“It’s been a pretty common fact for the games that I coach in that if you lose the turnover battle and you don’t rush for as many yards as the other guy, you lose the game,” Mike Riley said not long after Nebraska lost to the “other guy,” Oregon, in Autzen Stadium.
I don’t have the numbers to support that statement, but I also have no reason to doubt it. Turnovers alone are a very good indicator of which team won. Over the first two weeks in college football, 53 of the 60 teams (88.3 percent) to win the turnover battle won the game. Add rushing yards to that and you’re probably able to determine the winner 90-to-95 percent of the time on those two stats alone.
Nebraska’s four interceptions obviously played a huge role on Saturday. The game ended, effectively, on Tanner Lee’s fourth interception. But there are a couple of other numbers — maddening ones for Husker fans — that help explain how the Ducks held on for a 42-35 win.
One of the categories I was watching closely yesterday was Oregon’s points per trip inside the 40. I didn’t doubt the Ducks’ ability to move the ball, but I thought Nebraska could survive by limiting the damage down deep.
Oregon’s offense crossed the Huskers’ 40 eight times in the game, including on six-of-eight first-half drives. That’s a problem on its own, but the Ducks also turned each of those first-half trips into touchdowns. Nebraska did get two inside-the-40 stops in the second half, but Oregon still averaged 5.25 points per trip. A little above 4 is average.
Two things make that number sting even more.
One, Nebraska was actually better at converting scoring opportunities into points. The Huskers got 35 points out of six trips inside Oregon’s 40, an average of 5.8. Nebraska’s fifth trip, the drive following Aaron William’s interception, was the only one not to produce a touchdown. So the Huskers had a better scoring rate, but frequency matters here as well.
Two, it didn’t have to be this way. Every team, coach, player and pundit feels that way after a game, but some of Oregon’s success at finishing drives came when Nebraska should’ve had an edge. Three of the Ducks’ first-half touchdowns came on drives kept alive or ended on a third-and-long conversion. Oregon’s first two drives ended on third-and-8 touchdown passes. It’s sixth drive stayed alive with a tipped pass that went for 21 yards on third and 17.
Just to give you an idea of what’s normal here, an FBS offense converted a third down of 7-plus yards 25 percent of the time in 2016. On Saturday, Oregon was four-for-seven (57.1 percent) in those situations. The Ducks averaged 22.4 yards per pass on third down, and converted seven-of-14 overall.
Last week, Arkansas State was seven-of-13 on third down. Right now, the Huskers rank 120th nationally in third-down defense. If you’re looking for growth opportunities for the Blackshirts, this is a big one. Nebraska has put teams in third down at an about-average clip, but it hasn’t gotten off the field nearly often enough.
Against Oregon, it could’ve turned touchdowns into field goals. There were three chances to do that yesterday and the Ducks won each time.
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.