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It’s Hard to Have the Scoring Struggles the Huskers Had at Northwestern

November 08, 2020

What do East Carolina, Louisiana Tech, Northern Illinois, Rice, Arkansas, San Jose State, New Mexico State, Ohio, Tulane, Vanderbilt and Nebraska have in common?

After Saturday, those are the 11 schools since 2000 to have gained at least 28 first downs in a game and score fewer than 13 points. Nebraska joined that group with the 21-13 loss at Northwestern.

That exact scenario (28-plus first downs, 13-or-fewer points) has happened 13 times this century––poor East Carolina and San Jose State have done it twice––but that’s over a stretch that includes more than 30,000 individual games. It’s hard to do. Football doesn’t typically work that way.

Then again, these are the hard-to-do things, the statistically improbable things, that Nebraska continues to check off in losses because it’s still figuring out how to do the hard-to-do football things that actually win games. That would include (but is not limited to) excelling in special teams, consistent blocking, strong tackling and finishing drives.

That last one was the game in Evanston. Northwestern had a first down inside Nebraska’s 40-yard line three times. The Wildcats scored three touchdowns on those drives.

Nebraska had the same scoring chance––a first down inside the opponent’s 40––eight times and came away with 13 points. An average team will score about 4 points per trip inside the 40, so the Huskers’ eight trips could be expected to net about 32 points. Through two games this season Nebraska is averaging 1.9 points per trip, per collegefootballdata.com, which ranks 116th out of 121 teams. Northwestern, now 3-0, is averaging 4.9 and ranks 10th.

“It’s inexcusable we only had 13 points in that game,” Scott Frost said. “I give a ton of credit to them. They’re always good on defense. They did a good job. To play like we played and we only had 13 points that starts with me. I got to make sure the guys are in good position to put points on the board. Discipline in our program starts with me and the coaches to make sure that we have it.”

Here are a few other numbers worth remembering from a game everyone in red is trying to forget.

Bad Company

This is a cherry-picked start date for sure, but following a loss that, based on the fan response at least, really felt like the nadir of this era, I wondered just how bad things have been since 2017.

More specifically: Which Power 5 teams have the fewest wins since the start of that season?

Here’s the list:

Kansas – 7
Rutgers – 8
Oregon State – 8
Arkansas – 11
Illinois – 12
UCLA – 13
Nebraska – 13
Maryland – 14
Vanderbilt – 14
Colorado – 16

The Kind of Food Nebraska Can Make

Offensive efficiency, as measured by success rate, isn’t Nebraska’s problem. Even though the offense was maddening for Husker fans at times on Saturday, Nebraska was able to stay on schedule 41.6% of the time against Northwestern, a defense that allowed that just 34.8% of the time (12th nationally) over its first two games.

Through its first two games, Nebraska ranks 22nd nationally with a 48.2% success rate and that’s against two pretty good defenses. Why hasn’t a top-25 success rate resulted in more for the Huskers?

Nebraska’s offense right now strikes me as the sort of home cook who is really good at executing technical recipes. It loves Cook’s Illustrated. If this cook can go to the store, get exactly the ingredients listed and then follow step-by-step directions with exacting detail, dinner is most likely going to be excellent.

The offense is not, right now, the sort of home cook who can look in the fridge, see six seemingly incompatible ingredients and make something great. Nebraska’s offense would not do well on Chopped.

Statistically, that looks like this: On standard downs––when an offense is on-schedule and has an edge over the defense––Nebraska is running a successful play 61.4% of the time (third nationally). On passing downs, when the defense has the edge, the Huskers are having success 17.1% of the time, third-from-last nationally.

Could a quarterback change help Nebraska with its improv skills? I don’t know for sure, but I’m leaning that way. Luke McCaffrey seems to have a freedom to “just play” that has been missing for Adrian Martinez so far.

Lady Turnover Luck

Nebraska had a first-half lead thanks mostly to two Myles Farmer interceptions that netted the Huskers 10 points. You need those short fields against a team like Northwestern, but the Huskers were a little fortunate to have them.

Farmer’s two interceptions were Nebraska’s only two passes defended on the day. The Blackshirts didn’t get a hand on any of the remaining 19 passes Peyton Ramsey threw on the day. On average, a team will intercept about 20% of its passes defended. On Saturday, Nebraska intercepted 100%. Linebacker Luke Reimer, in a really strong performance, also forced a fumble though the Wildcats pounced on it.

The average fumble recovery rate is 50% year in and year out, so based on the one Northwestern fumble and two Nebraska passes defended, the Huskers’ expected takeaways total Saturday was 0.9.

Northwestern evened the turnover margin with two interceptions in the second half and deserved even more than that. Nebraska fumbled twice, but recovered both. The Wildcats also had 11 passes defended. Based on national averages, Northwestern’s expected takeaways total was 3.2.

The Wildcats get a ton of (deserved) credit for their run defense, but they are often as strong or better against the pass. Entering Saturday, Northwestern was giving up an explosive passing play 8.4% of the time (eighth nationally). The Huskers had just three such plays in the loss, or 6.5% of the actual pass attempts.

We know by now that Nebraska’s passing game has a long way to go, but Northwestern getting a hand on nearly a quarter of the 45 passes the Huskers threw really drives the point home.

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