Here’s the thing about losing fumbles. They’re random. A coin-flip. If you lose a bunch one year, it’s probably bad luck. Eventually, be it the very next year or over the course of a few years, the numbers should even out. In the eternal statistical model of football, teams will lose 50 percent of their fumbles.
But here’s Nebraska’s problem: Even if the Huskers are recovering the expected one-half of their own fumbles, losing half of a lot of fumbles is still an issue. And it’s been an issue under Bo Pelini.
Since 2008, the Huskers have finished in the bottom 10 nationally in fumbles lost three times and total fumbles four times. This despite the fact that Nebraska, under Pelini, has actually recovered a slightly higher percentage of fumbles (52.76 percent) than one can expect. It’s one of the more consistent statistical trends of the past five seasons and it’s one that, yet again this year, the Huskers are trying to fix.
“There are thousands of drills, but they all mean the same thing: We hold the ball high and tight,” sophomore I-back Imani Cross said on Tuesday. “We lock the rock, that’s kind of a slang term for it. All that means is you have four points and the front door and the back door closed.”
This fall, Nebraska is once again using white covers on the football in certain drills. Those make the ball more difficult to handle, make those four pressure points Cross is talking about more crucial. The Huskers used them in practice during the latter half of the 2012 season. There are still penalties for the players — pushups and other physical drudgery — when they put the ball on the turf in practice. But there’s also a mental component to carrying the football that’s received added focus in the early days of fall camp.
“I don’t think it’s so much the way you carry the ball, I think it’s thinking about carrying the ball,” Cross said. “We’re all more cautious of locking the ball while we’re running.”
But not so cautious that it keeps the Nebraska backs from actually focusing on, you know, running the ball.
“When you’re carrying the ball, you don’t think ‘I got to lock the rock,’” Cross said. “It’s a habit. We’re all creatures of habit. Whatever you do every day, every time you touch the ball, that’s how you’re going to do it in the game.”
You can’t have fumbles lost without fumbles, of course, and the graphs below do a good job illustrating just how frequently the Huskers have put the ball on the turf since 2008 while also backing up the coin-flip notion of fumble recoveries. Between 2008 and 2012, the national average for fumbles has hovered around the 20 mark, while fumbles lost stays pretty constant at 10.
The only year Nebraska fumbled like an average team was in 2009. The Huskers under Pelini have never been above average in the number of fumbles lost, though they were close in both 2009 and 2011. The former was the one season where Nebraska looked like an average team on both fronts (21 fumbles, 11 lost), but the latter is why the Huskers have a reputation as a fumble-prone team.
In 2011, Nebraska ranked 117th nationally with 32 total fumbles but finished the season ranked 11th with a remarkably low fumbles lost percentage of 34.38 percent. Back to the coin-flip idea: the Huskers were on a remarkable hot streak that season but, when you’re dealing with fumbles, it never feels like it. If a team fumbles the ball 30 times a season, fans notice, whether the home team recovers the majority of those fumbles or not.
How does Nebraska fix it? More drills, more drilling.
“I think our skill guys have done a great job of rising to the challenge of keeping the ball off the turf,” senior tackle Jeremiah Sirles said. “Taylor’s made great decisions in practice of throwing it away, not trying to force it, or using his feet to get out of bad situations. We’ve made it such an emphasis, that it’s really showing up in practice.”
If it translates to the field, the Huskers’ offense could really be something to watch in 2013. All of the offensive success of last season becomes more impressive when you consider that there were just two teams that fumbled more than Nebraska did last season and the Huskers lost more than 62 percent of those fumbles. The 2011 “hot streak?” It evened out in 2012. Over the two years combined, Nebraska lost 49.25 percent of its fumbles.
Nobody can ask for much more than that over the long term.
But in the short term — right now in fall camp — fumbles will continue to be a major topic both inside and outside the Hawks Championship Center.
“Hopefully, that will motivate us to stop the fumbles,” Cross said.