by Patrick Runge
Nebraska football fans know that NU’s offense is in need of some work. Last year, Nebraska was no. 48 nationally in scoring offense, no. 97 nationally in passing offense, and no. 59 nationally in total offense. The injury to starting quarterback Taylor Martinez, and the resultant upheaval coming from switching redshirt freshman Tommy Armstrong and senior Ron Kellogg, was a big reason for Nebraska’s offensive struggles last year.
This year, Armstrong looks well set as the starter, giving Nebraska some much-needed stability at quarterback going into the season. But there are still a number of things head coach Bo Pelini can do to make sure Nebraska’s offense holds up its end of the bargain in 2014.
All stats courtesy of the invaluable cfbstats.com, which you should be reading on a regular basis.
Protect The Ball
The single most important reason why Nebraska’s offense struggled in 2013 is because it could not hold on to the football. Nebraska was no. 119 (!) nationally in turnover margin at -11, averaging -0.85 in turnover margin per game. Nebraska was no. 122 (!!) in fumbles lost and no. 67 nationally in interceptions lost.
Nowhere was the effect of Nebraska’s poor turnover margin more apparent than at the end of last season. Nebraska was better than both Michigan State and Iowa, and would have won both games absent a minus-5 and minus-4 turnover margin, respectively. Think about what Nebraska’s 2013 season would have looked like with wins over the Spartans and the Hawkeyes for a moment, and you’ll see what a difference that statistic makes.
Of course, saying “but for the turnover margin” in those games sails directly into “other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play” waters. Those turnovers—caused in part by good opposing defense and in part by Nebraska’s sloppy offense—were part of the game, the critical part that decided both games.
Pelini and his staff have preached ball security this offseason—although Armstrong’s ugly interception in his first drive during the Spring Game did little to inspire confidence in that work. But if Pelini and co. are able to get Nebraska’s turnover margin down, NU’s offense should improve next year.
Feed The Beast
There is little doubt that I-back Ameer Abdullah is Nebraska’s best offensive weapon. Last year, Abdullah had 281 rushing attempts, just over 48 percent of Nebraska’s total carries. That number seems high, but it is right in line with how Pelini and offensive coordinator Tim Beck traditionally lean on their best offensive weapons.
Worrying about the toll that burden might put on Abdullah is a legitimate concern. Rex Burkhead’s senior campaign was marked with injuries and declining performance, and it is fair to surmise that part of said decline was how much he was used in previous seasons.
Backing off using Abdullah a little may be wise, but the risk in doing so is going away from the player that is clearly Nebraska’s best weapon. So while Pelini would be smart to get some of his other offensive weapons involved, ultimately Nebraska’s offense should run through Abdullah if it is to be successful in 2014.
Tailor for Tommy
Armstrong was given a tall order last year, asked to step in cold as a redshirt freshman and replace Martinez in an offense that was designed to highlight Martinez’s strengths. While Armstrong performed well, going 7-1 as a starter, there were signs of growing pains. His poor touchdown-to-interception ratio (nine touchdowns to eight interceptions) was the most glaring of those signs.
But Armstrong has now had a full offseason to prepare himself as the starter, and to work with the rest of the starting offense in developing timing and rhythm. Just as importantly, Beck has been able to make changes to Nebraska’s offense highlighting what Armstrong does well and downplaying areas where he struggles.
An offseason of preparation for Nebraska’s signal-caller, as compared to the fire drill behind center in 2013 after Martinez’s injury, should go a long way towards making NU’s offense better in 2014.