The "Cotton effect" - NU's new offense

There were many questions about what went wrong with NU last year. Offense and Defense, both scrutinized and in many cases, criticized for their ineffectiveness. "Jamal Lord can't throw and the "Blackshirts" can't stop anyone that can throw". With all the new faces, things are going to change and for Husker fans, they hope for the better. This time around, we are going to look at the offense you are likely to see as Barney Cotton takes over, bringing in some of what he did at New Mexico State.

With the addition of Barney Cotton, people might be scrambling to see just what New Mexico State did last year, that way they have at least some idea of what to expect for the new Nebraska plan of attack. What you will find though is probably not what you are expecting, but it shows just why Cotton has most excited for the future.

When you compare the numbers of NU last year and New Mexico State last year, you obviously will say that competition wasn't as good, players weren't as good, schedule wasn't that hard, etc., etc. Well, with players that aren't as good, the team shouldn't be as good, hence the competition that is considered less is proportionate to an extent. It doesn't put them on a level playing field with Nebraska in comparison to what NU faces every year, but considering the overall talent level throughout the Sun Belt conference, I would assume that you can allow for a little latitude.

With that being said, let's compare what each did last year and we'll offer a hypothesis on the year to come in just what NU fans can expect.

The biggest hit against Nebraska this last year was that they couldn't throw. It's not that they didn't throw as NU did average 16 attempts a game. That's not too far from what they usually average, in fact when NU does pass a lot more, it usually means they lost. In contrast, but not a stark one, NMSU averaged 22 passes a game. The overall significance of these stats though doesn't come from the number attempted, but the number completed and there, you have a stark contrast.

Between two quarterbacks at NMSU (Pierce and Dombrowski), their completion percentage was an impressive 61.85% averaged between the two of them, neither throwing less than 60%. Jammal Lord however was just 46.6% on his completions throughout the year. Now, I know what you are saying. NU's O-line wasn't that good, mostly because of their youth and lack of time playing together. From left to right, look at the experience level of the Aggie's offensive line. Jr., Fr., Sr., Sr., Sr. compared to NU's rsFr., So., Sr., Sr., Jr. Again, not a huge disparity, especially on the left side of the line.

Also, don't get into thinking that the Aggies' QB was that much different than Lord in that he was more of a passer type than a runner. New Mexico State's leading rusher was also their leading QB, as Dombrowski rushed for over 860 yards.

The key word here is balance and while you can look at Lord's final stats of 1400+ passing and 1300+ rushing and see that, that is very balanced, what makes Lord's stats look inferior is not just completion percentage, but consistency in passing during drives. Nebraska's passing game lived on the big play, not consistency, therefore not enough of a threat that teams played the passing game with any real respect.

An illustration of that is how many catches a receiver gets and what average he has per catch. For Nebraska, you don't have to look no further than Matt Herian and his gaudy 43.0 yard per catch average to see the big play in full effect. Unfortunately for NU, that came from a total of 7 catches all season. You aren't going to see 43 yards a catch from your top receivers, but what you want is to at least utilize them, NU's most prolific receiver being used to the extent of 2 catches a game.

In fact, only three receivers for NU were in double-figures in catches for the entire year, the average yards per catch between them, just over 13 yards a catch and only 4 receptions a game. The Aggies had 5 players in double figures receiving, all 5 with having a better than 10 yards per catch average. Also they averaged between them, over 12 catches a game. Simply putting all this into a little description, that means when you took on NU, you knew that nobody was getting the ball to any great extent, but you had a good idea who it was if Nebraska did decide to throw.

This is going to be your biggest change.

NU is going to have some very capable receivers, but what will make them more potent isn't just having Ron Brown to teach them how to be good receivers, but Tim Albin pointing the way. Some have equated a normal passing play at Nebraska to something like, "Uhhhh, go long and turn left". Simplistic, but if the QB could get them the ball consistently, simple was all they needed as the running game was the real bread and butter. The passing game was simply a means to an end.

With Albin as the new passing coordinator, what you are going to see are real routes, with an actual design in not just creating space for receivers, but utilizing something NU doesn't do very much and that's using someone other than the TE for short-high percentage passes. This isn't a West Coast offense by any means, but much of Cotton's success has been built on success on first down and that's not always rushing. In fact, it's more 60-40, rush to pass in ratio. How far back do you think you would have to look to see that kind of ratio at NU?

Hitches, curls, slants, something that isn't pervasive in the NU repertoire will be far more prevalent in the new look NU passing game. It will require the QB to be good out of quick drops and quick tosses off of play-action. Passes not designed necessarily to get first downs, but simply move the ball. The consistency in that game forces defenses out of the box which is also something you rarely (if ever) saw defenses do against Nebraska this last season.

Of course, this is all a moot point if the QB isn't completing passes, making good reads and turning all this effective game-planning into what it is designed to be, rather it resembles more of a "crapshoot". That's what NU fans are used to. When the QB drops back, close your eyes and pray.

And, the problem here really isn't Jamal Lord. No, it's not. He's a first-year player, so should be given some room for improvement this next season. The problem is NU's way of doing things. I might receive some flack for this, but I believe that most offenses around the country cater to the strengths of their QB. If he's a good passer, you pass more. If he's a good runner, you run more then you pass, but you never abandon any one facet of the game for the sake of doing what your QB knows how to do best. You still have to have some versatility.

Whether it's because of the quarterbacks NU gets year to year or whatever, it would seem that they slot them into this cookie cutter offense that says, you will pass 16 times a game and you will run apprx. 20 times a game and that's it. Don't believe me? From this last season dating back to 1997, this is how the average passes per game looked.

2002 - 16.78

2001 - 16.58

2000 - 15.64

1999 - 15.33

1998 - 17.33

1997 - 15.2

That averages out to be 16.14 with a no greater than 1.19 passes per game difference for any one year. And, that's with three different starting quarterbacks and one national title thrown in there to boot. No matter how good or how bad NU has been, they just never seemed to want to change.

Even the 1995 Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award winner, Tommie Frazier found himself victim to this same law of averages. In fact, Tommie would have ranked 6th nationally in passing efficiency that year if not for one thing. He didn't average the 15 attempts per game minimum to be ranked in that category.

If you want to break it down to the numbers in what you are likely to see from NU this year, let's not just take what NMSU did last year as well as NU, but average them out between the two for the projection. I do this because of the disparity in completion percentage between the Aggies' two quarterbacks and Jamal. You can't expect him to have that kind of improvement, so we'll just call this average the latitude we will give Jamal for realistic improvement.

Passing Attempts

Last year

NMSU - 276 - Per Game: 23 - 12 games

NU - 235 - Per Game: 16.78 - 14 games

Projection over the 12 game regular season

238 attempts - Per Game: 19.89


NMSU - 169 - Per Game: 14.08 - 12 games

NU - 105 - Per Game: 7.5 - 14 games

Projection over the 12 game regular season

129 completions - Per Game: 10.79

Total Passing Yards

NMSU - 2337 - Per Game: 194.75

NU - 1462 - Per Game: 104.42

Projection over the 12 game regular season

1795 yards - Per Game: 149.56

Completion Percentage

NMSU - 61%

NU - 45%

Projection over the 12 game regular season


Percent of offense being the pass

NMSU - 33%

NU - 24%



This is quite obviously a pretty shaky way of projecting the next year to come, but nobody knows how much Jamal Lord is going to improve or if he will even be the starting QB next year. That means, that you will have either a QB coming off a dreadful year passing as the starter or a QB that hasn't started a game. Either way, Cotton's offense should allow for some improvement from any QB that steps up to starter for Nebraska.

When it comes to running the ball, you can simply take what's left of the percentages, yards or what have you and find that the difference between NMSU and NU is not that great. While NU is definitely the running giant of the duo, the very fact that NU couldn't do much but run last season was what got them into so much trouble in the first place.

What Cotton's offense is going to do is not change the face of how NU does things, but offer a different expression. The flexibility on first down to either run or throw. The diversifying of how NU attacks each drive and each game. Whereas most teams could almost pencil in a week before hand what they would see from NU when they played, Cotton's style doesn't pigeonhole him into doing any one thing too much. He's passed on first down more than half the time in one game and in another, he's passed it on first down three times for the entire contest. He switches things up. He never lets anyone know what's coming, thereby making NU dangerous without even stepping on the field.

What you have seen could be translated into a numerical form of jibberish. Stats that can be twisted to mean certain things, that all depending on the message you want to send. The translation though that you can't get from Cotton's projected philosophies is a woefully predictable NU offensive attack.

Much will be based on the QB that takes the helm and the line blocking for him, but the numbers can tell you one thing and that is, NU's offense is going to look somewhat different, feel probably significantly different and with help on the other side of the ball, that 7-7 record will look a lot different as well.

We will get into defense next time, but that's just some of what you can expect, at least in philosophy as Barney Cotton brings his expertise to Nebraska and the Huskers might never be the same.

Steve Ryan can be reached at or 402-730-5619

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