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Nebraska's 2019 season got off to a bit of a surprising start. The Huskers, a 36-point favorite, needed two defensive touchdowns and a punt return for six to record a 35-21 win over South Alabama. Ultimately, only the one in the win column matters but in pursuit of a better understanding of what happened, here are four strange stats from a strange game.
1. Nebraska's rushing plays were successful 34.9% of the time.
Success rate is basically the on-base percentage of football. It measure how often a team is on schedule. Last year, the national average on rushing plays was 41%. Nebraska topped that number in nine games a year ago and was over 50% in four. Why the struggle in Game 1? That's tough to fully know at this stage, but the offensive line struggled. Dedrick Mills was playing his first FBS game in two years. The Huskers were just off and I think you can chalk a lot of the offensive struggles overall to the tough sledding Nebraska found on the ground. The Huskers ran the ball 18 times on first down. Just four of those were successful (22.8%) and those first-down runs averaged just 3 yards. (In not totally unrelated news, the Huskers’ average distance on third down in this game was 10.1 yards.) Rushing success is a big one for the Huskers in 2019. If it was a one-game blip, no problem. If not, probably a problem. The run game really makes this offense go.
2. Nebraska's explosive-plays rate was down.
Last year Nebraska ranked 25th in explosive plays percentage at 17.4%. (Counting runs of 10-plus yards and passes of 15-plus here.) Against South Alabama the Huskers hit for just 13.8%. That was better than the Jaguars (12.8%), but one of the big growth opportunities for Nebraska in 2019 is upping the frequency of big plays, particularly in the passing game. That was an odd thing about Saturday. The Huskers, despite the run-game pain overall, actually hit one more explosive play that way (five) than via the pass (four). Explosive plays are typically nearly as good as points on the board (because they almost always lead to points on the board), but on Saturday just one of Nebraska's scoring drives (the first one) included one or more chunk plays. Nebraska's third and fourth drives of the day started with an explosive play––typically a great sign––and both ended in punts. That should be an encouraging sign going forward.
3. Nebraska won the field-position battle!
The Huskers started 67.6 yards away from goal on average on Saturday, the Jaguars 70.9. Nebraska ranked 123rd in average starting field position a year ago, so this is a good start. Saturday's starting field position was the third-best of the Frost era. Maybe that was the problem for the offense––it wasn't used to having so little field with which to work. (Kidding. I think.)
4. Let the ball-hawking begin.
Nebraska forced five turnovers for the second time in the Frost era. That happened once under Mike Riley and just twice in seven years with Bo Pelini. The Huskers were a little turnover lucky, recovering 100% of South Alabama's fumbles (50% expected) and intercepting 42.8% of the passes it defended (20% expected). That's nice after the Huskers were below average in both categories last year. But they were above average in creating takeaway opportunities (forced fumbles plus passes defended). Nebraska did that on 9.05% of all the plays defended last year (16th nationally). Against the Jaguars it was 10.3%. It won the Huskers the game.