QB Adrian Martinez and offense walk off the field during game
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Defining Numbers of Nebraska’s 2020 Season: Luck and the Turnover Margin

December 29, 2020

How do you manufacture consistently crappy field position? Well, turnovers help… or, I guess, don’t help depending on which sideline you spend your Saturdays on. 

Think of the first play against Illinois. (Sorry, I know.) Nebraska motions from an empty set to a base formation and runs a “simple” (Scott Frost’s description after the game) outside zone concept it runs many, many times in a season. Quarterback Luke McCaffrey has the option to hand it to running back Marvin Scott III, flip it out wide to his left, or pull the ball and run himself. He opts for Door No. 3 and takes off. He gets just beyond the line of scrimmage, realizes he’s about to get tackled, and then tries to flip the ball out to wideout Wan’Dale Robinson. 

Robinson has a defender wrapped around his waist. The ball is deemed a lateral. Illinois takes over possession. 

That was on the first play from scrimmage. Would an opening-drive touchdown for the Huskers and a 7-0 lead have changed the way that game played out? With what we saw from NU’s offense this season, who knows, but a turnover on the first play of the game certainly set a miserable tone that lingered all day on that particularly gloomy Saturday. 

Illinois won 41-23; one of five games in which Nebraska lost the turnover battle. NU was 1-4 in those games, with the only win coming against Rutgers by seven. 

Nebraska won the turnover battle only once (Penn State). It was even against Northwestern, an eight-point loss, and against Purdue, a 10-point win. 

Win the turnover battle: win the game. Lose the turnover battle: lose the game. Cancel out your giveaways with equivalent takeaways: the game is a toss-up. There’s obviously more to it than that, but for the kind of team Nebraska is right now, those laws are going to usually hold true against opponents that aren’t the Ohio States of the world. This season, Nebraska provided a really clear illustration of the turnover’s effect on a football game.

The offense couldn’t hang onto the ball. The defense couldn’t create enough turnover luck to cancel out the giveaways. Nebraska went 3-5. 

The only FBS teams to play this year and produce a worse combined turnover margin than Nebraska (minus-11) were a 4-7 Louisville team (minus-12) and a 2-9 Duke team (minus-19). The Huskers were the only Big Ten team with a negative differential in the double-digits. 

It wasn’t like Nebraska was abysmal at creating turnovers (seven), the offense just did more damage than could be negated (18).

Where to start? I’m thinking the defensive side of the ball, since their numbers are a little more interesting. 

One thing you’ve read about before if you’re regularly reading Hail Varsity, which you should be, is Takeaway Opportunities, or TakeOpps. Brandon Vogel coined the phrase. Takeaways can be really random, oftentimes maddeningly so, but if you’re simply creating an opportunity for yourself to create a turnover, you’re doing something right, right? 

Here’s how Brandon described the calculus: 

“The theory here is pretty simple: Any team over the long haul will get half its fumbles and intercept about 20 percent of its passes defended, so the way to boost takeaway numbers is to try to create those opportunities.”

In 2019, Nebraska defended 56 passes and forced 15 fumbles. Those two marks would produce an expected 18.7 turnovers. In actuality, Nebraska recovered 10 of those fumbles and intercepted 11 of those defended passes and ended the year with a good deal of turnover luck; the 21 real takeaways were more than should be expected. Nebraska’s defense was ball-hawking the way defensive coordinator Erik Chinander wants them to. They were creating TakeOpps—5.9 a game.

As tends to go with these things, the pendulum swung back the other way this season. Nebraska was one of college football’s least lucky when it came to capitalizing on takeaway opportunities. 

In terms of TakeOpps, the Huskers were sixth in the Big Ten conference with 43. Decent, though slightly less frequent than the season prior. The Blackshirts defended 30 passes in eight games and forced 13 fumbles. That should be about 12.5 turnovers produced. 

With five interceptions, Nebraska was right in line with where it should have been given the amount of time it simply got its hands on the ball. The rotten turnover luck manifested in the fumble department. NU ranked 122nd in recovery percentage, with only two recoveries on 13 fumbles. 

If a team is expected to recover half of the fumbles it forces, why could Nebraska only roll over 2-of-13? 

Some of that is probably just random luck, The ball bounces weird ways. Your brother throws you a Sunday morning pass in the yard and as it’s coming up short, you expect a hop up where the ball instead careens into your shin. It happens. 

What happens next season, though? 

For two years now, Nebraska’s secondary has been pretty good at creating chaos once the ball is in the air. Lamar Jackson was everywhere in 2019, and that was partially because opposing offenses didn’t want to throw at Dicaprio Bootle, who was everywhere in 2018. In 2020, Cam Taylor-Britt replaced Jackson and turned into arguably one of the most impactful cover corners in the conference. 

Bootle could leave now that’s gone through one senior season. Both starting safeties, Deontai Williams and Marquel Dismuke, can do the same. Taylor-Britt could head to the NFL Draft early depending on what he hears. What becomes of Nebraska’s secondary? In limited action, backup safety Myles Farmer had two well-timed interceptions. Reserve corner Quinton Newsome looks unafraid of contact. 

Nebraska probably needs to be a little more effective at taking the ball away next season. Who makes up that difference? Key question for the offseason. 

On the other side, oof. 

Nebraska fumbled 22 times and lost nine of those. Only Georgia Tech and Duke, two ACC teams that played double-digit games, put the ball on the turf more this season. (Could be worse, I suppose; Duke fumbled 26 times and lost 20 of those. Can you imagine?)

NU also threw nine interceptions in eight games.

It was 1.4 turnovers worse than expected. So as to say: Nebraska did as much damage as it should have given its carelessness with the football. 

That sounds harsh, but watch the games and come away with any other description of the ball security. Fumbles happened at obscure times. Interceptions happened at inopportune times for a litany of reasons. 

If the situation holds year-over-year, Nebraska will have a fourth-year and a third-year quarterback fighting for the starting spot. You’d expect cleaner play with that kind of experience. 

We’ll see. Frost mentioned several times this season that things “didn’t break right” for his group. Don’t mistake that to mean the head coach pining for fortuitous officiating or the opponent’s star quarterback to sit because of contact-tracing; I’d imagine he was talking a little about luck. 

Nebraska had none of it in the turnover department. 

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