The smart approach in the Big Ten, if you're not Ohio State and can't rely on out-athleting every team you face, is to focus on efficiency. You may not have a J.K. Dobbins who can, as he did a couple of times early in the Buckeyes' blowout of Northwestern a week ago, turn a third-and-8 into a first down based on individual ability alone. But you can have a relentlessly drilled team that's where it's supposed to be most of the time and exists on extreme execution.
Wisconsin is that way. Iowa is that way. Northwestern is usually that way. Minnesota is showing flashes. Ohio State is that way and adds singular playmakers on top of it, which is why the Buckeyes run the Big Ten.
Indiana, right now, also looks like one of those high-execution teams. It might be the one thing a team has to do to have success in the Big Ten and the Hoosiers are doing it as they head to Lincoln this Saturday.
In terms of efficiency on both sides of the ball, Wisconsin, Ohio State and Penn State are on another planet right now in the Big Ten. The Badgers' offense has a success rate of 48.6% and is allowing a success rate of 29.9%. That difference, 20 percentage points, is the largest in the conference, though Ohio State is right behind at 19.9 and Penn State isn't far back at 18.5.
Fourth in the league? That's Indiana, the only other team in the Big Ten with a double-digit success rate differential. The Hoosiers are succeeding on 46.9% of offensive plays (fourth in the Big Ten) and holding opponents to 35.7% (fifth). That's winning football, any way you cut it.
Under new offensive coordinator Kalen Deboer, Indiana's offense is cruising along at 6.3 yards per play (third in the Big Ten) despite having to shuffle back and forth between quarterbacks Michael Penix Jr., the guy who won the job, and Peyton Ramsey, the starter the previous two seasons. It's efficient on runs and passes, and while not the most explosive unit out there, it hits enough big plays in the passing game to be dangerous.
Here's the Nebraska-Indiana comparison on offense:
|>Rush Succ. Rt.||40.9||42.0||45.0|
|>Pass Succ. Rt.||40.5||41.8||48.5|
|Explosive Plays Pct.||15.0||15.2||15.4|
|>Exp. Rush Pct.||13.5||13.6||11.5|
|>Exp. Pass Pct.||17.2||17.2||18.7|
Defensively, the Hoosiers are even better, which isn't a surprise given that defense is Tom Allen's trade. How is Indiana succeeding? I'll let Allen explain.
"Defensive football to me is so dependent upon three key variables. It all starts with takeaways, tackling, effort. Those are huge. Those are foundational things that I preach and we install those three things every single day. We make a huge deal about it," Allen said at his Monday press conference.
"But it really all starts with run fits because if you don't stop the run everything else just falls apart because then they can do two things to you––they can run it or they can throw it. So, it's those run fits. It's being able to be confident in those fits because that affects your tackling. If your spacing's not right you get out of position and miss tackles and it all just kind of crumbles from there."
Allen went on talking about run fits for another two minutes beyond what's quoted above. (Watch the whole thing here if you like, 12:20 mark.) Long story short, he's made a point to keep his defensive scheme fairly tight, tossing the things he found the team couldn't execute consistently.
So far in 2019, it's tough to argue with the results:
|>Rush Succ. Rt.||42.1||42.0||38.0|
|>Pass Succ. Rt.||38.7||41.8||33.5|
|Explosive Plays Pct.||14.5||15.2||10.0|
|>Exp. Rush Pct.||15.8||13.6||7.7|
|>Exp. Pass Pct.||12.9||17.2||12.3|
This whole picture sets up an interesting challenge for the Huskers on Saturday. Nebraska's offense, post-Illinois, was already fading from an explosive-plays point of view and the Huskers could be missing two or three of their most explosive play makers against Indiana. It was going to be tough to hit for a ton of big gains anyway against Indiana. The Hoosiers' defense ranks second in the Big Ten in overall explosive-plays rate and leads the league in preventing explosive rushes. (Run fits!)
"Make 'em earn every little thing they get. I believe in that. It's hard to drive the ball up and down the field by having to snap it over and over and over again."
That's another thing Tom Allen said this week. With some of the Huskers' most explosive options potentially on the bench (or away from the team), can Nebraska move the ball consistently and sustain drives? It has struggled with that of late.
Defensively, we have a more classic setup. Indiana isn't a huge big-play threat in the run game––particularly if Penix isn't available––but Nebraska gives up more explosive rushes than the average team. The passing-game matchup is the opposite. The Hoosiers hit for an explosive pass on 18.7% of attempts (fourth in the Big Ten), while Nebraska's defense gives one up just 12.9% of the time (eighth in the Big Ten).
Given all of the uncertainty around Nebraska's offense, plus that uncertainty playing right into a lot of what Indiana wants to do defensively, this might be a game where the Huskers' defense has to lead the way.
In that sense, I guess it makes perfect sense to break out those Blackshirts alternates.
The Grab Bag
- Barret Pickering is back at practice this week. Still to be determined if he’ll be availabe on Saturday.
- Speaking of kicking, Nebraska has extended a preferred walk-on offer to a junior college kicker.
- In the latest Lo-Down, Lauren West looks at Nebraska volleyball’s relationship with Adidas.
- Here is Tuesday’s practice report.
Today’s Song of Today
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.