Each week following the game we’ll share some key stats to track the Huskers’ progress this season in “Beyond the Box Score.” All of the numbers below include only non-garbage time plays, which wasn’t an issue in this game. For a more complete explanation of the numbers, click here.
Here’s a closer look at Nebraska’s 31-16 win over Illinois.
Efficiency (Success Rate)
Nebraska was on schedule pretty much all day with a success rate that never dropped below 49 percent after any quarter. Illinois was about average, which is a step up from where the Illini had been coming into the game. The Huskers were good on standard downs (51.9 percent) and great on passing downs (61.1 percent), so how were they trailing by six with a quarter to go? Untimely turnovers and empty trips in scoring territory. More on those topics in a minutes.
Explosiveness (Yards Per Play)
Illinois was a bit of a mystery entering this game in that it run game wasn’t all that efficient, but it did have an uncanny knack for ripping off long runs. Saturday showed how: Reggie Corbin and Kendrick Foster can crease a defense in a hurry. Corbin averaged 8 yards per carry (long of 31) and Foster went for 6.6 a pop (also a long of 31). Nebraska won the explosive plays battle (narrowly) but Illinois earned a slight edge in yards per play. Running 44 plays to your opponent’s 72 can do that.
Turnovers (Turnover Points)
Nebraska didn’t force any turnovers for the second time in the past three games, but the story here is the Huskers’ continued problem turning the ball over in scoring territory. Extreme scoring territory, most of the time. Tommy Armstrong Jr.’s first interception was on the Illinois half of the field, but barely. It resulted in a field goal for the Illini. Mikale Wilbon’s third-quarter turnover, however, came at the Illini 12-yard line. Turnover points, as calculated above, is a blend of actual points scored off turnovers and expected points lost based on field position and is meant to measure the overall value of a turnover. That means Illinois’ two takeaways kept an expected 8.3 points off the board, more than the six Illinois actually scored off those turnovers. On the season, five of Nebraska’s six turnovers have occurred inside the opponents’ 15-yard line. Once a team gets that deep into opponent territory, it’s expecting about five points per trip on average. Tough to waste those opportunities.
Finishing Drives (Points Per Trip Inside the 40)
One of the Huskers’ turnovers killed a scoring opportunity. Penalties did in another one, forcing Nebraska into a third-and-25 on its second drive and eventually a 56-yard field goal that Drew Brown just missed. But there’s a reason this category is called “finishing drives.” It’s largely about offensive execution. Illinois converted all four of its trips inside the Huskers’ 40, though the Blackshirts deserve some credit for making three of those conversions field goals. Offensively, however, Nebraska will need to be more efficient going forward. When a team has zero punts in a game it is usually doing better than four points per trip. That wasn’t the case for Nebraska on Saturday.
Thanks to a short field to open the second half following a three-and-out and a solid punt return from De’Mornay Pierson-El, Nebraska had a sizable edge here though the margin is more a reflection of the fact that each team only had nine drives in this game. For the most part, this one was played pretty much straight-up.
If Illinois converts a few more of its scoring opportunities into touchdowns rather than field goals it’s a different game (obviously). But the Illini’s low points per drive is part of the reason this one never felt like Nebraska was in that much trouble, even when trailing headed to the fourth quarter. In what is becoming a theme this season, Nebraska dominated the fourth quarter, boosting it’s points-per-drive average by nearly two full points from what it had been over the first three.
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: chunk rushing plays, Illinois’ sack total and the Illini’s standard-down success rate.
Chunk rushing plays: Illinois won this match up 5-3, but that was still within what I thought would be an acceptable number for the Illini to hit.
Sacks: The Huskers’ offensive line struggled against a good Illinois front, but managed — thanks again to Armstrong’s escapability — to avoid giving up any sacks. Still, if Nebraska is going to keep winning going forward, the offensive line is a key area to watch because it’s going to face more lines like this in Big Ten play.
Standard down success rate: I thought Nebraska needed to hold the Illini under 40 percent on standard downs and Illinois hit on 45.8 percent. I think that’s part of the reason why a moribund Illinois offense suddenly looked lively on Saturday. For teams that are struggling to move the ball reliably, being on schedule can be the match that lights the fuse.
Brandon is the Managing Editor for Hail Varsity and has covered Nebraska athletics for the magazine and web since 2012, Hail Varsity’s first season on the scene. His sports writing has also been featured by Fox Sports, The Guardian and CBS Sports.