CHICAGO — In his first two years at Penn State, 2014 and 2015, James Franklin had top-15 total defenses. Both teams finished 7-6.
After four games last season, PSU sat at 2-2. Franklin’s seat was pretty warm.
The Nittany Lions won their next nine games, including the Big Ten title. Their defense was decent — 37th in yards allowed per game and 49th in points per game allowed — but statistically worse than Nebraska’s. It was Penn State’s offense — a quicker-tempo, spread system — that found its rhythm under new offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead, whom Franklin hired away from Fordham.
PSU scored two more touchdowns per game in 2016 than it did in 2015, when it had pro-style passer Christian Hackenberg. Hackenberg wasn’t terrible in 2015, throwing for 2,525 yards, 16 touchdowns and just six interceptions before being drafted by the Jets. But Penn State’s porous offensive line allowed 39 sacks. So Franklin, who’s well versed in the pro-style system, made a switch.
“I love the pro-style offense — what we ran in Green Bay, what we ran when we were at Kansas State, what we ran when I was at Maryland,” Franklin said Tuesday at Big Ten media days, describing his various coaching stops. “But, the reality is, it’s a great offense if you’re good up front and you’re good at tight end. That offense is dependent on being good up front. Most offenses are, but (pro-style) magnifies it.”
Two days later on The World-Herald’s “The Bottom Line,” Sports Illustrated writer Andy Staples echoed those thoughts.
“I’m of the belief that you really can’t succeed running a pro-style offense unless you can get the best linemen,” Staples said. He then delved into offenses that cropped up in the past 15 years — Mike Leach’s “Air Raid” or the system Urban Meyer developed — that were designed to close talent gaps.
“Pro-style — whether it’s two backs and a tight end or two tight ends and two backs — that’s used to enforce an athletic advantage,” Staples said. “When Nebraska plays Ohio State, they’re going to be (at) an athletic disadvantage, so I don’t know if that’s going to work.”
We’re about to find out. Now that coach Mike Riley has quarterback Tanner Lee — a strong-armed, quick-throwing passer — he’s going full-steam ahead into his preferred pro-style attack that he developed at Oregon State. Fans who grew tired of Tommy Armstrong’s struggles in the biggest games — a fatigue I shared — presume that Lee will be plugged into Riley’s system to make it hum.
But this scheme, especially in the defensive-minded Big Ten, needs more parts to hum. Riley uses different personnel groups, varying formations and motions to get a defense off balance, so the more parts, the more diverse his offense is. NU needs that offensive line to be good, tight ends who can make plays, backs who can catch and receivers who can separate from defensive backs, especially on shorter routes.
Nebraska needs all those parts to develop, pronto, in one training camp, starting with the offensive line.
“It’s going to be a focal point,” Riley said at media days. “Heck, it’s the focal point in our success.”
Riley quickly added that he and offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf need to help out the line with a good diet of screens, draws and quick passes. Lee can’t just drop back and pass 40 times per game or defenses will tee off on him.
“You’re going to see the kitchen sink,” Riley said of defenses blitzing Lee.
But Nebraska’s identity can’t be screens and draws; those are side dishes. Beyond that, NU’s been so-so on draw — the best I can recall is Imani Cross’ run at Rutgers in 2015 — and slightly worse on screen plays. Nebraska didn’t execute either well during spring camp.
The draw game looked better on Day 1 of 2017 camp. The screens didn’t.
Both need a solid, bread-and-butter running game. A pro-style offense can achieve that. Wisconsin has one, and coach Paul Chryst was mentored in part by Riley. Can Nebraska’s line measure up?
Left tackle Nick Gates said yes.
“We want that pressure,” Gates said. “In tough games, we want the ball on our backs. Give it to us and we’re going to move the rock this year. I’m excited.”
One Riley supporter — Fox Sports analyst Joel Klatt — is intrigued, too. Klatt played in a pro-style offense at Colorado. His offensive coordinator, Shawn Watson, later became Nebraska’s coordinator.
“Part of the reason why I’m bullish on Nebraska more than most is that I’m a big believer in Mike Riley,” Klatt said. “When he’s got a guy who can control the game from the pocket, he’s tough to beat.”
Lee can control a game. He was clearly in command of Nebraska’s offense on the opening day of fall camp. Those other parts? We’ll see.
On with the Rewind.
I see you
» Lee: The quarterback’s fastball is in good shape.
» Guard Tanner Farmer: Looks fluid and flexible, as did Jerald Foster. Both will be pushed by Boe Wilson — that’s a good thing.
» Running back Devine Ozigbo: He came to camp in great shape, looking ready to roll. Ozigbo is the hammer back on Nebraska’s roster, and he appears a hair quicker, too.
» Receiver Tyjon Lindsey: Quick. Dangerous after the catch. The highest-ranked Husker recruit in six years has some electricity in his legs. He doesn’t need a lot of room to operate, but he’ll line up wide to take advantage of his across-the-field speed.
» Nose tackle Mick Stoltenberg: He’s tall for a 3-4 nose, but Stoltenberg was good in the spring — and spry again on Sunday. He could be the anchor the defensive line needs.
» Safety Joshua Kalu: He doesn’t talk to the press, but he’s otherwise the mayor of Nebraska football. Talks to everyone — security guards, support staff, you name it. And he’s good at safety, based on all the compliments he got from coaches Sunday.
» Outside linebacker Guy Thomas: Maybe it takes a year or two, but Thomas is the first pass-rushing recruit in several years — perhaps since Randy Gregory — who gives off a “that’s the dude” vibe.
» 157: A reasonable goal for Nebraska’s rushing yards per game this season. The number is roughly the yards-per-game average of NU’s pro-style offenses (2004-2009, plus 2015 and 2016). I’m being generous with 2015 and 2016 — it was more of a pro/spread hybrid — but circle that number: 157. The high yards-per-game average from those eight offenses was 2015, at 180 yards per game. The low was 2005, at 96 yards per game.
» 239: A reasonable goal for Nebraska’s passing yards per game this season. The number is, you guessed it, roughly the yards-per-game average of NU’s eight pro-style offenses. The high yards-per-game average from the group was 2007, with 323.8 yards per game. The low was 2004, at 186.9 yards per game. Add up the rush and pass averages of NU’s eight pro-style offenses, and it’s 396 yards per game. That’s a reasonable goal.
» 43.75 percent: In Riley’s 16 years as coach at Oregon State and NU, his offenses surpassed 396 yards per game seven times: 2003, 2005, 2008, 2009, 2012, 2013 and 2015. Those teams finished 52-37.
That winning percentage — .584 — applied to a 12-game regular schedule, results in a 7-5 record. It’s worth noting one of Riley’s best teams, the 2006 Oregon State squad that went 10-4, averaged 360.6 yards per game. Matt Moore was the quarterback. Perhaps you’ve heard Riley compare Lee to him.
» 54: Average number of catches per season by Husker running backs in those eight pro-style offenses. In each of the last seasons, NU backs combined for 35 catches. In 2007, NU backs had 89 — fueled by Marlon Lucky’s 75 — and in 2006, Husker backs had 73.
In Riley’s final season at Oregon State, Beaver backs had 70 catches. In 2013, they combined for 93. I’m guessing Nebraska tops 60 this season with some ease.
» Six: Runs of 30 yards or more last season for Nebraska. That tied for 11th in the Big Ten — only Michigan State and Purdue had fewer — and tied for 90th nationally. Michigan, by contrast, had 18 of them.
This is where NU misses Ameer Abdullah and that no-huddle tempo. The Huskers had 13 runs of 30 yards or longer in 2012, 11 in 2013 and 11 in 2014. Then eight in 2015 and six last season.
By contrast, NU didn’t have any trouble hitting the deep pass — 20 pass plays of 30 yards or more in 2016, and 23 in 2015. From 2011-2014, the Huskers had 15.5 of those per season.
Oregon opens training camp Monday, with a new coach (Willie Taggart) and new defensive coordinator (Jim Leavitt). Taggart has tried to tone down the swag element of Duck football, even telling reporters at Pac-12 media days that the team will have fewer uniform combinations than in the past.
“You won’t see as many combinations,” Taggart told the Daily Emerald. “Those uniforms are really nice when you have a really good football team.”
The Ducks need a wake-up call, especially on defense, where they ranked 126th nationally in points per game allowed last season, and 116th in 2015.
That unit ranked 13th in 2013.
For football practice? Perfect. NU will practice in the mornings in 70-degree temps.
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