Hot Reads: Turnovers
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Hot Reads: Turnovers, Trailing and 2018 Nebraska (So Far)

September 20, 2018

If you had place a bet right now, will Nebraska be better on offense or defense at the end of the year? I came into the season expecting defense to be the correct answer to that question, but that's not how it is so far after two games.

At least according to one overall power metric. In S&P+ the Huskers' offense ranks 45th, the defense 58th. Not a huge difference, but it is when you start adding some context. The biggest asterisk here is, of course, the absence of starting quarterback Adrian Martinez for half the games constituting this admittedly small sample.

The next biggest asterisk? I would nominate this one: The Huskers' offense has run just 30 of its 158 total plays this season with a lead. That's 19 percent. Nebraska has run 101 plays while trailing. Last season, UCF ran 133 plays without a lead. All of last season.

Nebraska's defense has had a slightly better go of it, running 61-of-140 plays with a lead (43.6%) and 57-of-140 while trailing (40.7%). The defense has had the wrong end of the field-position stick, however, compared to the offense, but if I were a defensive coordinator and somebody said "you can have bad field position and a lead, or good field position and trail," I'd take the first option.

Why? I think are a couple of potential reasons, but the big one is simple –– turnovers. Below is the paragraph of the offseason that I haven't been able to stop thinking about. It's from David Hale's story for ESPN on trying to "coach" turnovers.

The math suggests things like pressure and sack rates have surprisingly little correlation to takeaways, while less intuitive metrics like yards per rush are a better predictor. Even the notion that turnovers dictate the outcome of a game offers something of a chicken-or-egg conundrum. Every FBS team has a positive turnover margin when already ahead on the scoreboard over the past decade, and only about a third of turnovers are committed by the team that's ahead, with only about 14 percent from teams ahead by a touchdown or more. So are turnovers the key to winning or simply a byproduct of it?

I don't doubt the math on that, but next offseason I want to do a deep dive on it just to sort of see the data for myself. But I did do a quick calculation of what it looks like in 2018 so far and Hale's "only about a third of turnovers are committed by the team that's ahead" is holding steady so far.

Here's what it looks like for offenses in 2018.

Offense is… Fumbles (% of) Fum. Lost Ints Turnovers
Leading 164 (35.5%) 80 (36.0%) 107 (36.1%) 187 (36.1%)
Tied 55 (11.9%) 32 (14.4%) 33 (11.1%) 65 (12.5%)
Trailing 243 (52.6%) 110 (49.5%) 156 (52.7%) 266 (51.4%)

That's only three weeks worth of data, but it's pretty remarkable how there's not a ton of variance between percentages for fumbles, fumbles lost and interceptions. It would stand to reason that teams that trail would need to throw a little more and interceptions might go up, but fumbles are essentially doing the same thing so far in 2018. 

While it's tough to draw a straight line to any of Nebraska's six giveaways (99th nationally) this season and say they happened because the Huskers were trailing, the Huskers were trailing for four-of-six, setting up a sort of chicken-or-egg scenario. Were you trailing because of turnovers or turning it over because you were trailing? Nebraska's season so far has offered arguments for both sides.

Meanwhile, both of the takeaways happened with Nebraska trailing, which goes against type a little bit.

Yes, it's very, very early. But to get back to the question that opened this post, which unit will be better at the end of the season. I came in thinking defense, and it has been impressive. If the Huskers can get the field-position numbers trending in the right direction, maybe it still will be the defense. 

But I think the offense has overcome more at this early stage based on what it's done in less than ideal circumstances. That should be an encouraging sign for the rest of the 2018.

Provided the Huskers stop having to play from behind all the time.

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