On Saturday, Nebraska became the seventh team this season to average 6.5 yards per play in a game and lose. There have been 250 games involving at least one FBS team so far this season, and 88 of those teams hit for 6.5 yards per play or better. Eighty-one of those teams won (92%). Nebraska is in the remaining 8%.
But wait, there's more. Four of the seven teams that lost while hitting that mark were simply outgunned. Charlotte averaged 7.4 yards per play (great!) against Appalachian State, but allowed 7.8 (oof!). Vanderbilt was at a solid 6.6 last Saturday at Purdue, but the Boilermakers were at 7.7. Losses like that are easy to understand.
The Huskers weren't in that category against Colorado. Nebraska out-gained the Buffs on a per-play basis 6.5-5.9. That makes the Huskers one of three teams this season to hit for at least 6.5 yards per play––typically, that's top-25 offense if a team averages that for a season––hold its opponents to fewer yards per play and lose. That club includes Florida State, which out-gained Boise State 6.87-5.75 and lost, and Utah State, which had a 2 yard edge over Wake Forest (7.54-5.51) but was -2 in turnovers and lost by three in Week 1.
No matter how this Nebraska season ends, this Colorado game is going to stick out as a big missed opportunity. If this season is viewed as a success at the end of the year, the loss in Boulder will still be there, a mark in the loss column that easily could've been in the other column. If this season isn't viewed as a success at the end of the year, the loss in Boulder might look like the first indication that this Nebraska team still had to exorcise old demons and figure out how to win.
It's still hard to figure out exactly what flipped in this game. Through seven drives for each offense––the last point at which the score was still 17-0––Nebraska had a success-rate edge of 54.8-31.0. That's what 17-0 looks like. If anything, you could argue that the lead should have been larger with numbers like that.
But it wasn't. Once Colorado hit its first explosive play of the game, a 22-yard pass on second-and-14 on the eighth drive, the Buffs were off and running. That drive ended in a touchdown. The flea-flicker happened on CU's next offensive drive. Overall, the Buffs had a 70.8% success rate on its four second-half touchdown drives. The only drive Nebraska's defense "won" over the final 20 minutes of the game was the 11th one. Colorado only managed a 33% success rate on that one, but it also started at Nebraska's 20-yard line following an Adrian Martinez fumble so that still resulted in a field goal.
Here's a chart of the cumulative success rate by drive in this game for each offense. It will give you a snapshot of when things switched. Colorado's fifth drive was right before the end of the first half, Nebraska's fifith drive was the first of the second half.
That's the key question for Nebraska this week and going forward: How does that sort of change happen? What flipped the switch? The first 40 minutes of this game looked like a series of strong responses. The Huskers' offense responded to a tough first outing, with a strong start against Colorado. It responded to what looked like a drive-saving penalty on its opening defensive drive by regrouping and getting a stop. The defense responded two drives later following a turnover and got another stop.
Nebraska was answering questions, responding to adversity, doing the things good teams do.
And then it stopped.
There are a lot of theories to test there when trying to figure out what happened. Answers, however, are going to take some time.
The Grab Bag
- Derek Peterson takes a close look back at the Colorado game in his Monday column.
- Jacob Padilla looks at the impact of CU’s big plays in Saturday’s loss. (Premium)
- Nebraska volleyball had to survive an upset bid from San Diego, but finished the weekend 2-0.
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.