can move the ball consistently.  Nebraska will come out mostly in power sets, and while Texas hasn't seen too many teams with such an offense, I think it is an offense we can still handle.  I'm not that afraid of Cody Green either; while Green brings the running QB dimension to Nebraska's offense, he can't throw and will most certainly not be able to make the plays Jerrod Johnson did.

This is not a good offense.  If Nebraska posts over 20 points, you can bet that their defense and special teams had a lot to do with that.  Or Chykie Brown took a nap again.

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