Kickers miss kicks. That’s just reality. From 2011 through 2020, the past 10 seasons, there were only 10 FBS kickers that finished a season perfect (minimum 1.0 attempts per game).
Perfection is the hope, but it’s not a realistic expectation.
But a 3-for-8 start on field goals, and 13-for-16 on extra points, isn’t the expectation either for Nebraska’s Connor Culp. Last year’s Big Ten Kicker of the Year was perfect on extra points (20-for-20) and 13-for-15 on field goals in 2020.
Scott Frost noted after the loss to Oklahoma––where Culp hit a career-long 51-yarder, but missed from 35 and 50––that his kicker dealt with an injury during fall camp. “I don’t know if it’s lack of reps or what it is,” Frost said.
His 37.5% make rate on field goals through four games isn’t all that common. Over that same stretch from above, the past 10 seasons, zero FBS kickers with at least eight attempts had made 37.5% or fewer of their field goal attempts at the end of September, a rough approximation of where Nebraska currently sits four games into its 2021 season.
“The guys haven’t lost faith in him and I haven’t either,” quarterback Adrian Martinez said of Culp. “He’s a man and I know he’s going to come back around and be the same guy that he has been for us previously.”
That Culp’s current struggles stand out this starkly a month into the season make it likely Martinez will be correct. Culp probably will return to form. The point here is not to note that he’s struggling. Everybody can plainly see that.
But Frost also noted after the Oklahoma game that the kicking game cost the Huskers points. “That’s happened too often,” he said. Nebraska’s two losses this season were both one-score losses.
Just how many points has the Huskers’ kicking game cost it so far? Here are two ways to look at that.
Entering 2021, Culp had two full seasons under his belt, the 2017 season at LSU and the 2020 season at Nebraska. He was 24-for-31 on field goals (77.4%) and 40-for-43 on extra points (93.0%). The sample sizes are still relatively small, but entering the year you could’ve expected every Culp field goal attempt to produce 2.3 points on average (3 x .774) and every extra point to be worth .93 points.
But not all field goals are created equal, of course. To dial this in a bit more, let’s look at those field goals in buckets: 0–20 yards (these attempts are pretty rare), and then 10-yard increments thereafter. The table below shows Culp’s 2021 rates by distance, the actual points Nebraska has scored off those kicks, Culp’s career make rate entering the season and expected points based on that rate for 2021’s kicks.
|KICK TYPE||2021||POINTS||2-YEAR RATE||EXPECTED PTS|
Nebraska has gotten 22 points from its kicking game through four games. Assuming Culp kicked to his career averages entering the season, you could reasonably expect Nebraska to have 30.3, a difference of 8.3 points.
The Huskers have outscored their opponents 118-63 in total this season, not the scoring margin of a 2-2 team thought that’s largely influenced by a 52-7 win over Fordham. Take that win over an FCS opponent out and Nebraska’s scoring margin is 66-60. Culp contributed 10 points against the Rams, one field goal plus seven extra points, and that’s out, too. Against three FBS opponents this season, Nebraska’s gotten 12 points from the kicking game against an expected value of 22.9, a difference of 10.9.
Given that sample sizes here are pretty small, let’s expand them a bit and look at what you could reasonably expect a Nebraska kicker to have hit over the past seven seasons (not a magic number, just the earliest year––2014––for which I have play-by-play data readily available). Expand the time frame and things look closer to what you expect, which is to say the make percentage goes down the longer the kick gets.
Here are the same 2021 numbers through four games pitted against what you would expect from a Nebraska kicker based on the previous seven seasons. Call it VORNK, Value Over Replacement Nebraska Kicker, because VORNK is fun to say.
|KICK TYPE||2021||POINTS||7-YEAR NU RATE||EXPECTED PTS|
Through four games, based on the past seven seasons of Nebraska kicking, the Huskers are down 8.9 points from expectation on the season. Take out the Fordham game and it’s 11.8 points not on the board that would’ve been fair to expect based on the recent past.
Again, none of this is to pile on Culp. After missing two extra points in an eight-point loss to Illinois, special teams coordinator and outside linebackers coach Mike Dawson said he noticed Culp’s “swing” was off, likening it to golf. I don’t even play golf, but the reference still hits home. To have such a finely-tuned movement all of the sudden betray you––for physical or mental reasons, and probably both––must feel like, well, a betrayal.
Nor is Culp the only one culpable for Nebraska’s special teams play through four games. Here’s a fun fact: Nebraska has given up more points (4) on special teams through bizarre stuff––a punt return for a safety, a blocked extra point for a two-point conversion the other way––than it has in conventional ways, one made field goal (3).
Rather, the aim here was to quantify. Frost said the Huskers have left points on the field. How many? Probably between 10 and 12. Call it 14 or 16 if you want to include giving up points on special teams plays you don’t see very often.
In a high-stakes season, where Nebraska’s two losses have come by a total of 15 points, it adds up.