Martinez Fumble

Nebraska’s 5-year turnover problem

Quarterback Taylor Martinez forced a statewide facepalm on Monday in Nebraska with what could best be described as a laissez-faire attitude towards turnovers. Martinez has eight this year – four interceptions, four fumbles (and four more fumbles he didn’t lose) – but when given the opportunity to take responsibility for them, well, he didn’t.

The best answer to that line of questioning is the standard quarterback’s answer. “I’ve made some bad decisions and I’ve got to get it cleaned up going forward.” Admit mistakes, resolve to improve. Do that and Martinez doesn’t ruffle any Nebraska fans’ feathers.

But here’s the thing about that answer: It’s better, but it’s not good enough. While Martinez’s teammates did deliver the platitudes we’re used to – protect the ball, better focus, take responsibility etc. – none of those are good enough either.

Why? Because after going through and charting every Nebraska turnover of the Bo Pelini era – including fumbles that weren’t lost – it’s apparent that the Huskers have a turnover calamity on their hands. Maybe you already knew that, but turning over every turnover rock of the past four and a half seasons provides a pretty sobering answer to the question of why the Huskers have lost four games in each of the past four years and are on pace for another four-loss season.

Where should we start? How about last year’s Northwestern game? It’s perhaps the most notable game of the Pelini era thus far for one reason: It’s the only game where Nebraska has won the turnover battle but lost the game. The only one.

Pelini is 42-18 at Nebraska since taking over in 2008. The Huskers are 23-1 in games where they have a positive turnover margin, 8-1 where it’s even, and 11-16 with a negative margin. Of those 11 negative turnover margin wins, only two of them have come in true road games. When Nebraska loses the turnover battle by two or more, they’re 2-13.

So far under Pelini, Nebraska has had a negative turnover margin in three out of four seasons and is currently minus-six through six games this year (109th nationally). That’s the big picture. Most Nebraska fans are probably already aware of those numbers but they illustrate a key point: It isn’t unique that the Huskers are losing the turnover battle again this year. That’s been the overall trend for four years. What is unique is just how damaging the turnovers have been so far this season.

The shocking details:

–The average field position following a Nebraska turnover this season is the Huskers’ 42-yard line. It’s the first time under Pelini that the average turnover has happened in Nebraska territory.

–In accordance with the above statistic, the Huskers have already given up 66 points off turnovers and are on pace to obliterate the previous high of 98 points in 2008. That’s nearly 40 percent of the points Nebraska has allowed this season.

–Each and every time Nebraska has turned it over this season has resulted in, on average, 4.4 points for the opposition. The previous high was 3.74 points in — you guessed it — 2008. Until something changes, look at every fumble or interception as four points on the board for the opposition.

–So far, teams have turned two out of every three Husker turnovers (66.67 percent) into points. In 2008, Nebraska had a turnover to points allowed rate of 55.56 percent, the worst of the Pelini era.

–Of the 10 Nebraska turnovers that have occurred in their own territory this season, nine have resulted in points. The one that didn’t was a drive that ended with Idaho State missing a field goal.

Clearly there’s a problem here. An extraordinary problem, and fixing it is going to require something equally extraordinary. That’s what was missing from Monday’s press conference. Increased effort or practice reps isn’t going to do it. Nebraska needs to make turnovers their first priority, the one thing, above all others, that they simply will not abide.

They’ve done it once before under Pelini. After losing eight turnovers and the game to Iowa State in 2009, the Huskers offense went into a shell. Nebraska averaged 381.43 yards per game over the first seven games that season and sat at 4-3. Over the next five games, the offense topped 275 total yards just once, but they didn’t lose the turnover battle in any of those five games. They also didn’t lose any of those games and, as a result, made it to Dallas for the gut-wrenching Big XII title game loss to Texas. (The turnover margin in that game was even, for the record.)

That 2009 team had a dominant defense. If you want to quantify just how good that unit was, turnovers are a good place to start. That team gave up just 1.04 points per turnover. They were aided by the fact that the average turnover that season came at the opponent’s 37-yard line, but even when the Huskers turned it over on their side of the 50 the defense answered the call. Of the 10 turnovers in their own territory that year, the Huskers allowed points on just two of them.

Nebraska’s 2012 defense hasn’t had quite the same resolve. It also doesn’t have anywhere near the talent. Even if the defense could get closer to 50 percent on the turnover to points allowed scale – where Nebraska has been in three of the previous four seasons – the Huskers might be significantly better.

Offensively, the answer isn’t quite so clear. Statistically speaking, fumbles are a coin flip. Once the ball is out, you have about a 50-50 shot at recovering it. Nebraska’s been unlucky in that regard this year, losing 58.8 percent of its fumbles so far. Michigan in 2011 is a good example of what can happen if you flip that equation. The Wolverines finished 11-2 last season thanks in part to recovering nearly 70 percent of its own fumbles and recovering an otherworldly 80 percent of its opponent’s fumbles.

Them’s the breaks, but Nebraska can’t rely on that this year. Not if a trip to Indianapolis is the goal. Frankly, I don’t know what the solution is for Nebraska’s turnover problems. Limiting the offense? Sacrificing a big gain here or there to put both hands on the football? Running it even more than they already have?

Every option should be on the table at this point because the one thing that is clear is that turnovers are the single biggest and most consistent factor keeping Nebraska from a conference title.

“It’s an area we focus on and talk about,” Pelini said on Monday. One would think that’s the case everywhere in the country. It’s not an answer that illustrates just how damaging Nebraska’s turnover struggles have been so here’s one more list to drive it home.

Since 2008, the Huskers rank 90th nationally in cumulative turnover margin. Look at the teams with a similar margin over that span and see if anything jumps out:

Of the 20 teams who have the most similar turnover margins since 2008, only Auburn even approaches Nebraska’s .700 winning percentage. The average winning percentage on that list is .436. Based simply on turnovers, and there are admittedly other factors, the Huskers have overachieved. Now imagine what they might be able to do with just an average turnover margin.

Getting there has to be the priority moving forward. With nearly five years of data, it’s pretty clear that turnovers are a problem that deserves more than platitudes.

If Nebraska is to make a run at a Big Ten title, it’s a problem that needs results.