What is the best football game Nebraska has played since joining the Big Ten in 2011? These are the things you think about it when you’ve spent so long on the couch that a trip to the hardware store to pick up some spackle starts to feel like the vacation you’ve always dreamed of.
But, it’s probably not worth it nor all that responsible to take that spackle vacation in these times, so instead of that you set out to answer the football question instead and that’s how we end up here.
First, some parameters: I’m not looking for Nebraska’s “biggest win” since joining the Big Ten (probably Iowa in 2012), nor the best team the Huskers have beaten (2011 Michigan State). What I’m after is determining the best game Nebraska has played and there are all sorts of statistical ways to measure that.
I’m going to lean heavily on success rate, a measure of how often a team stays on schedule, as it is a down-by-day snapshot of a team’s efficiency. It also will typically tell you which team won the game more consistently than any other stat (even turnover margin). It would be hard for a team to make the case that it played well if it didn’t have a good success rate.
So, that’s where I started and it narrowed the field pretty quickly. From there, I started looking at additional areas to find complete performances. That helped me get to a top five. I considered nonconference games in these rankings, but opponent strength matters. Seven of Nebraska’s 10 best games by success rate were against G5 teams and, unless it was against a very good G5 team, those games aren’t making the cut. There’s an objective base here with some subjective ordering.
I’m going to do this in three parts over the next couple of days––offense, defense and then combined to come up with the overall best Nebraska performances of the Big Ten era. First up, the top five offensive performances.
5. Indiana 38, Nebraska 31 – 2019
Yeah, probably wasn’t the first game you thought of or even the fifth but the Huskers did average 7.04 yards per play against what would end up being the best Indiana team in quite some time. That was the second-best YPP average in Big Ten play last season for the Huskers trailing only the 8.22 put up against Wisconsin. So why isn’t the game against a better Badgers team the pick here? The 37-21 loss to Wisconsin last year was really big-play driven (it was Nebraska’s second-best game of the Big Ten era in terms of explosiveness). That’s not a bad thing, but it’s not as sustainable as something like success rate. Hitting a bunch of explosive plays is like getting hot from 3. You’ll take it, you just better not count on it happening every game. The game against Indiana was a more efficient performance. The Huskers’ success rate (52.9%) was the 13th-best since 2011 and sixth-best against a Power 5 opponent. Add in that this happened with Nebraska using three quarterbacks and it gets a little extra credit.
4. Nebraska 39, Michigan State 38 – 2015
This Michigan State team was a little bit overvalued––sixth in the final AP poll but 20th in SP+––but it lives on as a happy moment in a rough first season under Mike Riley. It also had a fantastic finish. But get past all that context and Nebraska’s offense played really well against a top-25 Spartan defense. The 7.23 yards per play Michigan State allowed were the most on the season. Nebraska did a good job of succeeding when it should with a 56.9% success rate on standard downs (16th-best since 2011) and was even a little better when it shouldn’t have been with a 45% success rate on passing downs (14th since 2011). Chalk all that up to the success Nebraska was having on the ground. The Huskers––behind 179 yards on the ground, 98 from Imani Cross––posted a 61% success rate on rushing plays. That doesn’t happen against Michigan State very often.
3. Nebraska 53, Minnesota 28 – 2018
Scott Frost’s first win at Nebraska is, when you combine all of the statistical factors, the best game a Husker offense has played against a Big Ten opponent. In the Big Ten era for Nebraska this game ranks first in predicted points added, second in overall success rate, third in standard-downs success rate, eighth in passing-downs success rate, sixth in rushing-plays success rate and second in passing-plays success rate. In short, everything the Huskers did worked that day and it felt at the time like a hard reboot of the Frost era. Here, finally, was the offensive everyone was talking about. Why isn’t this game No. 1 on this list? That’s where strength of opponent comes into play.
2. Nebraska 41, Miami 31 – 2014
If you haven’t recently, this game is a really fun rewatch. Back-and-forth, physical, testy and Ameer Abdullah (229 yards, 2 TDs) just pummeling the Hurricane defenseThis is a 2014 regular season match up between Miami Hurricanes vs Nebraska Cornhuskers. It’s the third-best success rate game for Nebraska in the Big Ten era and the fifth-best game in terms of offensive line yards (those rushing yards which you can attribute to the line). If that Miami team had been a little bit better, this game, which felt pretty vintage Nebraska-y, might be the best of the past nine seasons on offense.
1. Ohio State 36, Nebraska 31 – 2018
You could argue, and I will, that we’re still feeling the reverberations of this game. Given Ohio State’s strength at the time, and some glowing comments from Urban Meyer afterward, this was the game that launched many of the offseason expectations in 2019 and, when those proved to be a bit empty, fostered a backlash to any such expectations here in 2020. In that way, we’re still dealing with the promise showed in Columbus. The amazing thing here is that Nebraska went toe-to-toe with the Buckeyes and did it without a ton of big plays. The Huskers’ explosiveness ranked 107th out of 115 games, but it’s success rate ranked 10th. Nebraska moved it consistently. It was strong, sustainable football. Now, that wasn’t one of Ohio State’s best defenses, but it was still a good team full of talent.
Big picture, I was a little surprised by two things through this process. Once I had resisted the siren song of spackle and decided to dive in here, I expected the 2012 team to have more games in contention. That offense averaged 34.8 points per game and 6.2 yards per play, but it’s two most efficient games were against Southern Mississippi and Arkansas State.
Second surprise––I didn’t expect to have three games from the past two seasons here, but once I got into the numbers it was a pretty easy call. It’s a reminder, for me at least, that the issue through two seasons under Frost hasn’t been one of a ceiling but one of consistency. Nebraska has shown flashes of what everyone assumed was coming back before the 2018 seasons, it just hasn’t had those kind of games often enough.
The Grab Bag
- As the veteran among the group, Ben Stille has a vital role on the Huskers’ defensive line.
- Jacob Padilla considers some what-ifs from a college basketball season cut short.
- Derek Peterson catches up with some former Huskers as they prepare for the draft in an uncertain time.
- 2021 offensive lineman Branson Yager talks with Greg Smith about his eagerness to visit Nebraska. (Premium)
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.