How the Huskers Go 10-2 in 2019
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

How the Huskers Go 10-2 in 2019

August 24, 2019

Vegas has set Nebraska’s win total at 8.5 for the 2019 season. 

That would double the wins the program experienced in Scott Frost’s first year at the helm. (But you didn’t need me to tell you that.) That would equal the number of wins the program has experienced in the last two years. (But you didn’t need me to tell you that either.) Hitting eight, depending on who you ask, would be viewed as a success. But what about a dream season?

While Brandon Vogel has presented the case for Nebraska falling a game-and-a-half shy of expectations (a 7-5 record), I’m going a game-and-a-half in the other direction. Nebraska goes 10-2. A dream season compared to what’s gone on around here recently. The Frost statue would begin construction. All the people would be happy. (But you didn’t need me to tell you that either.)

So what I’m actually here to tell you is how 10-2 becomes reality.

3-1

No, not the “Warriors blew a 3-1 series lead” joke, though those jokes are always acceptable in my book; if Nebraska gets to 10-2 on the season, it’s in part because it went at least 3-1 in the biggest games on the schedule. 

Nebraska plays Ohio State at home in Week 5. That one could be hosting ESPN’s College GameDay and featuring two 4-0 football teams. Winning that single game puts absolutely everything on the table for Frost and Co. in 2019. Everything.

Nebraska later plays Purdue in West Lafayette on Nov. 2. That one kicks off a five-week stretch in which it also plays Wisconsin and Iowa to close out the season, and it could be a stretch that decides the Big Ten West.

Ohio State, Purdue, Wisconsin and Iowa. The Big Four. And three of them are at home. If Nebraska’s getting through the regular season with only two blemishes, it needs a winning record against the schedule’s heavy-hitters for two reasons. 

One: a winning record in those four means you can have a “slip-up” against a team like Colorado, Minnesota or Indiana and still hit double-digits in the win column, which is kind of a big deal. Two: a winning record in those says Nebraska is not just a good team but a great team, because great teams win close games.

Those are likely the toughest games on the schedule, which means they could very easily be one-possession games. If they are, and Nebraska wins three out of four, it’ll be in good company.

Over the last five years, there have been 56 different 10-win regular seasons from Power Five programs. Those teams have played in 193 one-possession regular-season games, and they own a .772 winning percentage in those games. Over that same time span, Nebraska is 9-17 in one-possession games. Teams that win close ball games don’t have any self-inflicted wounds like Nebraska’s had in the past. No penalties. Average play on special teams. Average in the turnover department. 

Do that and Nebraska’s scheme and talent can win close ball games. Win close, and you can win often.

Make Tony Tuioti Happy

The first thing Tuioti talked about when he got to Lincoln to coach the Huskers’ defensive line was being better at stopping the run. Everyone talks about rushing the passer and pressure, but Tuioti’s philosophy is to earn the right to attack the quarterback on third down by stuffing the run on first and second. In the Big Ten, that’s even more imperative. Half the league averaged at least 40 carries a game last year. 

Nebraska wasn’t good at stopping any of them. 

The Huskers were bad at limiting explosive plays and worse at causing negative plays (117th in stuff rate), which isn’t a recipe for success when you’re already giving up an average of 5 yards a carry. The Huskers ranked 107th nationally in that category last year and that’s the big one that needs changing.

John S. Peterson
Khalil Davis led the Huskers’ defensive line last year with 7.5 tackles for loss.

A lot of the talk surrounding the defense is that being simply average on that side of the ball will allow the Huskers to hit expectations. But we’re talking about exceeding. If Nebraska can crack the top 50 in terms of opponent’s yards per carry, it’ll be in good shape. Of the eight P5 programs to hit 10 wins in the regular season last year, all of them were either in the top 50 or within a few spots. 

Oklahoma and Washington State fell at Nos. 51 and 54, respectively. (Yes, that porous OU defense was still in the top half of the country in limiting rushing efficiency.) Teams like LSU (No. 41) and Georgia (No. 49) also hovered around that 50 spot, which was occupied by Temple. The Owls gave up 4.03 yards per carry last season. Is a yard improvement worth 1.5 wins on its own? 

In the Big Ten, with this many unknowns at quarterback, maybe. Nebraska not just being able to hold its own up front on the ground, but win that battle more often than not would be huge. A shallow linebacking corps wouldn’t be responsible for bringing down runners and the Huskers would be able to force opponents into more predictable passing situations. 

The defensive line looks to be the deepest group on the roster. If that leads to improvement (and Nebraska’s playing with a lead more than it did last season) the run defense stands to benefit. And if the ground game is far less efficient for the opposing team, it’s a lot harder to keep Adrian Martinez off the field by playing the ball control game Iowa employed last season.

A UCF-lite Jump in PPP

Central Florida went from averaging 0.367 points per play in 2016 (Year 1 under Frost) to 0.638 in 2017. That was a leap from No. 74 to No. 1 nationally. There’s nothing to suggest that kind of leap is anything other than a one-time thing. Yet. 

Nebraska averaged 0.38 points per play over the course of 2018 (which ranked 66th), but the number was significantly lower during the first half of the season than the back half (0.518 points per play in the last six games).

Consider how many plays Frost ideally wants to run in a game. If you’re anywhere near the top of the leaderboard in points per play and you’re operating at that volume, you’re putting serious pressure on the other team’s offense to keep pace and thus giving yourself a pretty sizable margin for error. It’s a numbers game Frost is going to win way more often than not.

From an efficiency standpoint, Nebraska was already pretty darn good at moving the ball on offense (20th in yards per play). But those yards didn’t always translate to points. Now, the offense is replacing a sizable chunk of the yardage — losing a 1,000-yard rusher in Devine Ozigbo and a 1,000-yard receiver in Stanley Morgan. 

But whatever, because Nebraska has the pieces on paper to make the losses irrelevant. Wan’Dale Robinson could be the Robin to Spielman’s Batman the way Spielman was for Morgan. Dedrick Mills can be an every-down runner. Or Martinez can just make up the slack on his own with across-the-board improvement. 

If any of those hypotheticals actually happen and Nebraska can improve on the 37-points-per-game pace it was on to close last season, it’s looking at a top-15 scoring outfit. And half of college football’s 15 highest-scoring teams last season hit 10 wins. 

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