Hot Reads: Is Nebraska Better Than It Was a Year Ago? - Part One
Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Hot Reads: Is Nebraska Better Than It Was a Year Ago? – Part One

October 01, 2018

Is Nebraska football better than it was a year ago? Simple question and, for some, a pretty simple answer based on the Huskers' 0-4 record to start the Scott Frost era.

But football isn't simple. Take a 6-yard run on first down, for example. If you want to know more about that run than "it gained 6 yards," you are presented with countless questions. What role did the running back play? The offensive line? What about the play call? The defensive play call? Should we consider years of recruiting and available talent for each team? A straight handoff from quarterback to running back, resulting in 6 yards, contains almost endless variables.

So answering "are the Huskers' better than last year?" right now is anything but simple. It might not even be the right question, but it's one we're seeing more and more as Nebraska's current losing streak has reached eight games (dating back to 2017). That's why this week in Hot Reads I'll be looking at a different piece of evidence each day.

At the end of the week, draw your own conclusions and then get ready for the new pieces of evidence to emerge against Wisconsin.

Before we can get into any other aspect of this discussion, we have to start with turnovers. They change games, as every football coach ever has already told you, and Nebraska has been on the wrong side of randomness so far in 2018.

The Huskers' offense has fumbled nine times through four games. That's a lot. Only two teams –– North Carolina and Tulsa –– have fumbled more while only playing four games. Nebraska lost four of those fumbles, which is about right. Based on an average fumbles-lost rate of 50 percent, which holds steady year after year, the Huskers should have 4.5, which is impossible in practice. But in theory the Huskers have half a fumble more than you'd expect. No big deal. 

Passing is a different story. About 20 percent of a defense's passes defended (pass breakups-plus-interceptions) are actual interceptions, another number that's pretty steady year to year. The four defenses that have faced Nebraska have only combined for 12 passes defended so far, but five of those are interceptions. That's 41.7 percent. And I think it says something interesting about Adrian Martinez three games into his career.

The Huskers' true freshman quarterback has been good about making good decisions and keeping his throws away from trouble. Most of the time. But he's still a true freshman quarterback, and two of his three interceptions –– backup Andrew Bunch also has two, and Martinez's third was a batted ball at the line of scrimmage –– have come at really inopportune times, times when excellent decision making was at a premium. It's reasonable to expect that to get better with experience. It's also reasonable to expect a defense to intercept just 2.4 of those 12 Nebraska passes it has gotten a hand on this season.

That leaves Nebraska's offense with nine turnovers against an expected number of 6.9, 2.1 in the red. Now let's flip to defense.

The only thing a defense can control when it comes to fumbles is how many it forces, and that's often a subjective, hit-or-error-type decision left in the hands of the official stats crew. But Nebraska only has one forced fumble this season, tied for last in the country. Husker opponents have fumbled four other times on their own, and Nebraska has recovered just one of those five total fumbles. Here the Huskers are -1.5 on the season based on national averages.

But the bigger difference this season so far, again, has been in the interceptions category, a point continually hit on by just about every member of Nebraska's defensive staff. The Huskers are getting their hands on the football in the passing game at an above-average rate. Their 4.25 pass breakups per game ranks 35th nationally and cornerback Dicaprio Bootle leads the Big Ten with 10 breakups on his own. 

Yet the Huskers only have two interceptions on the year. On 19 passes defended the average team could expect nearly four. Does that mean Nebraska's a below-average team? Not on its own, though overall the Huskers certainly are at the moment. But the secondary was the group on Nebraska's defense with the most question marks entering the season and they're answering a few questions early this season.

The number of passes defended is an encouraging sign for a group that has not been handled with kid gloves through the transition to a new staff. Defensive backs coach Travis Fisher holds his group to a high standard and the scheme, for corners especially, asks them to win one-on-one often. That has produced some results, particularly from Bootle, but those breakups haven't resulted in interceptions as often as you'd expect. The Huskers are earning more than they're getting here through four games.

Add all of those differences up and you have an expected Nebraska turnover margin of -0.6 against an actual turnover margin of -6.

Does that mean Nebraska is actually better than it was a year ago? I wouldn't say that yet, but I would say this: You have to consider some bad turnovers luck when considering Nebraska's 0-4 start. Last year's team wasn't good at winning the turnover battle either, but it wasn't unlucky. The 2017 Huskers' expected turnover margin of -7.6 nearly matched the actual margin of -7. It was a below-average team with average turnover behavior.

The 2018 team, through the first third of the season, is a below-average team with way-below-average turnover numbers. Would it be better than 0-4 if its turnover margin was closer to even, as expected based on how often it's putting the ball at risk both offensively and defensively?

I'd be willing to bet Nebraska wouldn't be winless. That doesn't change the four losses that are already in the past, but it's worth knowing about as everyone considers the future.

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