There were two impossible-to-miss moments during Nebraska’s loss to Wisconsin when it looked the Huskers had a great chance to flip the game. As seems to be mandatory in 2018, both were heavily influenced by Nebraska penalties.
The first included a suite of penalties leading up to Scott Frost’s decision to go for it on fourth-and-11 in the second quarter. A JD Spielman catch and remarkable run down to the Badgers’ 12-yard line was negated by an iffy illegal blocking call and put the ball back at the 36. On third-and-12 from the 38, Adrian Martinez found Spielman for 20 yards but that play was wiped out by a personal foul. Avoid either and the Huskers probably have a much easier decision to make when that drive ended. Better odds that it ends in a touchdown, too.
The second was the pass to Maurice Washington near the end of the third quarter. Trailing 34-17, there was still plenty of ground to make up but if that 33-yard pass stands, plus 15 on the end of it for targeting, the Huskers have the ball at the Wisconsin 10. Thanks to a holding penalty, the Huskers had it at their own 32.
This isn’t unfamiliar territory for this year’s team. Nebraska is one of three teams averaging more than 10 (10.4) penalties per game and ranks 129th nationally in that category. It ranks dead last in penalty yards per game. You already knew all of that, but the question that consumed my Sunday was, “What impact are all these penalties having on the Huskers’ ability to score or prevent points?”
That’s really the question when it comes to penalties. A team could probably survive averaging 10 5-yard penalties a game, but the 10- and 15-yard penalties become costly on the scoreboard.
This is very much an estimation because we’re going to be talking about expected points to determine how much is being lost via penalties, and I used BCftoys.com’s points per drive data culled from the past decade of college football. From there it’s pretty simple: To use the first Spielman example from above, if there’s no holding penalty and Nebraska’s drive is at the Badgers’ 12 the expected points for an average offense at that point is 5.07. Post-penalty, at the 38, it’s 3.5, a loss* of 1.57 expected points.
* For my purposes that is. In reality, having third-and-12 from the 38 probably isn’t an expectation of 3.5 points but something less than that. So in this specific case the expected points lost is probably understating the total impact of that penalty, but for ease of calculation I didn’t include down-and-distance into the numbers. So, again, it’s an estimation, but it will still tell us plenty.
On offense the Huskers have had 34 penalties, including special teams penalties that affected offensive field position. Based on pre-penalty field position, those drives were expected to produce 100.8 points. Post-penalty, the expectation dropped to 83.1. Based on this estimate, those penalties have made the Huskers’ drives worth 17.7 fewer points on the season. If that doesn’t feel like a lot it’s -0.52 points per penalty. At Nebraska’s average of 6.8 offensive penalties per game, it’s costing the Huskers 3.5 points every time out.
If you’re wondering how Nebraska is 48th nationally in yards per game but 114th in points, this is a key part of the answer. Nebraska has scored on a drive including a penalty just 10 times this season (32.2%). While the penalties reduced the Huskers’ expected points output by 17 points to 83, Nebraska has only actually scored 55 points following those penalties. Those 3.5 points are valuable to an offense that’s moving the ball but only scoring 21.8 points per game.
It’s even worse on defense. Nebraska has 17 defensive penalties this season. Those drives were worth 59.5 points to an average opponent pre-penalty, and 72.1 points post-penalty. In reality, Nebraska’s opponents have scored 83 points on those drives that included at least one defensive penalty. There are 14 such drives and 13 of them have ended in points (11 touchdowns, two field goals).
Overall Nebraska’s defensive penalties have increased the opponent’s scoring expectation by 12.6 points on the season, a “cost” of 0.74 points per penalty. It’s high because the Huskers’ penalties on this side of the ball have been of the major variety. The average yards penalized on defense is 12.5 compared to 8 on offense. That’s a lot of personal foul and pass interference penalties. And the numbers here are probably understating the total impact of the defensive penalties. Three of Nebraska’s penalties here wiped out incompletions on third-and-24, third-and-9 and third-and-10. Another negated an interception on third-and-10.
So what’s the total bill come to for all of Nebraska’s penalties this season? Based on field position lost (offense) and gained (defense), you could estimate the penalties have had an impact of about -31 points for the Huskers’ overall scoring margin (-6.2 per game). That’s 32.3 percent of Nebraska’s actual scoring margin (-96) on the season.
The Grab Bag
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- Nebraska has plenty of needs to still address in the 2019 recruiting class, but Greg Smith takes a quick look ahead at 2020 recruiting, which is rapidly approaching.
- The Huskers opened as an 8.5-point underdog at Northwestern.
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.