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Hot Reads: No Fear of Failure Trumps Expected Success?

January 09, 2019

For the last five seasons of Nebraska football, I've gotten into the ritual of charting Husker games as they happen. I'm not talking about formations, personnel, etc., but just basic play data that, when tallied, provides a few key numbers the standard box scores don't. Success rate, a Football Outsiders measure of efficiency, is the big one I want, and if Nebraska is playing I always have live access to where both teams stand in that category.

It's usually not of much interest to anyone but me, but it has become how I watch football now. Occasionally I might, say, go back and chart the 1997 Nebraska-Missouri game just for fun, or track a really big game just so I feel like I have a better understanding of what's happening. I thought about doing that for Monday night's title game, and I wish I had now because it was a strange game statistically speaking. 

At some point in the third quarter I pulled up the live-stats feed because it felt like the game wasn't totally adding up. You could see there, at the point I looked, that the yards were about even, the Tide had more first downs, it was winning the rushing battle, all things that usually indicate a score closer than 44-16. If I'd been tracking success rate it only would've added fuel to that particular fire.

Via Bill Connelly's great breakdown of the game, Alabama won big on first downs. That might seem like a small detail, but that alone is usually enough to exert quite a bit of pressure on an opponent via down and distance. The Tide had a slight edge on second down and things were even on fourth down. Despite having more yards to go on average, however, Clemson won big on third down.

This game swung on third downs, and in a dramatic way. Clemson faced much larger yards to go on third downs — 7.7 to Bama’s 4.5 — but went 10-for-15 to Bama’s 4-for-13. And among those 10 conversions were passes of 26, 37, 62, and 74 yards. Bama won the other downs by a dramatic margin (67-41) and got destroyed. Clemson’s timing was beyond impeccable.

That wasn't the only reason this mostly even game was instead 44-16. The Tigers also maximized their scoring opportunities (Alabama's decision making no doubt influenced by Clemson having an early lead), won the turnover battle (and converted both into touchdowns) and lost the big-play count (though Clemson's big plays were bigger, negating the quantity advantage). Football is a multivariate problem and nothing exemplified that better than Monday night.

But a stat wasn't what stuck with me from Connelly's breakdown of the game. Rather, it was this line: "But the thing that radiates off of your television when Alabama and Clemson play is that Clemson isn’t even slightly scared." It was one of those delightful moments of recognition as a reader where you say to yourself, "Yep, that's how it is."

The Tigers aren't scared of Alabama, and they might be one of many teams that would say that but perhaps the only one that has consistently shown it. More than the numbers on Monday night –– which were fascinating –– I spent a lot of the time thinking about the mantra that came to Nebraska from UCF with this coaching staff: "No fear of failure."

If you want to know what that mindset looks like at the highest level, just rewatch Alabama-Clemson. In that particular game, no fear of failure was greater than the expectation of success.

The Grab Bag

  • Nebraska women’s basketball hung with top-10 Maryland early before the Terps pulled away late. (Photos)
  • Great breakdown by Jacob Padilla as he looks at one of the bright spots from Nebraska’s loss to Iowa –– Isaiah Roby.
  • Looking for all of the Huskers’ rankings in the way-too-early top 25s? You can find that here.
  • Greg Smith looks at some of the recruiting lessons to be learned from Clemson’s run.

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