Hot Reads: Interceptions Can Change Your Life
Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Hot Reads: Interceptions Can Change Your Life

August 02, 2019

"We play DB, so we know that the ball is the most important thing," Nebraska cornerback Lamar Jackson said on Thursday. His final season at Nebraska officially began yesterday.

That might seem like a natural thing for a defensive back to say. Executing on that idea, however, wasn't a strength for the Huskers in 2019. At least early on. Like a lot of other things for last year's Huskers, things started to turn around midseason.

Here are Nebraska's 2018 interception numbers by month. I'm also including pass breakups and pass attempts here (including sacks) as well as interceptions as a percentage of passes defended (which are interceptions-plus-pass breakups) and pass attempts. Those percentages help illustrate the turn Nebraska's secondary made.

18 Season INT PBU INT/PD PASS ATT INT/ATT
Sept. 2 17 10.5% 156 1.3%
Oct. 5 25 16.7% 163 3.1%
Nov. 4 16 20.0% 131 3.1%
All Games 11 58 15.9% 450 2.4%

Nebraska wasn't good or lucky when it came to interceptions early on last year. On average, about 20 to 21% of a team's passes defended should be interceptions. Nebraska was below 16% for the season and didn't hit 20% in any four-game stretch until the final four-game stretch. Whether a team is way above 20% or way below, you can expect that number to regress to the mean. That's not a guarantee that will happen in any given time frame, but I'd be a little surprised if the Huskers were below 20% this season.

In fact you could attribute some of the Huskers' in-season gains in interceptions last year to simply getting back to normal, but I think you also have to chalk some of that up to increased familiarity with the scheme and constant teaching from defensive backs coach Travis Fisher, who is pretty clear on how he feels about pass deflections. He said in the spring that he scores those as a "missed opportunity," a chance at a takeaway squandered, and breakups are scored as a negative for grading purposes in Fisher's room.

That meant a lot of demerits in 2018. The Huskers ranked 17th nationally last year with 58 pass breakups despite playing just 12 games. Only USC (63) and Florida State (60) had more in as few games. The Trojans picked off just 6% of their passes defended (yikes), the Seminoles 16.7%.

But you can potentially see the value of having that message consistently conveyed in last season's numbers. The Huskers had virtually the same number of passes defended in the first month of the season (19) and the final month (20). That's despite facing 25 fewer pass attempts in November than the Huskers did in September. The final month was also the only month in which the Huskers' interception rate climbed to average.

If that's the starting point for 2019, rather than a lesson Nebraska has to learn again, the Huskers should be in a pretty good spot.

The message certainly seemed to have sunk in with Jackson, who tied for the team lead in 2018 with two picks.

"When the ball is in the sky, we all want it whether it is a pick or deflection," he said. "A pick is the money. We always talk that if you drop a ball, even in a drill it is 15 push-ups. That’s just trying to emphasize that it's just natural. When the ball hits your hands you have to take it. It can change everyone’s life."

I don't know about life-changing interceptions, but then again I'm not a DB. It probably makes sense to view them that way if you play in the secondary.

Season-changing, however, does feel like it's on the table. Nebraska was around the ball a lot in 2018. In 2019, it needs to just take it.

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