Penalties in perspective

John Papuchis had a good point.

When the bullets were flying and Nebraska was trying to engineer one last drive last week against Michigan State, Bo Pelini gave Tim Beck the go-ahead to be aggressive. They elected to go for the win rather than play it safe and try to set up a game-tying field goal. But Papuchis raised an important issue in the moment and relayed it after the game.

“The scary part is the new rule that if you get a penalty there is a 10-second runoff,” Papuchis said. “So it better be a clean play. No offsides. No holding. Nothing. You roll the dice a little bit, but I know Bo had complete faith in Taylor to be able to execute. In the end, I’m glad we did it.”

The NCAA Football Rules Committee instituted that rule in the off-season. Any penalty with less than a minute remaining in the half can result in a 10-second runoff. It’s a concern for any team trying to engineer a comeback, but particularly for penalty-plagued Nebraska, right?

Sort of.

Penalties are going to be a popular point of emphasis this week. Penn State ranks 42nd nationally in penalties per game, Nebraska 80th. It’s easy enough to just dust off your hands and call it good – Nebraska needs to win the penalty battle on Saturday – but, as with everything that happens on a football field, context matters.

And context shows that Nebraska has actually been pretty good on the penalty front when it has needed to be.

There were a number of pivotal plays in last week’s win over Michigan State. In retrospect, the most important one might have been a play nobody could have noticed at the time. On Nebraska’s first drive of the fourth quarter – the drive that ended on Taylor Martinez’s redzone interception – Spencer Long was called for a 5-yard illegal shift penalty. It was Nebraska’s final penalty of the game.

The Huskers played the final 10 minutes penalty free while Michigan State had one 15-yard penalty that negated a score (the interception return), the 15-yard pass interference penalty that set up the game winning touchdown, and the offsides penalty that was declined but allowed Martinez to take a free shot downfield to Kyler Reed and come up with a game-saving fourth down conversion.

Look at Nebraska’s four fourth quarter touchdown drives to overcome double-digit deficits and get a win – two against Michigan State, two against Northwestern — and they all have one key thing in common: zero penalties. The third quarter against Wisconsin where Nebraska erased a 27-10 deficit with 17 unanswered points? It was one of six penalty free quarters for Nebraska this season. Three of them have come in the fourth quarter of games this year.

None of this totally changes the overall of narrative of the Huskers’ season so far. Nebraska could help itself by hurting itself less – that will always be true — but penalty statistics in particular are notoriously fickle. Yes, if you pull up the penalty stats, Nebraska ranks last in the Big Ten in penalty yards per game but that doesn’t reveal much. Pull up the opponent penalty stats and you’ll see that the Huskers’ opponents rank 10th in penalty yards per game. Nebraska gets penalized more than most in the conference but so does the team it’s playing.

The actual difference on a game-by-game basis is about one holding penalty per game. Nebraska averages 6.88 penalties per game for 67.88 yards. The Huskers’ opponents average 6.00 penalties per game for 57.77 yards. When and where that eight-tenths of a penalty for 10.11 yards comes matters more than its actual presence.

In the Big 12, Pelini won or tied for first in the division all three years (2008, 2009, 2010). In order, the Huskers had 24.8, 15.5, and 31.5 more penalty yards per game than their opponents in those seasons. Last year, when the Huskers finished third in the division, Nebraska actually averaged 5.3 fewer penalty yards per game than its opponents.

Penalty numbers jump out on a stat sheet. It’s tempting to make them a major part of the story but there’s no strong correlation between them and actual wins. The Huskers are 2-2 when having fewer penalty yards in games this season, 5-0 with more. Kansas State ranks second nationally in penalty yards per game this season, Oregon ranks 114th. Both are national title contenders. Navy (6-3) is the least penalized team in the country, Louisiana Tech (8-1) is the most. One of those teams is in the top 20 in the latest BCS rankings.

Every coach in the country will cite the “penalty battle” as important to winning. Pelini said on Monday that penalties were his number two factor that equates to winning and losing behind turnovers. But even that required some additional context.

“There are some penalties you can live with but the careless one, those are the ones you can’t live with,” Pelini said. “Things that can be avoided should be avoided.”

Nebraska has avoided those penalties in key moments this season. That’s the penalty story.

It’s also how the Huskers have gotten to 7-2, and the catbird’s seat in the conference, as the most penalized team in the Big Ten.