The 5 Husker Stats to Watch in 2013

At the end of last year, I looked at some of the more surprising statistical anomalies from the Huskers’ 2012 season.

This year, I decided to get predictive. What are the key statistics to keep an eye on for Nebraska in 2013?

At this point, with all but 10 days of an offseason behind us, we’ve all got a pretty good idea of what the Huskers’ statistical profile looked like in 2012. Nebraska was great running the football and defending the pass, scored a good amount of points, still turned it over a lot, but lost games ultimately because it got gashed on the ground. That last part is less true for the Georgia loss, where the Bulldogs powerful passing game won day against the Huskers’ secondary, but more or less that describes Nebraska at the end of last season.

To attempt to answer the question of which stats matter — and all you can do is try, it’s a constantly evolving answer — I did a couple of things with the numbers below. First, unless otherwise noted all of the numbers and rankings below are against FBS competition only. We don’t need money games against lower-division foes clouding the issue. Second, I’ve made some strength of schedule calculations in certain cases. As you’ll see below, putting up big rushing numbers in the Pac-12 or SEC means something different than doing the same in the ACC or Big 12.

With that out of the way, on to the stats:

1. Rushing Yards per Carry Allowed

It’s an old coaching truism that you have to stop the run if you want to win football games and the statistics back that up. There’s no more important number for Nebraska this season, the Huskers have to be able to stop the run and it’s going to require a major trend reversal. Since a low of 2.78 ypc allowed in 2009 (ninth nationally), the Huskers average has climbed in each successive season reaching a high of 4.96 last year (101st nationally). That was nearly a half-yard worse than projected against Nebraska’s 2012 schedule, which included some good rushing teams in UCLA, Wisconsin, Ohio State and Northwestern.

How big does the jump need to be? With little room for variation, it needs to be pretty significant. If we set a conference title as the goal for Nebraska this year, the last five conference champions in the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC gave up an average of 3.54 yards per carry. Teams have done it the other way too — Georgia Tech won the ACC giving up 5.06 ypc  in 2009 and Virginia Tech did it the following year at 4.88 — but I wouldn’t recommend it. And the ACC isn’t the Big Ten. To win the Big Ten, you better be under 4 yards per carry and that’s even giving Nebraska a cushion given its “potentially potent” offense. The last five Big Ten champions have given up an average of 3.64 yards per carry.

This one will be tough to measure in the early part of the season, but if Nebraska gets to the end of October and its around that 4 yards per carry mark, it should be in good shape. With the Huskers offense, they can win a lot of games with that.

2. Rushing Yards per Game

I’m typically not a fan of this stat with no context, but my survey of the last six national champions found that winners tend to congregate near the top of the rushing rankings. It’s inclusion should make Nebraska fans happy as the Huskers were already there last season, ranking ninth nationally, and have all of the key pieces from that rushing attack back plus two new exciting additions and they’re all running behind what Bo Pelini says could be his best offensive line yet. All good things if you’re Nebraska.

But the team still has to do it again. Using my strength of schedule adjustment, Nebraska was nearly 100 yards per game better than expected last season. The Huskers ran the ball very well against some very good run defenses. Michigan State, Michigan, Iowa, Penn State and Georgia all ranked in the top 25 when adjusted for strength of schedule. If Nebraska is able to stay in that 225 to 250 yards per game range again — and I do think the Huskers earned their lofty rushing numbers last season —  it should be a pretty good indication that the offense is “healthy.”

3. Taylor Martinez’s Carries per Game

By my count, and this is very much an inexact science without watching every 2011 and 2012 game again, Taylor Martinez has run 1,854 of the Huskers’ 1,944 plays the past two seasons. (These stats include FCS games.) That’s Nebraska’s total number of plays the past two seasons minus all of Ron Kellogg’s plays (64) last year, Brion Carnes’ plays (23) in 2011 and three pass attempts from Rex Burkhead. He definitely had a few more Wildcat rushes in there, but you get the idea — Martinez has been remarkably resilient or lucky the past two years given how many hits he takes a game.

And I wonder if Nebraska won’t try to manage Martinez’s exposure early this season. Last year Martinez averaged 15.8 carries per game in non-conference play and 13.75 in Big Ten games. Given the teams Nebraska will face in September and the importance of Martinez this season, I’d be surprised if that ratio wasn’t flipped with the majority, a larger majority at that, of his carries coming in Big Ten games.

It’s a tough call to make as a coach. You don’t want to dull one of the sharpest knives in your arsenal, but Nebraska shouldn’t need all its knives against Wyoming, Southern Miss, and South Dakota State either. In my mind, the difference should be so small — maybe three or four fewer designed runs per game early on — as to be unnoticeable, but it is something worth watching if you want to extrapolate how confident the staff is elsewhere (defense, Tommy Armstrong, maybe Ron Kellogg).

4. Not just turnovers, but where they happen.

OK, this one is not a stat that you’ll see in the Sunday box score, but it is something I track and last year was particularly interesting. For the first time under Pelini, the majority of Nebraska’s turnovers happened on their half of the field. Coaches tend to play it a little safer when they’re deep in their own territory but, for whatever reason, Nebraska put opposing teams in a great position to score more than half the time last season. And those teams did score 83.33 percent of the time, the highest percentage since 2008.

I don’t know if Nebraska will be able to cure it’s turnover problem, but I do know that it could help its defense — which was dead average in points per game last season — keep points off the board by paying special attention to the play-calling on that half of the field. Again, it’s a balance thing. You don’t want to limit yourself unless limiting yourself becomes less damaging than not.

Given Nebraska’s history in this category, everyone is going to note when turnovers happen but pay attention to where they happen as well.

5. Opponent Completion Percentage

This is the star stat of the Pelini era. Few teams over the past five years have been as good at preventing pass completions as Nebraska has and, with a slew of experience at cornerback, there’s every reason to believe that will continue. But here’s the thing about pass defense — I’m not sure it matters that much in the grand scheme of things. Better to allow a 50 percent completion rate than a 60 percent completion rate, sure, but teams don’t have to rank highly in the pass defense rankings to win the way they do run defense. Kansas State ranked 99th nationally last season in opponent completion percentage last season, but, and this is telling, made up for it with 17 interceptions (14th nationally). The Wildcats were efficient in that sense.

Given Pelini’s track record in this area, there might be some consternation among Husker fans if Nebraska’s not near the top of the rankings again in opponent completion percentage, especially given the dynamic players available at corner. But I’m fairly confident when I say that the two safeties that will take the bulk of the snaps this season, whoever they may be, will be the two guys who are best in run support. If they’re not also the two best cover guys, so be it. You’ll adjust that based on opponent and when you can in-game, but Nebraska can afford to give up a few more completions if it means decreasing how many yards per carry it’s giving up.

Actually, I think it might have to in 2013.