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Photo Credit: Aaron Babcock

Beyond the Box Score: Nebraska 24 Minnesota 17

November 13, 2016

There are a lot of ways to look at a football game. These are the numbers you won’t find in the ordinary box score.

Hail Varsity

week following the game we’ll share some key stats to track the
Huskers’ progress this season in “Beyond the Box Score.” For a more
complete explanation of the numbers, click here.

Here’s a closer look at Nebraska’s 24-17 win over Minnesota.

Efficiency (Success Rate)

Minnesota and Nebraska came into this game essentially dead even in efficiency, and that represented a downward trend for the Huskers. The trend will still be downward after this one, but the Huskers ended the game with a slight edge in success rate. The difference was standard downs, which are always going to be the most common downs in a game. Nebraska was good when it was ahead of the chains (50 percent success) and bad when it wasn’t (33.3 percent). That’s the way things are supposed to work, but it reveals just how narrow a margin Nebraska’s offense is working with right now. On Saturday, it was enough. It might work next Saturday, too. On the road against Iowa to close the season? The Huskers are going to need to find a little more overall efficiency.

Explosiveness (Yards per Play)

This was the one consistent edge for Nebraska throughout the game, and that wasn’t entirely unexpected either. The Huskers hit for five explosive plays to the Gophers’ three and and a three-one edge in the second half. Drew Wolitarsky was a nightmare for Nebraska — 10 targets, eight catches, 90 yards — but Nebraska just had more of those guys, first and foremost among them Tommy Armstrong Jr. The quarterback completed 70.4 percent of his passes and rushed for 6.8 yards per carry (sack included).

Turnovers (Turnover Points)

It’s not easy to beat the Gophers in turnover margin this season. Minnesota had lost that battle just once this season — the 29-26 loss to Penn State on the road — but the only turnover in this game proved to potentially be the difference. Mitch Leidner’s interception in the red zone near the end of the fourth quarter wiped 4.7 expected points off the board, though really it was all or nothing — seven or zero — at that point. It ended up zero and spared Nebraska from facing overtime without its starting quarterback. It was the Huskers’ second turnover-less game this season, and the second straight game against the Gophers without a turnover.

Finishing Drives (Points Per Trip Inside the 40)

Minnesota held the edge early, scoring 17 points on its three first-half trips into scoring territory. Nebraska’s defense, however, provided the one empty trip courtesy of Kieron Williams’ interception and in a one-score game that was enough. Essentially, both teams scored 17 points over their first three scoring opportunities. Minnesota had the one empty trip and Nebraska had the one score from outside that range. Hence, 24-17.

Field Position

A key category for Nebraska. Minnesota was the second-best field-position team in the country coming in and it showed why — two of the three Gopher scoring drives were aided by short fields. Minnesota ended up with the edge here, but Nebraska still held the Gophers 5 yards below its season average. Caleb Lightbourn’s second punt was a blow, but the Huskers took it and moved on.

Six-Pack Stats

A few more numbers of note for you. In our preview this week
I identified some other key stats I thought would play a part in this
game: Nebraska’s opportunity rate, Minnesota’s rushing success rate and Mitch Leidner’s rushing yards.

Opportunity Rate: Jerald Foster returned and played most of the game at left guard. The offensive line still struggled. It just isn’t very good at this point and I’m not sure there’s any real solution at this state. I thought the Huskers would need an opportunity rate — a measure of how many runs gain at least 5 yards — of 38 percent in this game and it almost got there at 37.9
percent. In the fourth quarter, however, the Huskers’ opportunity rate
was 63.6 percent, and that was all the difference.

Rushing Success Rate: If you’re looking for the difference in the game defensively, this is probably it. The Huskers have been pretty average against the run this season and Minnesota had the Big Ten’s second-leading rusher, Rodney Smith, entering Saturday. Nebraska kept him in check (17 carries, 53 yards) and held Minnesota down overall with a 29.4 percent success rate on rushing plays. That more than hit the threshold I thought the Huskers would need (41 percent) and was even significantly better than the season average of 38.8 percent.

Leidner’s Rushing Yards: The Gophers’ senior quarterback isn’t exactly the type of runner you plan around, but he can hurt you if you ignore him completely. Didn’t happen on Saturday. Leidner rushed eight times, because he always seems to rush between eight and nine times, for a total of 15 yards.

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