“We want to be able to play physical football in Nebraska. We want to be able to run the football when we want to and not let people dictate to us but dictate to the defense what we want to do, and impose our will on the opposing team.”
— Pelini, on his offensive philosophy.
In general terms, most Husker fans felt good about last year's offense. We scored a lot of points, and finished ranked high in terms of total offense. Unfortunately, digging deeper tells a different story, one about which Pelini is speaking. It's one about an offensive line that underperformed most of the season. Before I get to it, first some background on offensive linemen.
Different positions generate stats by which every one can be measured - defensive players by tackles, tackles for loss, or sacks, for example. Receivers, running backs and quarterbacks have many different statistics by which to measure their performance. But how do you measure a good offensive lineman? Other than games started there are no individual statistics. Pancake blocks were used once upon a time, but they're as applicable as they used to be because of the number of teams that are using zone blocking.
I'm sure a lot of people are going to go by sheer size, giving the nod to a guy that's 6'7" and 340 pounds over another that may only be 6'2" and 305, but there are plenty of huge guys to go around these days in college football. The problem with going by size is that it doesn't say much about the rest of the player. Quick feet are important as is arm strength. In pass blocking, the lineman must maintain his balance while delivering a firm punch to knock the rushing defender off balance or disrupt his momentum. In run blocking, the lineman must be quick enough to get into the defender and lock him up in order to drive him in the direction he wants to take him, i.e. imposing his will.
(The term 'lock up' means getting your hands inside the defender, grabbing hold of his jersey and keeping him close to your body. Fans may consider this technique holding when they see it, but that's how the game is played today - flipper arms have been gone for a long time.)
A few weeks ago the guru of college football, Phil Steele, was on EDSBS Live and was asked about how he breaks down an offensive lineman:
That way I can take one of those walk-ons who perhaps has gotten bigger, stronger, faster, who is now a NFL prospect and upgrade their grade. If a player makes all-conference I upgrade their grade as well. But the bulk for me for the offensive line is the production level that the line has the previous year....
Steele goes by the 'secret formula that only I know' and advice from a professional who grades players. Then he admits to looking at the same thing everyone else does - production from the previous season. When it comes to production, people tend to look at total offense, but in that segment Phil Steele and Orson discussed Arizona State, a team that gave up an amazing 55 sacks last season. Regardless of how well they ranked in total offense, the Sun Devil offensive line was clearly not a good unit.
There are two specific statists where we can measure how well an offensive line is performing:
- Their ability to pick up short yardage gains on the ground when they're needed, i.e. 3rd and 2 or 3rd and 3. A good offensive line is going to exert their will on the defense, ala Pelini's quote, and can be counted upon to keep the chains moving in these situations.
- Protect the quarterback in the passing game, i.e. don't give up sacks.
Below are last years statistics ranking for the Big 12 in both of these categories, taken from cfbstats.com:
Rushing Offense - 3rd Down, 1-3 Yards To Go:
(CFBStats default measurement for this statistic is total yards gained. I don't think that's an accurate assessment of the line, so the stats are sorted by first downs attained. Unfortunately, percentages are not available, perhaps they can add that this season.)
Granted, the stats are skewed somewhat by the number of games, but note that Nebraska is the only Big 12 team listed that was less than 50% of first downs attained. Were the Huskers' stats extended to 12 games, by percentage we would have been even lower.
The 2007 offensive line did a decent job in pass protection, finishing sixth in the Big 12 and 29th nationally. That was the key to producing an explosive air-attack as was evident in the last three games of 2007. Unfortunately as the stats show, Nebraska was horrible at gaining first downs in short yardage situations, finishing tied for 104th in the nation. Never was that more evident than in last year's Texas game, where we struggled to maintain the ball in the second half, gaining 46 yards on 19 plays, seven being rushing plays where we gained three yards or less.
Husker fans are counting on the defense to improve this season, a tall task against the Big 12's explosive offenses. One way to show defensive improvement will be by keeping the other team's offense off the field. As I alluded to in an earlier post, ball control is a good method of limiting the other team's offense. Picking up first downs in short yardage situations is obviously a key factor in ball control.
As Pelini states, it's a matter of dictating to the defense what you want to do, not the other way around. For this season to be successful, this year's offensive line must be much more physical and get off the ball much faster than they did last season.
The battle against our opponents will be won in the trenches, by the big boys who get little or no credit for the job they do. If I had to pick one area in which the Huskers must improve this season, this is it.