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Beyond the Box Score: The 2007 Nebraska-Auburn Cotton Bowl

March 25, 2020

I don't know if I should be proud or ashamed of this, but watching old Nebraska games on YouTube is not just a social-distancing solution for me. Like working from home, it's just what I do most of the time anyway. I put together a guide to the best Husker games on YouTube back in 2015, then updated it for 2018, so I feel like I've seen most of the classics at this point at least once.

A game that didn't make those "best" lists? The 2007 Cotton Bowl against Auburn, but I find it to be a fascinating time capsule. Hail Varsity Radio host Chris Schmidt, as part of his new series YouTube Tuesdays, spoke with Jay Moore about that game this week. 

As I've done once before––1997 Nebraska-Missouri––I wanted to rewatch that game but chart it the way I would now to bring some contemporary stats to an old game. The aim is simple: We know which team did win the game, but which team should've won the game?

Nebraska entered the game ranked 22nd after the loss to Oklahoma in the Big 12 Championship Game dropped the Huskers to 9-4 on the year. Auburn opened the season ranked 4th and had beaten No. 6 LSU and No. 2 Florida by mid-October. The Tigers had also lost to a surprising Arkansas by that point. The Razorbacks would go on to win the division while Auburn finished second in the SEC West with a 10-2 record entering the Cotton Bowl.

Having gone through the stats at length for this one, I've decided it deserves an alternate title: The Time a Big 12 Team and an SEC Team Played a Big Ten Game on a Cold Day in Dallas.

Catchy, isn't it?

Success Rate (Edge: Nebraska)

Most of the time the team that wins success rate wins the game. That's because the stat itself is really just a count of which teams runs the most "successful" plays. It's an efficiency measure.

Nebraska won that category 34.92% to 30.19%, which isn't really good either way. At halftime, however, the Huskers had a huge edge 43.24% to 23.53%. That the game was tied at 14 at the half was the first sign of trouble for the Big Red. Nebraska had really dominated to that point, particularly the Blackshirts which held Auburn to an 11.11% success rate on standard downs (i.e. the downs when the offense has the advantage and usually flirts with a 45% success rate).

Quick aside on Nebraska's offense: This group was somewhat loaded. Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year Zac Taylor at quarterback with Brandon Jackson and Marlon Lucky in the backfield and Maurice Purify, Nate Swift, Todd Peterson and Matt Herian catching passes. The Huskers' opening script was beautiful, resulting in a 15-play touchdown drive to start the game.

It was only through this rewatch with a modern context that I finally realized what Bill Callahan's offense could've been. It was meant to look a lot like the Wisconsin offense looks now under Paul Chryst. Maybe not quite so run-heavy, but there were a lot of similarities. (Callahan spent five seasons as Barry Alvarez's offensive line coach at Wisconsin.) One of the running jokes with current Nebraska football is to ask when the last time the Huskers ran a successful screen pass? The 2006 team had a lot of ‘em.

Explosive Plays (Edge: Nebraska)

There weren't many plays total in this game and even fewer big ones. Auburn managed just four explosive plays for a total of 74 yards. The Tigers had 104 yards on their remaining 52 plays. Nebraska was a little better, managing six explosive plays for 101 yards.

There were many negative plays, however. Nebraska record eight tackles for loss (from eight different players), four pass breakups and two forced fumbles for an insane havoc rate of 25%. Auburn was equally insane––12 tackles for loss and four pass breakups for a 24.6% havoc rate.

That's part of why this felt like a Big Ten game . . . 

Field Position (Winner: Auburn)

. . . but what makes it irrefutably a Big Ten game is that each team punted once inside the opponent's 40-yard line. Nebraska used place kicker Jordan Congdon to do this in the second half, lining up for a field goal from the Auburn 34 only to quick-kick it and pin the Tigers at the 1. It was beautifully executed if a bit maddening.

Auburn then embarked on a 13-play drive that stalled out at Nebraska's 35. Future Alabama politician Tommy Tuberville elected to punt and the ball was downed at the Husker 8. Just an amazing sequence of football.

If there's a play you remember from this game it is probably Nebraska's fake-punt gone wrong. Up 7-0 with the ball in the first quarter, Nebraska threw what should've been a perfectly harmless slant that bounced straight up in the air, was intercepted and returned to the 9-yard line. It was just bad luck, but it set up Auburn's first touchdown.

It was a key swing and Nebraska needed to respond. On the ensuing drive, the Huskers rushed for 5 yards, 4 yards and then went to play-action on third-and-1. Didn't work.

On fourth-and-1 from the Nebraska 30, Callahan sent out the punt team but in reality he was pushing his chips in, calling for a snap to up-back Dane Todd, who would then pitch it to safety Andrew Shanle on the reverse. The exchange between Todd and Shanle was fumbled and recovered by Auburn at the 14. The Tigers punched it in four plays later to go up 14-7.

"It was there," Moore said this week of the fake punt call. "If Shanle doesn't mishandle the handoff he might score. We had worked on this play for weeks before. People are going to say, 'What are you doing running a fake inside your own 30?' You kind of have to do it when they're least expecting it . . . I remember seeing it. That thing was wide open."

Those would be the only two touchdowns Auburn would score on the day. The Tigers' touchdown drives covered a total of 23 yards. Take those two drives out, however, and Nebraska still loses the field-position battle and it ended up being pivotal in this game.

Turnovers (Even-ish)

Both teams turned it over twice in this game and that wasn't too far off the expected totals. Auburn lost both of its fumbles, but had four passes broken up without any interceptions. Its expected turnovers in this game were 1.8 against an actual total of 2.

Nebraska lost its only fumble in the game––that fake punt––and had one of the five passes defended end in an interception, which is exactly the expected total in such a scenario. That gave the Huskers an expected total of 1.5 against the actual 2.

Depending upon how you feel about the fake punt and the potential to avoid that fumble, this is close enough for me to call it a wash.

Should Nebraska have won this game?

Yeah, probably. If you'd asked me after the first half, the answer would be a clear yes. Nebraska was dominating on both sides but found itself in a tie game thanks to two turnovers that set up short fields.

You have to give credit to Auburn defensive coordinator Will Muschamp, however. His Tiger defense adjusted and held the Huskers to a 23% success rate in the second half. The game effectively ended when Nebraska, facing fourth-and-11 from the Auburn 30, opted to go for it rather than send Congdon out for a 47-yard field goal try. He was 1-for-2 on the season at that point on kicks from 40 yards or more with a long on the season of 40 yards. It probably made sense, but Nebraska's fourth-down play never had much of a chance.

Still, with an edge in overall success rate and explosive plays, Nebraska probably "deserved" to win here, though it was close. Had the Huskers pulled it off, they probably end up ranked in the top 15 and the Callahan era has a much different feel entering the 2007 season. As it actually happened, four of the Huskers' losses were to top-20 teams in the final AP poll (No. 7 Oklahoma, No. 8 USC, No. 10 Auburn and No. 18 Texas). All four were ranked in the top 10 when Nebraska played them.

I mentioned the talent on offense, but the defense was similarly stacked. Opposite Moore at defensive end was Adam Carriker, the 13th overall pick in the 2007 draft. Bo Ruud and Stewart Bradley would be draft picks at linebacker. The Huskers' best defensive back that season, Zack Bowman, had to sit out the season with a knee injury, but there was still talent there with Shanle, Tierre Green, Courtney Grixby and Andre Jones.

At 9-5, and knowing how the following season went, it's easy to blow right past how close that 2006 team may have actually been to being great and what that might have meant for all of the seasons that have followed at Nebraska. But they were close, just not yet consistent enough to put it all together. Close losses to Texas and Auburn could've been wins. Close wins over Kansas and Texas A&M could've been losses.

What might've been. On a golf course a few years later, Moore met up with offensive coordinator Shawn Watson and the 2006 team came up.

"That was his first year at Nebraska after coming over from Colorado," Moore said. "He was like, 'You know we had enough talent to be not only a Big 12 champion but to do greater things. We were really good. I don't know if you realize how good we were.'"

Football is sometimes like that.

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