Three Keys to Nebraska’s Season

The success (or failure) of a football team’s season can predicted in any number of ways.  For this year’s Nebraska team, you can read all sorts of stuff about how Taylor Martinez must progress as a passer, how Rex Burkhead must carry the team, how the offensive line needs to gel, how the linebackers need to step up, how NU must generate more of a pass rush, and on and on and on.  You could get into some serious statistical analysis and likely come up with an obscure statistic illustrating how the key to winning a conference championship lies in the percentage of snaps taken under center vs. shotgun in divisional games where the temperature at kickoff is less than 50 degrees.

Or, you can keep it simple and focus on the basics, which is what I prefer.

I’ll tell you up front:  nothing that I am about to say qualifies as rocket science or brain surgery.*

*Regular readers will likely tell you that is a standing qualifier for my writing.

For Nebraska to have a successful 2012 season, the team must excel in three fundamental areas.  To help make my point, I did some basic analysis of Nebraska’s 2011 season.  You’ll see some very stark differences in the numbers between the wins and the losses, games in and out of conference, and against ranked opponents.

1.  Turnovers.  In NU’s nine wins, they had an overall turnover margin of +4.  In the four losses, the turnover margin was -5.  These numbers are a combination of being sloppy with the ball (fumbles and interceptions) and not getting takeaways on defense.

On offense, this means avoiding fumbles and having Martinez be smart with his decision making (when to pitch, when to keep, when to throw it out of bounds, not forcing a play when the blocking breaks down, etc).  Defensively, it is all about getting more turnovers.  Over the past few seasons, turnovers have been more of a happy accident than a point of emphasis.  I’m hopeful that the secondary, under new coach Terry Joseph, can dramatically increase their interception numbers.

2.  Win Third Down.  How much does 3rd down matter?  In Nebraska’s nine wins, the Blackshirts only allowed 37% of 3rd downs to be converted.  In the four losses, that number jumps to 49%.  It is tough to win when the opposing team is converting every other 3rd down.  Offensively, Nebraska picked up a respectable 44% of their 3rd downs in their victories.  The conversion percentage in the losses (38%) isn’t horrible on first glance, but it is skewed by the season-high 59% conversion rate in the Northwestern game.  Throw out that anomally and Nebraska only picks up 29% of 3rd downs in their losses.

How do they fix this?  Offensively, this means being able to pick up the vast majority of 3rd and 2 (or less).  With the addition of Mike Marrow and Imani Cross, I think this is doable (assuming the offensive line can do a respectable job of blocking up front).  More importantly, it means avoiding 3rd and long.  Cast the blame wherever you like (Martinez, WR drops, offensive line, play calling, etc.) but if it is worse than, say, 3rd & 7 the odds are pretty good that the next play will be 4th down and not 1st down.  Defensively, it means getting off the field and not allowing drives to be extended.  This was a weak spot in 2011, and any improvement here will make the rest of the defense (and team) look exponentially better.

3.  Avoid penalties.  Nebraska coaches and players have talked about a snowball effect – one bad thing leads to another bad thing and before you can blink Nebraska is struggling to come out of a 14 point deficit.  (Examples:  Wisconsin, Michigan, South Carolina).  Unfortunately, these have occurred way too often under Pelini.  Many times, the first flake in these snowballs is a momentum-killing penalty that reversed a big play.  Look at the 2011 numbers:

In their wins, Nebraska commits an average of six penalties for 48 yards.  In the losses, the average jumps to 8 losses for 63 yards.  Two penalties for a total of 15 yards may not sound like a lot, but if each penalty erases a big play, creates a 3rd and long, or extends an opponent’s drive it can really make a difference in a game.  And that doesn’t account for the intangibles like momentum and morale that play into how college kids react.

Bottom line – look at how Nebraska fared in these three categories in their 2011 blowout conference losses (Wisconsin and Michigan):

Penalties Penatly Yds 3rd Down Conv. (NU) 3rd Down Conv. (Opp) Turnover Margin
@ Wisconsin 9 80 42% 67% -2
@ Michigan 8 73 23% 44% -2

I’m not saying that if Nebraska doesn’t commit 8+ penalties, convert 20% less of their 3rd downs than they allow, and go -2 in turnover margin, they would have won either of those games.  Both were tough road games against ranked conference foes loaded with talented players.

But I would sure like their chances.

*   *   *

Complete 2011 game by game numbers:

Penalties Penatly Yds 3rd Down Conv. (NU) 3rd Down Conv. (Opp) Turnover Margin Result
Tenn-Chattanooga 3 33 50% 33% -1 W
Fresno State 3 25 33% 45% -1 W
Washington 7 60 25% 50% 2 W
@ Wyoming 5 48 54% 41% 0 W
@ Wisconsin 9 80 42% 67% -2 L
Ohio State 6 50 47% 38% 1 W
@ Minnesota 5 43 47% 47% 1 W
Michigan State 9 58 47% 21% 0 W
Northwestern 6 41 59% 58% 1 L
@ Penn State 6 45 38% 31% 0 W
@ Michigan 8 73 23% 44% -2 L
Iowa 9 74 48% 17% 2 W
South Carolina 10 58 23% 31% -2 L

2011 season totals:

Penalties Penatly Yds 3rd Down Conv. (NU) 3rd Down Conv. (Opp) Turnover Margin
All Games 7.2 57.3 42.3% 40.2% -1
Wins 5.9 48.4 43.9% 36.7% 4
Losses 8.3 63.0 38.2% 49.1% -5
vs. Ranked   Teams 8.4 62.8 34.8% 38.4% -6
vs. Unranked   Teams 5.5 46.8 46.4% 41.3% 5
vs. B1G 7.3 58.0 44.4% 40.2% 1
Non-Conference 5.6 44.8 38.2% 40.2% -2
Home 6.1 48.7 45.5% 37.9% 4
Away 7.2 57.8 38.1% 42.9% -5


Not only do penalties have a snowball effect in wiping out big plays or putting a team in difficult 3rd downs, but referees seem to throw the flags easier for a team that started committing penalties early on – whether the fouls are warranted, questionable, or “what the heck are the referees thinking?”

You hit it on all of it. You know, for as much as Pelini is a defensive genius and preacher of business like-discipline, his teams sure can lack discipline and be sloppy at times. Having only two games with four or fewer penalties? Befuddling.

Pelini’s inability to replicate his 2003 turnover avalanche in at least of one of these four years is inexplicable too. If Nebraska wins 10 games this year, they’ll be at least +10 in turnover margin.

One of the underrated parts of 2008’s success was Nebraska consistently got out of 3rd & long, thanks to Nate Swift and Joe Ganz. It keeps the opposing defense on the field, and in the long run, flips field position and gets more positions. For the no-huddle to work, the offense has to win on 3rd down.

One more point I’d add to yours: having enough depth and physicality on D to withstand the Big 10 pounding. Great points all the way around Dave.

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