Season openers always have the potential to get a little wild. Remember the time Nebraska gave up 602 yards to Wyoming? And won?
Or the time the Huskers defended 68 passes from Louisiana Tech in 1998? And won by four touchdowns?
Nebraska defended the same number of passes on Saturday against Arkansas State and gave up the most yards in a win since that 2013 Wyoming game. Here’s one key way the Huskers held on for the 43-36 win over Arkansas State.
Field position matters. Anyone who has watched more than a handful of football broadcasts knows that, but on a night when Nebraska yielded a lot of yards the Huskers needed every extra foot it asked Arkansas State to go.
The Red Wolves had 14 offensive drives on Saturday. Just one of them – the final possession resulting from a recovered onside kick – started on the Huskers’ half of the field. Arkansas State’s other 13 drives all had to cover at least 60 yards. Through solid special teams play, good offensive decision making and all of the other factors that make field position a good overall measurement of a team’s success – just ask Tom Osborne – the Red Wolves average starting field position on the night, minus the last drive, was 74.1 yards from goal.
Here’s the difference that makes: Nebraska’s average starting field position was 71.7 yards from goal. Two-and-a-half yards better may not seem like a huge margin, but Nebraska’s expected points per drive based on field position was an even two points. Arkansas State’s was 1.9.
Again, a small difference but it may have been the difference in the game. And it’s another sign that the defense did what it had to do. Nebraska gave up 1.9 points per drive, right at the expected number.
Compare that to the Huskers’ offense which averaged 2.8 points per drive against an expectation of 2. It wasn’t a gorgeous way to beat a two-touchdown underdog, but it’s better than the alternative.
Based on field position, the Huskers played a pretty “healthy” game.
A few other numbers catching my eye:
>>Nebraska’s offense posted a 51.4 percent success rate, which is a very good number. Arkansas State was even better at 52.8. We’ve already talked about how this seemed to be part of the plan for the Blackshirts, but that number will eventually have to come down. And I think it will. As for the offense, I’m expecting pretty good efficiency numbers from the Huskers in 2017.
>>Gotta have some toxic differential. Nebraska won this battle (explosive plays plus takeaways) 7-2. Based on that, the Huskers probably should’ve felt a little more comfortable in this game.
>>Nebraska is now 26-1 since 2007 when winning the turnover battle. The Huskers are 10-0 with a plus-two margin, as they were last night.
>>The Blackshirts were solid in their half of the field. Arkansas State had seven trips inside the Huskers’ 40 and came away with 3.9 points, a little below average. Nebraska’s offense, however, averaged 5.4 on five trips, a very good number.
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.