Scott Frost is to Nebraska what Jim Harbaugh was to Michigan when he was hired. Both were former quarterbacks under legendary coaches and both resurrected horrendous programs in UCF and Stanford to win major bowl games.
Whereas Harbaugh received a 5-7 Brady Hoke outfit bereft of offense, Frost is tasked with turning around a 4-8 Cornhusker team that lost by double-digits to Wisconsin, Ohio State, Penn State, Iowa and Minnesota (!).
Unlike previous Tales of the Tape, this one will focus on Scott Frost’s ability to mold offenses into his lethal spread scheme.
UCF at Michigan 2016
Formerly an offensive coordinator at Oregon during its title game run, Frost’s spread offense highly depends on quarterback play. In 2016, UCF scuffled early behind Justin Holman and Nick Patti. Once McKenzie Milton took the reins full-time in 2017, the offense skyrocketed.
The difference from 2016 to 2017 is stark. Watch Holman blow a third-and-short with his butterfingers at 0:22.
Yes, the 2016 Michigan defense was dominant. However, Holman blew several chances at first downs. At 3:34, he waits far too long to dump the ball to the running back, eating a sack near the goal-line that effectively ended the drive. At 4:12, he misses a receiver breaking open on a flag route for an easy first down.
Overall, Holman completed only 43 percent of his 83 passes. Patti didn’t fare much better.
Despite the snickering over Frost’s “outhit them” comment after a 51-14 rout, the Knights did frustrate Michigan at times. In fact, they ran for 275 yards on the afternoon, mostly on the back of five plays.
Three of them were scrambles. At 1:26, Holman took off after the pass rush flew too far upfield, and gobbled up an easy 30 yards. At 5:07, Ben Gedeon abandoned the middle of the field, and Holman sprinted for 35 more. Finally, at 6:42, Mike McCray gets sealed by a running back to allow Patti to fly down the sideline.
101 yards on three scrambles. While Devin Bush and Khaleke Hudson provide more athleticism at linebacker, opponents still hurt Michigan with plays like this in 2017.
The other two big runs show ways Frost can scheme around bad offensive line play. At 4:21 of the every snap video, Adrian Killens avoids immediate penetration by Mo Hurst and Lawrence Marshall, stretching towards the sideline. McCray can’t disengage from a block on the edge, and Killens flashes elite speed to score the Knights’ first touchdown.
Skip to 6:52, where a bad run fit by Ben Gedeon allows Dontravius Wilson to pop a 34-yard jaunt for the second touchdown.
For perspective, Scott Frost still found ways to attack the S&P No. 2 defense in 2016 with his No. 117 overall offense. Most of these plays involve taking advantage of Michigan’s aggressiveness on the defensive line, or confusing the linebackers into bad run fits.
UCF wins the “2017 National Championship” against Auburn
UCF won its final game under Frost 34-27 over Auburn in the 2018 Peach Bowl, allowing them to start claiming the national championship.
Theatrics aside, UCF’s 13th win was unlike most Cinderella teams’. There was no last-minute razzle dazzle a la Boise State over Oklahoma. They didn’t execute perfectly like Utah did over Alabama in 2009. The Knights beat the Tigers without playing their best game.
Auburn’s defense is a good doppelganger for Michigan, since they ranked No. 5 overall in 2017 (as opposed to Michigan’s No. 10 finish).
This game further emphasized how vital the quarterback is for Frost. Milton, who trailed only Baker Mayfield in QBR last year, accounted for 360 of UCF’s 411 total yards.
After several incompletions and a fumble stunted the first three drives, Milton gets things going with his legs. Much like the scrambles from the 2016 Michigan game, he keeps a drive alive after the linebackers vacate the middle of the field (8:50).
On a third-and-10, Frost catches Auburn with minimal support on the right side of the field, and calls a draw for another first down. The right side of the line completely flanks all-SEC lineman Jeff Holland (10:08).
Finally, Milton escapes massive Auburn penetration with his legs to give UCF the lead.
He finished with 13 carries for 116 yards. His throwing, on the other hand, was erratic. He connected on only 16-of-35 throws, though none were picks.
All throughout the condensed video, you see his shaky footwork in the pocket, which led to over-and-underthrows. His best pass comes at the 24:28 mark, when he places the ball right into the receiver’s basket on a slot fade. Most of his other success came off improvisation, as the receivers did a great job working towards the ball in those situations.
Overall, though, Frost’s quarterbacks excel at getting defenses off-balance with the zone-read and scramble game, as receivers break open when the defense commits too many resources towards the line of scrimmage. Like with any quarterback, if the defensive line wins the battle up front, passing effectiveness diminishes
What does this mean for Nebraska this year?
If you heard Frost at Media Days, his track record with signal-callers speaks for itself.
The question for the Cornhuskers is who will take the reins first: Tristan Gebbia or Adrian Martinez?
If you head over to Corn Nation, the Nebraska SB Nation site, nobody has a definitive answer.
Whoever takes the first snap against Akron will be seeing their first career action. The fan favorite is Martinez after scoring four touchdowns in the spring game, but take it with a grain of salt...he wore a green “no-contact” jersey.
Normally with an inexperienced quarterback, the offense’s expectations would be as flat as a Lincoln cornfield. However, between Stanley Morgan and JD Spielman, and four returning offensive linemen, Frost has pieces at his disposal.
Based on respect for Frost as an offensive innovator and the returning talent, I expect Nebraska to slightly improve on their No. 81 finish in S&P offense last year. This won’t be a complete slog like his first year at UCF.
Quick note on the defense
The phrase, “these aren’t the old blackshirts,” has been said for about a decade at this point. Last year was the nadir.
The “blackshirts” ranked worse than No. 100 in every analytical category. They were bad down-to-down, bad at stopping big plays, bad through the air and bad on the ground. While eight starters return, those players are responsible for:
- 36 points to Arkansas State
- 42 points to Oregon
- 38 points to Wisconsin
- 56 points to Ohio State
- 54 points to Minnesota (!!!)
- 56 points to Penn State
- Another 56 points to Iowa
If you can’t hold Minnesota or Iowa under 50, maybe you should be relegated to the FCS.
Frost brought along defensive coordinator Eric Chinnander from UCF. The results in Orlando were mixed.
On one hand, the 2016 defense improved from No. 110 to No. 30. On the other hand, they regressed to No. 74 last year, even with the inspiring Shaquem Griffin.
It’s hard to imagine the offense will improve enough to offset a crapshoot of a defense.
Frost gets three games to prepare before visiting Michigan, so expect some wrinkles to manufacture some early points. Lavert Hill, David Long and improved safety play should eventually contain the duo of Morgan and Spielman, especially since whoever is throwing to them will be making their first road trip.
After Notre Dame, Nebraska represents the third straight game for Jim Harbaugh and Pep Hamilton to get the offense settled before the meat of conference play. If the Wolverines take advantage of the time like in 2016, the game will be a rout. If they scuffle like they did against Cincinnati and Air Force last year, the score will be too close for comfort.
I expect the result to be somewhere in the middle, as does S&P. 38-20 win, potentially at night.