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Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Defining Numbers of Nebraska’s 2020 Season: Field Position

December 28, 2020

One-third of the touchdowns Nebraska’s defense surrendered this season came from possessions that begin on Nebraska’s half of the field. 

That seems like an aggressively large number. 

By comparison, Ohio State’s defense only faced two drives that began on their side of the field all season. The first came against Penn State after a turnover on downs gave the Nittany Lions the ball from the Buckeye 33 with one second left in the first half. Penn State got a field goal. The other came off of an interception against Indiana, setting the Hoosiers up at the Buckeye 44. Indiana gained eight yards before turning it over on downs.

These two seem to be on opposite ends of the spectrum here. In total, Nebraska’s defense yielded 27 touchdowns, with eight of those coming off drives that began on Nebraska’s side of the 50. 

The Blackshirts faced 18 of those situations in eight games. 

Eighteen again feels like an aggressively large number. The defense was good, but no defense—short of Nick Saban’s Death Star Alabama defenses—should be expected to overcome that. .

Those 18 drives began, on average, at the Nebraska 41. One first down and opposing kickers were facing a 48-yard field goal. While that’s on the longer end, it’s still within the wheelhouse of most. From drive data that goes back more than a decade, teams have scored an average of 3.31 points per possession on drives that began on their opponent’s 41.

Nebraska gave up an average 3.94 points per possession on those 18 drives.

It underscores a larger issue with the team, which is that Nebraska’s defense improved year-over-year in a lot of ways that matter despite rebuilding the front seven, and it didn’t actually matter. The Blackshirts gave up more points per game (a flawed but baseline number) in 2020 than in 2019.

That’s while holding six of eight opponents under 30 points, and while being one of the best third-down defenses in the country over the last half of the year, and while making strides as a run-stopping unit.

“I think the defense has played well enough this year for us to have a chance to win almost every game we played this year, maybe with the exception of one,” head coach Scott Frost said after the Rutgers win.

Added linebacker Garrett Nelson: “We love playing defense. We think of it as another opportunity to go show what we do, go show what Blackshirts are all about. We love the opportunity to go on the field. We love the opportunity to play. Once we get down, what happens? What happens to our team? You can’t sit there and feel sorry for yourself. You’ve got to go play football and you’ve got to go be excited to play and play for each other.”

With the way the offense is supposed to operate, the defense is just expected to be on the field more than one might probably hope for. A quick-strike offense that uses tempo and tries to boat-race people tends to expose its defense. Nebraska’s talked about needing depth for high snap counts on Saturdays and defensive coordinator Erik Chinander wants his guys feeling like quick-change situations are opportunities rather than binds. 

“Go put out the fire,” he tells them. 

The offense needs to quit making so many fires and the defense can’t wait until midseason before figuring out how to get off the field on third downs.

On average, opponents began drives this season at their 32-yard-line. That was bottom-30 nationally. Nebraska’s offense had the third-worst average starting field position in all of football. Mix in a special teams unit that had its fair share of problems and that’s a losing game. 

Better ball security will help. Getting anything from either return game would also help. Figuring out kickoff coverage would help, too. Sooner or later, the Huskers will stop making things so hard on themselves. 

The first entry in this series, a look at the Huskers’ success and failure in passing situations as an offense, can be found here.

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