The Cornhuskers aren't abandoning the ground game, but they're not going to become pass-happy either
Hidden inside Nebraska’s 2015 6-7 record is the belief that Mike Riley’s offense can’t get the job done — period. The term “pro style” doesn’t play well in some areas of Husker Nation. Everywhere Cornhusker fans gather, a familiar paraphrase these days is “you can’t pass 40 times and win!” I’m going to prove those Big Red backers right, but I’m also going to show why Riley’s not out to do that in the first place.
You’re right about that much passing, Joe HuskerFan. Even the best of teams running an Air Raid offense aren’t looking at national championships any time soon. Usually if a team is using Knute Rockne’s invention to a heavy degree, it’s a bad thing.
Remember when Nebraska fell behind 21-9 to Purdue last season and Ryker Fyfe spent the remainder of regulation trying to playing catch up through the air? The end result: 48 pass attempts and a big, fat “L.”
Let’s take a bigger look at how so much passing can crush a team’s dreams.
I took the 25 Power Five signal-callers with the best quarterback ratings from 2015 and looked at how often they threw 35-plus times per game last year to see how that worked out. No, Western Kentucky's Brandon Doughty didn’t make the cut. Only the gunslingers who face the best defenses in the country — most of the time — got the spotlight.
Out of 318 games played by these quarterbacks, 107 produced 35-plus passing attempt efforts. What does the record look like when 34 percent of those contests have that much heaving? A lovely 60 wins and 48 losses, which translates to a winning percentage of .556.
Sure, if you’re Texas Tech or Washington State, the Air Raid’s your bread and butter. If a team’s looking to win the College Football Playoff, other systems work far better and this is why Riley isn’t going for the pass-happy, basketball-on-grass effort that some Nebraskans think he is.
Take a team like Stanford, for example. The Cardinal are a lot like what the Huskers want to look like. A strong offensive line capable of paving the way for a successful rushing attack while also providing time for quarterback Kevin Hogan to make his reads. The comparison gets even better when taking into account that Austin Hooper, a tight end, hauled in 438 yards and six touchdowns.
Expect the Huskers’ Cethan Carter to have a similar impact in 2016 (if not a bigger one).
Now that we’ve established how Nebraska and Stanford aren’t all that different in terms of offensive philosophy, let’s note that Hogan didn’t do well once the Cardinal were forced to step away from what they’re good at.
When Hogan put the ball up 35 times or more, Stanford lost twice, their only setbacks of the season.
Think getting away from what you know can’t topple the best? Former Alabama quarterback Jake Coker had an off day last season and it cost Nick Saban’s crew. Coker put up more than 33 passes just once last season, and that was in a 43-37 loss to Ole Miss (45 attempts that day for those curious).
Looking closer to home, Tommy Armstrong wasn’t immune from this effect at all. In fact, he’s the perfect example of needing to work within a system that isn’t strictly pass-oriented for Riley’s bunch to be poised for ultimate success. Armstrong notched five 35-plus attempt games and claimed one win out of all of them: a way-too-close 36-28 victory over Southern Miss.
When working within a system that strives to take advantage of an effective running and passing attack, he did far better. In the seven other games he played in last season (missed one due to injury), Armstrong posted a 5-2 record, including a 3-0 run at the end of the season when the Huskers managed to get things humming thanks to a balanced attack featuring the speedy dual-threat Texan.
Besides, a coach that wants to use fly sweeps, reverses and fullback traps requires road graders on the offensive line, not guys who can hold steady for Air Raid Lite.
Armstrong doesn’t have to throw the ball 40 times per game and he shouldn’t, because that’s close to double what Nebraska likely wants to put up on what would be considered a “pass-heavy” day.
Long story short, it doesn’t matter if you’re USC, Stanford or even Alabama. Putting on a fireworks display of passing may take a team to a quality bowl, but it won’t get you crowned national champion anymore.