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Beyond the Box Score: 1997 Nebraska-Missouri
Photo Credit: Aaron Babcock

Beyond the Box Score: 1997 Nebraska-Missouri

January 17, 2019

One of the two or three most famous plays in the history of Nebraska football is officially written in the history books (i.e. the box score) this way: M.Davison crossing pass from S.Frost for 12 yards to the MISSOURI0, 1STDOWN NU, TOUCHDOWN, clock 00:00.

That’s the flea-kicker. Doesn’t exactly capture the moment does it? In some ways that’s good for Nebraska. 

The Huskers were the No. 1 team in the Associated Press poll entering that game with 46-of-70 first-place votes. They were 28.5-point road favorites over a Missouri team that was 6-3 at that point, two of its losses coming to ranked teams. The Tigers had Corby Jones at quarterback, a dual-threat about a decade before the term caught on, and now a lawyer. They had a sophomore linebacker, Barry Odom, who now coaches his alma mater. They’d eventually retire the number of the senior running back on that team, a tough-as-hell runner by the name of Brock Olivo, now president of the Andy Janovich Fan Club. Olivo left school as Mizzou’s career rushing leader.

And Nebraska was still favored by four touchdowns. So that touchdown Scott Frost threw on a crossing route to Matt Davison on the last play of the game to force overtime and save an unbeaten season? The box score version is kind of the kindest version of what actually happened.

Poll logic dictates that when a No. 1 team needs overtime to beat a 28-point underdog said No. 1 team is going to lose some votes and get punished in the polls. Doesn’t make that logic necessarily logical all the time, but it’s the way this sport works.

But what happens when the No. 1 team needs a pass to be bobbled by the intended receiver at the goal line near the right hash then, with the ball inches from the grass, kicked up into the air by the same receiver only for another receiver, who started the play lined up outside of the left hash, to come all the way across the back of the end zone, dive and catch the kicked ball, which was once again inches from the grass? That’s a one-in-a-million shot. You couldn’t go out in your backyard right now with two other people, no defenders, and recreate that play the way it actually unfolded.

And poll logic dictates that the recipient of such a miracle must really pay. Nebraska dropped to No. 3 in the Nov. 10 AP poll, losing all but three of its first-place votes. (Side note: I’d really like to know who those three voters were and talk to them.) Michigan, No. 4 on the Saturday in question, made that pretty easy to do. The Wolverines beat No. 2 Penn State, one of five unbeatens at that point, 34-8 in Happy Valley. It was a big enough win that Michigan might have jumped to the top spot anyway, but the flea-kicker made it a certainty.

As we all know, neither Michigan nor Nebraska lost that season. The two teams didn’t get to meet on the field, but they’ve been chained to one another ever since by the debate that will never die. That specific type of college football debate is never cordial or simple. But Michigan, and anyone who thought the Wolverines were the best team of 1997, had an easy out: Nebraska needed a miracle at Missouri.

When you’re trying to decide between two teams who can’t just settle it on their own, something like the flea-kicker sticks out. The problem for Nebraska with that unforgettable play was that it couldn’t be forgotten. The Huskers got dinged for it when it happened and, with some voters, probably even at the end of the year.

But should they have? How did they play against Missouri? How did Missouri play for that matter? I’ve rewatched that game a handful of times—I actually missed all but overtime the day of as I was working in the tractor––but it took 20 years for me to ask those type of questions.

So, last fall, I pulled that game up on YouTube and charted it using the method I now use for every Nebraska football game. Doing that provides some additional stats that I find helpful in explaining more than the basic box score does. Success rate (how often is a team staying on schedule?) is a big one, followed closely by a tally of explosive plays. Do just those two things well and a team will win a lot of games. Turnovers, and the randomness involved there, is also big. Field position is a factor as is maximizing scoring opportunities (any first down inside the opponent’s 40) by putting touchdowns, not field goals, on the board. It all leans heavily on Bill Connelly’s “five factors” with a few minor tweaks.

The goal here isn’t revisionist history. Rather it is to use slightly more modern tools to tell us something new about an old football game. In this case, one of the most famous games in college football history.

First, the numbers dump, then we’ll pick back up with the narrative and provide some context for those numbers.

Success Rate 53.7% 40.0%
>Standard Downs 58.7% 41.7%
>Passing Downs 31.6% 37.5%
Yards Per Play 6.2 5.8
>Rushing 5.8 4.7
>Passing 7.3 7.8
Explosive Plays Percentage 17.6% 16.7%
>Rushing 18.0% 9.8%
>Passing 16.7% 28.0%
Takeaways 1 3
>Expected Takeaways 1.2 1.8
Starting Field Position 66.3 64.0
Points Per Scoring Opportunity 4.22 5.43
>Scoring Opportunities 9 7

Missouri came to win. That much was apparent on Nov. 8 on the Tigers’ sixth play from scrimmage. Facing a fourth-and-1 from his own 42-yard line, Missouri coach Larry Smith opts to go for it. The numbers say you should, but most coaches don’t on the first drive of the game, particularly in 1997. “And they’re going for it, OH BABY,” Brent Musburger says on the television broadcast. “What a gamble early.”

A gambling man himself, Musburger sounds legitimately surprised (and somewhat impressed). Missouri converts, then immediately hits for a 34-yard pass on the next play, something that will become common in this game. The drive ends in a 1-yard Olivo touchdown run. At 78 yards, it will be the Tigers’ longest of the day.

Let’s start the stats breakdown there—field position. Both teams had good field position in this game, with a slight edge to Mizzou, but you can pretty safely call it a wash. What’s interesting here is that the Tigers’ remaining four touchdown drives in this game all started in Nebraska territory. They covered 48, 34, 35 and 30 yards. If you’re wondering—or, more likely, ever wondered at some point—how the nation’s No. 12 scoring defense (16.8 ppg) gave up 38 points, that’s a big reason.

And from Missouri’s perspective, if you’re going to spring an upset as big as this one you have to maximize the breaks you get (and those that you create). Those short fields came courtesy of two big kickoff returns and Nebraska turnovers, and the Tigers did as much with them as they possibly could’ve. 

Nebraska responded to Missouri’s touchdown drive with a crisp, 74-yard touchdown drive of its own. Seven of the Huskers’ 11 plays were successful based on success rate, something that will be common in this game as well. Missouri goes three-and-out and doesn’t get off a very good punt, setting Nebraska up at the Tigers’ 42. The Huskers need just six plays to make it 14-7, and all six plays on the second drive were successful.

If you just paused the game here back in 1997 and asked whoever you were watching it with “how’s the rest of this going go?” that person, once they’d recovered from the shock of watching you freeze time, probably would’ve said, “Nebraska’s going to get to work on covering that four-touchdown spread.” That’s what the first two drives for each team looked like. Missouri came out with a nice script and scored, Nebraska answered. Missouri went three-and-out and punted (poorly) and Nebraska scored again.

Over the first 32 plays run in this game, Nebraska was destroying Missouri from an efficiency perspective. The Huskers had a 68.4-percent success rate after two drives. At halftime, it had only dropped to 65 percent. That’s blowout good in most games, utter destruction unless the other team is somehow keeping pace and the Tigers weren’t at 38.7 percent in the first half. The national average success rate for a team is usually between 40 and 41 percent. To be at 65 percent for even a half is off the charts.

Yet Nebraska trailed 24-21 at halftime. How?

Big plays are the great equalizer in this sport and Missouri kept hitting them through the air. The Tigers finished the first half with six explosive passing plays (15-plus yards) spread over four drives. Each of those drives resulted in points, as is often the case for drives with an explosive play.

Nebraska would end up with a slight edge in explosive-plays percentage in this game, but it’s Missouri’s passing number that jumps off the page. Seven of the Tigers’ 25 passes (counting sacks as passing attempts) went for at least 15 yards. 

Meanwhile, Nebraska had two empty first-half scoring opportunities. The first came on a Frost interception on first-and-10 from the Tigers’ 36. The second came right before halftime. The Huskers were driving with no timeouts when Frost clocked it on second-and-6 and less than 20 seconds remaining in the half. He went over to the sideline to get the play, it took a long time and there was a scramble to get the snap off and beat the play clock. The snap surprised Frost and he had to dive on it. End of the first half.

The Huskers opened the second with another missed scoring opportunity, driving to the Mizzou 14-yard line where Ahman Green fumbled and the Tigers recovered. The average team is usually good for about 4.5 points per scoring opportunity, so you can look at those three drives as nearly 14 points lost for Nebraska. Worth noting: The Huskers had punted once at that point in the game.

At the end of regulation, Nebraska would have 38 points (below average) on nine scoring opportunities (above average) for 4.2 points per trip. That’s the other big key here for Missouri. The Tigers made fewer trips (seven) but scored the same 38 points (5.4 per trip) and only came up empty once.

Since it was the Green fumble that led us here, let’s check turnovers off the list now. Missouri was a little fortunate to have a 3-1 edge in takeaways in this game. Based on national averages a team can be expected to recover 50 percent of opponent fumbles and 20 percent of its passes defended will be interceptions. The Tigers were right on in the fumbles category, recovering one of the Huskers’ two fumbles. But two of Missouri’s passes defended were interceptions. That’s somewhat lucky. The Tigers’ expected takeaways works out to be 1.8, so they were about one ahead of the game.

For the sake of this transition, let’s say it was Nebraska’s final interception that was the bonus takeaway for Mizzou. As I mentioned, I wasn’t watching this game as it was happening. It was only on this most recent rewatch that I noticed the delightful symmetry in this game.

It’s 31-31 with under seven minutes to go in the fourth. Nebraska faces second-and-9 from its own 23 when Frost drops back to pass. The pocket gets dirty, there’s a man in his face and Frost has to throw off balance. Tight end Sheldon Jackson is coming open on a crossing route but the pass is behind him. All his momentum moving towards the sideline, Jackson tries to twist his torso and get his hands back to catch it, which brings one of his legs up in the process. The pass bounces off his leg and into the arms of a Missouri safety.

Did you catch that? It bounced off one player’s leg and into the arms of another player. Crazy, right? It looked like the game had just swung on a random bounce.

Starting in Nebraska territory for the fourth time that day, Missouri needed just four plays to score and take a 38-31 lead, the touchdown on a 15-yard passing play that sure blurred the line between rub route and pick play. The Huskers do not answer with a touchdown, but a punt with 3:38 remaining. The Blackshirts don’t answer with a much needed three-and-out either. Instead it’s a six-and-out and it leaves Nebraska with 67 yards to go for the game-tying touchdown and 62 seconds in which to do it.

You know what happens from there. Nebraska got a bounce back.

Eric Francis
The 1997 team was honored on the field, complete with a retro Tunnel Walk, ahead of Nebraska-Wisconsin in 2017.

So what are the final answers to those questions that prompted this journey back to 1997? There aren’t necessarily answers with this sort of approach, but there are more informed impressions.

In most football games, success rate is the trump card. It is measuring which team is winning the most downs. Nebraska had a big edge at the end of the game, 53.7 percent to 40.0. That difference is typically worth more than a seven-point win in overtime.

But it wasn’t this time. The explosive-play rates were about even, but Missouri’s big plays were a little bit bigger. That made the Tigers’ yards per play high for a team facing that Nebraska defense, but the Blackshirts, based on success rate, didn’t play poorly. When they were getting beat, however, they were getting beat big. Credit to Missouri for making those plays.

Throw in a turnover edge for the Tigers and Missouri nearly maxing out the total possible points it could have scored based on its number of scoring opportunities, and it’s apparent the Tigers played well.

But so did Nebraska. Mostly. The glaring weakness with what the Huskers did in this game is the missed scoring opportunities, which is tied to the turnovers. Nebraska probably engineered about a 14-point edge in this game based on the chances it created, but it didn’t always take advantage of those opportunities.

The key question here that I wanted more information on was this: Should Nebraska have been penalized for how it had to beat Missouri in 1997? My answer after this long look at the stats is, “not really.” 

Missouri did about everything it could to pull off the win. Nebraska played pretty well, but not perfectly, and got the win when the last big bounce went its way. That happens to even great teams often. (And the 1997 team stacks up pretty well against other champions at Nebraska.) The margin in this game was thin, but did it tell us that the margin between 1997 Nebraska and the majority of the other teams in college football, previously thought to be wide, was suddenly slimmer?

I don’t think so, but that’s always how the polls work. You could argue that Nebraska was only temporarily penalized here. The Huskers did win a share of the national title, but it’s the magnitude of that play and how it tied into an ongoing debate that keeps that question relevant.

About a decade ago, I had a “discussion” with a Michigan alum in a bar in Boston about the split national title. He started it, for the record. His first point of contention was the “needing a miracle” thing. His second point of contention was the other great touchstone in this debate, the idea that Nebraska topping the Coaches poll was a de facto retirement gift for Osborne.

I don’t think you can dismiss that notion entirely. The Huskers had one first-place vote in the penultimate AP poll and picked up 17.5 votes after throttling Tennessee. Nebraska had 8.5 votes in the second-to-last Coaches poll and picked up 23.5 votes after the bowls. Did some of those coaches vote for their friend, Tom Osborne, one last time? Almost certainly. To say that didn’t happen is to ignore key parts of human nature and cognitive biases.

But I don’t think you can dismiss the following idea either. For all of its limitations, the Coaches poll does represent the group with the most expert knowledge of the sport. Coaches have had special seasons spoiled and mediocre seasons made by the fortunate or unfortunate bounce of a ball. I don’t know if they’re at peace with randomness or just know they have to work alongside it, but it does give them a more evolved view of what it takes to win.

And sometimes it takes a little luck. If that luck is an isolated example, it shouldn’t really change how good a team is or isn’t.

How the flea-kicker happened is unique, but games are decided on random bounces all the time. If there was a group capable of viewing that play in its box score light––just a “crossing pass” from Frost to Davison to tie the game at the gun––it was the group of guys who chose to live with that absurdity every day.

It was just what Nebraska needed.

My plan is to do more of these for other important Nebraska games from the past, and I’m taking requests. If you have a game you want to get the full-stats treatment, let me know in the comments below. Two caveats: I either need access to the complete box score with play-by-play, which sort of limits things to the mid-1990s and later, or I need the complete broadcast of the game. There are a ton of the latter on YouTube, so I’m not worried about not having enough.

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