Nebraska’s ball security, second half scoring improving with new offense

Oct 17, 2015; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Nebraska Cornhuskers quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. (4) hands off the ball to Nebraska Cornhuskers running back Devine Ozigbo (22) in the first half at TCF Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Everything about Nebraska’s offense is different.

Ok, maybe not everything, but most of what plagued the Huskers in a 6-7 season last year appear to have been remedied. A new scheme, one that doesn’t leave Tommy Armstrong Jr.’s arm dangling by his side after every game, has been a catalyst in fixing some of the key miscues the offense couldn’t quite seem to shake in 2015.

Second half scoring has improved. Turnovers have gone down. The Huskers are 4-0 and ranked No. 15 in the country. That’s not a coincidence.

It all starts with a more persistent effort to run the football. In all four games this year, Nebraska has ran the ball at least 43 times, and had 51 rushing attempts against Fresno State. It’s led to a 242 yard per game average, the third-highest mark in the B1G. Last season, the only time Nebraska had more than 40 attempts in a single contest came in the Foster Farms Bowl, when it ran 62 times against UCLA.

While running the football has been instrumental in Nebraska’s success early in the season, it’s not just the increased number of carries that’s propelling the offense. It’s how the Huskers are running the ball.

Devine Ozigbo and Terrell Newby have been interchangeable at the I-back through the first four games, but neither have been overloaded with touches. Ozigbo is averaging just over 16 carries per game while Newby has 32 for the year. The combo have combined to average 117.5 yards per game and have scored five TDs.

There’s no Saquon Barkley or Justin Jackson in the backfield. Neither back is going to be a demonstrative force, but, so far, they’ve been dependable and that’s what Nebraska needs.

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Then you throw Armstrong into the mix. He’s the team’s second-best rusher with 281 yards and four scores. Some runs are by design, other times, he’s scrambling. Before the season started, the senior was a well-known threat with his legs. His full skill-set is just now being utilized.

And it’s helping in every aspect of the offense.

Armstrong’s decision-making has improved dramatically this season, thus the decline in the number of turnovers the Huskers have committed. He’s completing 56.6 percent of his passes and has hit receivers for eight TDs with only one interception. Last year, he had already tossed five picks at this point in the season.

Limiting Armstrong’s pitch count has been instrumental in the decline of turnovers for Nebraska. A more effective ground game has taken the pressure off of the quarterback to make things happen with his arm. The senior is finding his targets when they break open and is tucking it away when they’re not.

Those changes are beginning to wear down defenses.

Opponents aren’t heading to the sideline as frequently after quick stops and early turnovers. Armstrong isn’t giving defenses time to  rest after a rapid three-and-out or gifting  opponents prime field position after a costly interception. More than last year, Opposing defenses are looking gassed in the final two quarters. The Huskers are taking advantage.

Nebraska is averaging 24.7 points per game in the second half  this season, with its highest total, 35, coming against Wyoming. The Huskers also scored 29 against Fresno State and 21 against Oregon.

Remember how Riley’s team had trouble closing games last year?

In five of their seven losses, the Huskers totaled fewer than 17 second half points. In those five losses they turned the ball over 10 times, seven of which were interceptions.

Stats      2015      2016
Rush yards per game 180.0 242.0
Pass yards per game 266.9 243.0
Total Turnovers (INT’s) 27 (21) 4 (1)
Second half scoring 17.7 24.8

That’s not been an issue through four weeks of the season and it’s produced some impressive results.

Nebraska’s offensive mindset has changed,  that’s been discussed at length. The nearly identical passing and rushing numbers would be enough evidence to prove that this balanced scheme is causing problems for defenses. That’s true, but there’s more to it than yardage and points.

The Huskers aren’t turning the ball over and are exhausting opponents. They’re not making devastating errors in critical moments of the game. The offense is establishing the run and the quarterback isn’t being asked to make things happen.  All of those are good things. things Nebraska needed to do to be a contender this season.

Maybe not everything about Nebraska’s offense has changed, but the most important things have. that’s why the Huskers are 4-0.

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Photo Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

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