Head coach Scott Frost said it as plainly as can be Thursday: “We can’t have penalties on special teams, we’ve got to have better starting field position.”
Against Colorado, Nebraska was penalized three times on returns (one kickoff, two punts). The Huskers’ starting field position suffered each time. In total, they started at their 20-yard-line or worse five times. Nebraska wasn’t winning the field position battle last season (average start: own 28; opponent average start: own 30) and the numbers were even worse against Colorado. The Buffs averaged starting field position at their own 33; Nebraska was back at its 27.
There were a lot of reasons for Nebraska’s 33-28 loss to Colorado, but special teams coordinator Jovan Dewitt emphasized cleaning up special teams mistakes as much as anything this week.
“I think there were two things,” Dewitt began. “One, first and foremost, I’ve got to coach it better. I have to assume the responsibility for those things. Then, the errors that you do see, some of them were technique errors, some of them were effort errors. I know [freshman defensive back] Cam [Taylor] had a holding call on a punt return and he was being too aggressive, if there’s ever such a thing. He got into the guy and they were battling all day and he kind of let his emotions get the better of him.
“A couple of the other ones that were block in the backs, if they just did more of a bubble step, some technique issues, we would have been in great shape.”
An area Husker fans were hoping would improve was the punt return game. Dewitt tabbed sophomore wideout Tyjon Lindsey as his lead return man because of his sure-handedness. “I know he’s going to be able to catch it in the first game,” Dewitt said. But Lindsey, just going by the box score, left something to be desired. Three returns, negative-2 yards.
The results, Dewitt said, weren’t because of Lindsey, though.
“He was put in some stressful situations with some guys missing a couple of blocks but he read where he was supposed to read and where he was supposed to go. He was accurate in those things. His process was good,” Dewitt said. “Everything that we judge as a coach is how is your process? The results may or may not work out that way but as long as your process is right, more often than not the results are going to come your way. I thought he did a good job handling the process he’s got to go through on each snap.”
Dewitt identified a handful of returns that “had the potential to be gigantic returns” but never materialized. Fix the penalties, the technique issues, and those plays break. Dewitt said they harped on “effort, execution and technique” this week.
And though it seems obvious, there’s a strong connection between field position and offensive success even if it’s just a couple yards difference.
“If you can get a return and start your possession on the 29-yard-line or better, you have a 75 percent more likely chance of scoring points on that drive,” Dewitt said. “One of our goals is to make sure we get that ball out past the 25 to the 29-yard-line. That’s the difference over the last two years for us, especially. “If we get the ball to the 29-yard-line our scoring percentage shoots way up. If we only get the ball out to the 25-yard-line our scoring percentages go down.”
Besides the obvious “you’re closer to the end goal,” why is it that sometimes 10 yards of difference has that big of an impact?
“As a play-caller, when you’re outside the 25, there are more options,” offensive coordinator Troy Walters said. “A lot of times you have more confidence. When you’re inside the 25, when you’re backed up, a lot of times it’s like, ‘Oh no.’
“When you get a good return, there’s confidence, there’s momentum when you take the field and you’re ready to go.”
Cut out the special teams penalties against Troy and Nebraska will be in a much better position, both literally and figuratively speaking. The Huskers currently rank 119th in special teams S&P+ and Troy is somehow worse off (125th). The Huskers’ coaching staff already puts a tremendous emphasis on the importance of special teams as is, so expect a different-looking unit Saturday.
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.