As we prepare for the 2014 season, I’ve been writing a lot about field position. There are a couple of reasons for that: 1) Field position often decides games, and 2) If 2014 Nebraska is better than 2013 Nebraska at only one thing, the Huskers would probably see the most drastic effect on their record at the end of the year if that one thing was, you guessed it, field position.
I don’t put much stock in bowl games unless its the national championship game, but one lesson I was willing to concede that could be learned from the 2014 Gator Bowl was that Nebraska can be pretty good when it gets into what I’d call a “straight-up” game. Here’s how I said it in the hours after that game:
Nebraska could look at this game, at how it didn’t hurt itself too much and how it won the turnover battle and how it gave up some ground to a pretty good Georgia offense, but got stops – either forcing field goals or two late fourth down stops down deep in Husker territory – when they were the most crucial. Football players at a very young level are taught these things, but maybe this time Nebraska, having just done it, builds on that.
Nebraska didn’t win the field position battle in that game, but it did get the one massive field position flipping play in the game; Quincy Enunwa’s 99-yard touchdown. That in combination with timely stops on defense was enough for Nebraska to escape with a close win. More often than not in 2013, however, those sorts of big momentum swings went the opposite way for the Huskers (See Also: the Iowa and Michigan State games).
A month after the Gator Bowl, I delved into the topic even further, recapping where all of the Big Ten teams ranked in terms of starting and ending field position, both offensively and defensively.
But today we’re going to talk about what should be the primary concern for Nebraska headed into 2014 — field position. That’s related to turnovers but also encompasses special teams play, the other popular topic from 2013 and we’re talking about it now because of this fact: 2013 was Nebraska’s worst year yet under Pelini from a field position standpoint. Worse even than the 2007 season where the Huskers went 5-7.
Like many of the past six seasons, Nebraska seemed to win more games that it probably should have once you looked a little closer at the numbers. In the past it was always turnovers — which drastically effect field position of course — that seemed to foster this idea, but the special teams woes of 2013 put increased focus on where the Huskers were starting drives. And, as I mentioned in that story, Nebraska was projected to score about 45 fewer points than its opponents last year based on field position alone. Chop that up however you want — starting every game with more than field goal deficit (3.46 points per game to be exact) drills it home pretty well — it’s significant.
With so much analysis and so many numbers surrounding sports these days, it’s hard to find statistics that truly stop you in your tracks but I came across some numbers that did that over the weekend in this story from Brian Fremeau for ESPN (subscription required). In addition to writing for ESPN, Fremeau also writes extensively for Football Outsiders and does some pretty amazing work on his own site as well. Here’s the part of what he wrote about Nebraska, who made the list of “dark-horse” playoff contenders, that made me do a double-take:
If the Cornhuskers are going to be a surprise contender this year, they absolutely must find a way to flip field position in their favor. Nebraska allowed 17 percent of opponent drives to start on the Huskers’ side of midfield (115th) and Nebraska started 26 percent of its own drives inside its own 20-yard line (110th). They haven’t lost a regular-season game in which they had a field-position advantage since 2011, but were on the wrong side of that stat 15 times in the past two seasons (seven wins, eight losses). Nebraska’s offense and defense may be good enough to run the table if it doesn’t shoot itself in the foot with field position and turnovers (minus-11 in 2013; 119th).
Two key parts there:
1. “…haven’t lost a regular-season game in which they had a field-position advantage since 2011…”
2. 7-8 the past two seasons when losing the field position battle.
Even for someone who’s been writing about this topic frequently for the past six months, those numbers were a surprise.
Score another one for field position.