It was an insulated coveralls kind of day in Lincoln, and in this part of the country there’s no shortage of camo and canvas in the closets. Nebraska fans would just as soon wear red, of course, and many still did. But you know the Nebraska wind is aggressive and paired with winter temperatures when the coveralls come out. That’s when you need the dense weave of cotton duck. The only good thing about those days is that Husker fans already have the clothes they need, something functional that serves a specific purpose.
Despite the score, Nebraska’s 54-35 win over Illinois reminded me of the well-worn Carhart dotting the stands on Saturday. It was strong overall, a little frayed and stained in spots, but it got the job done.
It was utilitarian, and I don’t know that I’ve thought of this brand of Nebraska football that way before. I don’t know that the Huskers were in a position to be thought of that way prior to Saturday.
The early games of 2018 were marked by mistakes, growing pains, however you want to term it. The middle games –– say the Purdue-Wisconsin-Northwestern stretch –– showed improvements in areas, but no improvement in the win column. Then the wins came and with them another gear for the offense paired with just enough defense to put away the three weakest teams on the schedule with relative ease.
And that was real progress.
Saturday was another one of those. Nebraska didn’t play perfectly, but it got the majority of the breaks, including two muffed punt returns and a blocked punt, all of which led to points for the Huskers.
“About time,” Scott Frost said of the sudden bounty of good fortune.
The Huskers hovered around a 17-point favorite all week. I wondered all week if the weather would be the only thing that could stop this game from looking like what everyone envisioned. Illinois came in with an explosive rushing attack. Nebraska could be explosive in multiple ways. If it was 60 degrees and sunny, prepare for a ton of points.
But 23 degrees with 20 mile-per-hour winds? That seemed to scream out for a bit of smash-mouth football. Problem is, there isn’t much smash-mouth football left. Anywhere. Not even in Nebraska in a classically Cornhusker-cold day.
The Huskers’ offense put up the numbers it now tends to put up. Well, better actually. Nearly 9 yards per play will win a team most games, particularly when paired with 54 points.
And the Illini offense put up the numbers it now tends to put up. Well, a little bit better actually, too. Without star running back Reggie Corbin for the majority of the game, Illinois still averaged 7.8 yards per rush and 6.9 yards per play. Good enough to win most games, except for one in which that team came in second in both categories. Still, numbers like that will lead to some fretting about the defense in the week ahead.
Somehow, in some football circles, that sort of win still seems to be viewed as less-than. My theory is that a cold day only compounds these feelings. A 19-0 Nebraska win would’ve seemed a fit for the frosty temperature. A 54-35 win is the same point differential, but with a bunch more yards.
But is there really any difference when you boil things down to the simple measure of winning? If the goal for a football team is to exert its edge, whatever that may be, on as many plays as possible, does it matter where on the yards or point scale it happens?
Here’s what I mean: On paper Nebraska gave up a lot of yards to Illinois. It also gained a lot of yards and was plus-three in turnovers. There was a point in the third quarter when the Huskers led by 24 and had scored 24 points off of four Illini turnovers. It made for a simple bit of math. Perhaps too simple. One could have argued that the offenses were essentially playing each other to stalemate and it was the turnovers that were the difference.
Nebraska’s offense still had to convert those turnovers into points, however. In reality, the offenses weren’t playing each other to stalemate at all. On the day the Huskers averaged 0.79 points per play. That’s extraordinarily good. Oklahoma leads the country at 0.77 this season, Alabama’s second at 0.74. (Now, those two teams do it against every team and Nebraska did it against Illinois in one game, but stay with me.)
Illinois, for all of its big runs, averaged 0.47 points per play. That’s above the national average (0.43), but not drastically so. On average on Saturday, every play Nebraska ran was worth 0.32 points more than an Illinois play. Strip away all of the other stuff – the point totals, the yards, the big plays, etc. –– and that’s pretty resounding.
Alabama destroys teams this year with a 0.52 points-per-play edge on average. Clemson is second at 0.48. A 0.32 difference, if the Huskers could do it over a full season, would rank eighth in the country right now.
They can’t do it over a full season yet, but those days are going to come. It may not look the way most people would expect or some might prefer.
But being in the cold, watching it unfold in front of a Sea of Red dotted by brown canvas, finally showed the utility of it.
This way of doing it may not have the characteristic ruggedness of a worn pair of coveralls, but it kept the cold out just the same.
Brandon is the Managing Editor for Hail Varsity and has covered Nebraska athletics for the magazine and web since 2012, Hail Varsity’s first season on the scene. His sports writing has also been featured by Fox Sports, The Guardian and CBS Sports.