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Nebraska Football's tight end Austin Allen Runs Between Wisconsin Defense
Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Everything Is a Mess, but Maybe Nebraska Is One of the Best 3-Win Teams We’ve Seen

November 21, 2021

Nebraska lost its fifth game in a row and the seventh in its last eight games Saturday to Wisconsin. 

Here are a random assortment of thoughts on that, Big Ten refs, the College Football Playoff, and other musings.

>> The offensive line remains the largest thing holding this Nebraska team back. Special teams (which I’ll get to) are an issue and turnovers are an issue and personnel usage remains mysterious and all that other stuff is out there, but if the question is “what affects Nebraska’s bottom line the most?” I have to believe the answer is up front.

Saturday offered a different viewing experience from the one I’ve grown accustomed to over the last however many years. No box scores easily available, in-stadium cell service that leaves you wanting, no “I wonder when the last time that happened was, so let’s look it up” asides, no commercials (though, my God, there were so many commercial breaks), no notebooks, no distractions, just football. 

My wife and I made the short drive up from home in Chicago to Madison, got some coffee, and settled in for a game between a really good team that knows its way and a team still trying to find its own.

Without all the other stuff, I just kept sitting in a sea of Badger fans and a chorus of calls for holding or PI on every single play thinking “their offensive line is awesome, Nebraska’s is… not even close.”

Nebraska’s tackle play has been eye-opening in the worst kind of way this season. Playing tackle in the Big Ten is hard, that can’t be said enough, but Nebraska just can’t afford the play it has gotten on the edges. Technique has been poor and development has seemed nonexistent from players who were viewed as blue-chip prospects coming in. It’d feel like piling on to point out specific instances where they’ve been beaten, but only because there have been so many.

Ever since the spring, I’ve argued that Nebraska’s offensive line would be the largest determiner of success. Nebraska has a three-win offensive line and that’s as simple a way as it can be put. 

It has a talented quarterback and a good defense and an effective scheme but it has an offensive line that, over the course of the season, hasn’t been able to consistently protect that quarterback or develop a run lane. 

Most of Nebraska’s passing success came Saturday by coach Scott Frost moving a bunch of pieces around on the board pre-snap, adding in a play-action element, and/or moving Martinez away from the pocket. If Martinez was throwing from between his tackles, he was retreating 10 yards behind the line of scrimmage or throwing off his back foot. 

The run game, adjusted for sacks, averaged 2.9 yards per carry. Now, Wisconsin entered the day with the best run defense in college football. Nebraska wasn’t going to open up semi-sized holes and it wasn’t going to do it often, but when the entire offensive burden is on Martinez’s shoulders, we’ve grown accustomed to seeing him throw interceptions like the gift he tossed up in the fourth quarter. 

Martinez is at fault for the interception there, to be clear, but we’ve certainly seen enough by this point to understand why his default tendency when things hit the fan might be “we need points, just try it.” 

>> Saturday’s result highlighted a season-long problem that the Big Ten simply cannot ignore this offseason if it wants to maintain any semblance of credibility. The officiating across the league all year has been laughably horrible. It needs to be addressed. 

The biggest issue has been game-to-game consistency amongst crews (so in that way they’re no different from the rest of college football officiating, which has been poor this year). 

The league needs to issue an explanation for this particular play:

>> The number that got a ton of play after Saturday’s game was 70. As in, Nebraska, a 3-8 squad, has outscored its opponents by 70 points on the season. 

I was curious how uncommon that kind of point differential was when attached to that kind of record, and in the sample observed it was truly unique. 

Among the 14 current Big Ten squads since 2010—so, we’re talking about a combined 168 seasons and 70 losing seasons—only eight other times has a team had a positive point differential amid a losing season.

Unless Nebraska loses to Iowa by 71 points next Friday, it’ll own three of the nine and Scott Frost will have two of them.

Nebraska’s 2021 season, which currently sits at 3-8, has the best point differential of the group and the worst record. The teams include:

  • 2011 Ohio State: 6-7, +45
  • 2011 Northwestern: 6-7, +16
  • 2015 Nebraska: 6-7, +65
  • 2017 Indiana: 5-7, +18
  • 2018 Purdue: 6-7, +7
  • 2019 Illinois: 6-7, +7
  • 2019 Nebraska: 5-7, +3
  • 2020 Penn State: 4-5, +19
  • 2021 Nebraska: 3-8, +70

Nebraska has been defying statistical expectations all season and the trend continues here. For Big Ten teams that have had a scoring differential greater than or equal to 70 over the course of a season since 2010, the win percentage is .761. That’s about nine wins over a full year. 

(And since Nebraska can’t technically finish with a scoring differential of plus-70, dropping the threshold to plus-60 changes the win percentage to .754, which is still about a nine-win season. It would also add the 2015 Huskers to the party, joining the 2021 Huskers as the only teams with losing records.) 

((Actually, those two Nebraska teams are the only two teams who have had at least a plus-50 scoring differential and a losing record. There are 75 such Big Ten teams who have had a plus-50 differential over the course of a season in the last 12 years.))

Going the other way, from 2010 through 2020, there have been 37 seasons in which Big Ten squads had a .333 win percentage or less (eight losses in a normal year). In those seasons, teams had an average point differential of minus-121. 

None of those 37 seasons featured a positive scoring differential. The 2021 Huskers would be the first. 

And they’d do it with the profile of about an 8-win team (based on differential data).

Maybe not of all time, but Nebraska seems to certainly be the best eight or nine-loss team of the last decade in Big Ten country.

>> Nebraska’s defense had a real letdown. Badger running back Braelon Allen is going to be a very good—possibly great—tailback over the course of his career, and he ran for 228 yards and three scores on just 22 carries Saturday. Nebraska did itself no favors. 

Defensive backs had some questionable tackling efforts. An edge rusher who has had a better season to this point missed a number of tackles around the line of scrimmage. NU really missed JoJo Domann in the front seven. 

>> That being said, I wanted to give Deontre Thomas some individual attention for his effort on the Huskers’ fourth-and-1 stuff with about 10 minutes to play in the fourth quarter. Luke Reimer was in the backfield for the stop on UW fullback John Chenal, but it was Thomas who blew up his man at the line of scrimmage, knocking the Badger blocker onto his backside in the backfield and forcing Chenal to redirect his run. 

>> Nebraska this season has allowed a kickoff return for a touchdown, allowed a punt return for a touchdown, allowed a blocked extra point to be returned for a score, given up a safety on a punt, and muffed a fair catch on a kickoff; it has the third-worst yards per punt average in the Big Ten (91st nationally) and has made only 8 of its 16 field goal attempts; it has a kickoff return team that has attempted the seventh-fewest returns in FBS football and a punt return team that gains the fourth-fewest yards per attempt. 

The return units don’t attempt to return kicks or punts. The field goal unit isn’t trusted to kick anything with any kind of distance. The punt coverage unit is 81st in average yards allowed per punt return. And despite finally finding a kicker who can create touchbacks, the kickoff coverage unit ranks 111th in average yards allowed per kick return.

Nebraska outgained a ranked Wisconsin team on the road and lost by 7 points. 

Nebraska gave Wisconsin a kickoff return touchdown on the opening play of the game. 

But this is a specialist issue. 

Give me a break.

Special teams have been awful for four years and Nebraska has tried everything short of giving the job to a full-time assistant.

“It’s hard to think we can keep doing exactly the same things and get over the top,” Frost said after firing four offensive assistants two weeks ago and in the same setting in which he said he wasn’t sure if they needed a full-time special teams coordinator.

>> Maybe the CFP committee was right about Michigan and Michigan State. No matter how insane it is to put a team ahead of a team it lost to in a ranking and then justify it by saying “set aside the games,” Michigan State was absolutely no match for Ohio State. Maybe that proves to be an inappropriate measuring stick. Michigan will answer that question next weekend. 

>> I like Georgia, Ohio State, Cincinnati, and Oklahoma State as the four teams to make the College Football Playoff. 

I also liked North Carolina in the preseason so this should carry absolutely no weight.

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