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High on offensive coordinator's to-do list — fix Huskers' woeful touchdown passing rate
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High on offensive coordinator's to-do list — fix Huskers' woeful touchdown passing rate

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High on offensive coordinator's to-do list — fix Huskers' woeful touchdown passing rate

Sam McKewon COMMENTARY

LINCOLN — Nebraska fans have questions. Among the top queries I've heard since the end of the season: What happened to Adrian Martinez?

That question is pretty inescapable. Perhaps Nebraska's chances to win the Big Ten West - or make a bowl - were overstated or overinflated by those who cover the program. Perhaps there wasn't enough appreciation for the lingering culture issues that cropped up after a gutpunch loss at Colorado that took a bigger toll than fans may think. Perhaps there wasn't enough focus paid to a strange kicking situation that Nebraska could only control so much.

But everyone - national and local media, fans, NU coaches, opposing coaches — agreed on one thing about Martinez: He was going to have a big season. But as many know, it didn't look right from the first game when Martinez struggled against a South Alabama defense that allowed 409 yards and 31 points per game.

So, yes, it's fair to wonder what happened to Martinez.

In the midst of the season, coach Scott Frost and his offensive brain trust weren't going to dive deep into it because it wasn't the time. Plus, there were two other quarterbacks — Noah Vedral and Luke McCaffrey — to prepare once Martinez got hurt in the Northwestern game.

NU didn't win a game while Martinez was out. It only won a single game, over Maryland, once he returned.

So the issues — and there were plenty — extended well beyond No. 2. Frost hinted at those throughout the season. He hasn't discussed them with media since the end of the year, but the mutual parting — a little closer to a dismissal — of offensive coordinator Troy Walters was a sign that not all was right in Nebraska's passing game.

It's one of the things new coordinator Matt Lubick will have on the to-do list: Improving a spread pass system that failed to take advantage of a strong running game.

One of the red flags from a statistical perspective was the lack of touchdown passes.

Nebraska had 12, fewest of any Husker team in the Big Ten era. The percentage of touchdown passes to overall passes (3.7%) was also the lowest of the Big Ten era. Coupled with nine interceptions, the Huskers were close to having more passes picked than touchdowns.

While there are a handful of Big Ten teams that can survive this equation and win games — 2015 Northwestern and 2016 Minnesota — a fast-paced, meant-toscore-a-lot offense like Nebraska's shouldn't want to be anywhere near such a danger zone. And before last season, Frost's offenses were never within 1% of doing so. Often not even close.

In 2013 at Oregon, the Ducks threw touchdowns on 7.9% of their passes. Interceptions? Just 1.48%. In 2014, the gap was even wider — 9.28% to .84%.

The smallest gap for Frost prior to Nebraska?

UCF in 2016 — 1.125%. That year, Frost played three quarterbacks, and one was then-true freshman McKenzie Milton. One year later, UCF quarterbacks —mostly Milton — threw touchdowns on 8.96% of their passes.

As for Lubick, he took over for Frost as Oregon's offensive coordinator in 2016. Oregon quarterbacks threw touchdowns on 7.02% of their passes, compared to 1.5% of their passes becoming interceptions.

At Washington, where Lubick was pass game coordinator, the numbers shrunk— 5.46% to 1.44% in 2017, 4.69% to 2.96% in 2018 — but were still better than Nebraska's gap in 2019.

NU's interception percentage under Frost and Walters was good — under 3% both years. The touchdown rate wasn't.

And inside the red zone? According to cfbstats.com, Nebraska threw 33 passes from at or inside the opponent's 20-yard line. Three of those went for touchdowns. That's 9.1% of NU's redzone passes that went for touchdowns. That's not only the lowest percentage for Nebraska since it joined the Big Ten — second lowest is 2016 at 17.5% — it's the second-lowest percentage of any Big Ten team since 2011, when the Huskers joined the league.

Only 2019 Rutgers at 4.5% is lower because it threw one touchdown in 22 tries.

In terms of passing rating — also according to cfbstats.com — Nebraska's 81.15 red-zone rating in 2019 was lower than all but seven Power Five teams since 2011 (one of them was 2019 Rutgers).

And that rating doesn't include costly sacks taken at Colorado and Purdue. Remember Frost's comments about overtime at Colorado, which started 5 yards outside the red zone? "They got a field goal, I didn't want to risk throwing an interception or losing the ball," Frost said. "We picked two of the runs that we thought were the best. I knew before the series started we didn't have our kicker so I was trying to run the plays that hopefully, most likely, would get us 3, 4 (yards)."

Frost was taken to task for that conservative mindset at the time.

In light of the full statistical picture, his comments make more sense. Given Nebraska had a good red-zone rushing game — the 3.12 yards per carry ranked 38th nationally and the 24 touchdowns were tied for 24th — NU's scoring issues in the red zone arguably cost it one or two wins last season. That falls on the shoulders of the pass game. All three quarterbacks, all of the receivers, the play-caller and game plan designer, to some degree.

Lubick will have a big hand in shaping the second and fourth categories, and those things alone can help the first and third categories. Having a true red-zone receiver — Omar Manning definitely is, and don't forget Travis Vokolek — should come in handy, as well.

Improvement in this single important situation can reshape 2020. Nebraska's playing style thrives on touchdowns. A few more of those goes a long way.

sam.mckewon@owh.com, 402-219-3790 twitter.com/swmckewonOWH

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