Nebraska Football Punter William Przystup Punts Against Purdue
Photo Credit: John Peterson

Just Wait

October 30, 2021

The worst thing about the current state of Nebraska football in 2021 is the simplicity of what it takes to win a game against the Huskers. If you’re an opposing coach, you just wait.

You just wait for Nebraska to be Nebraska, and if you root for the Big Red that’s probably the most maddening part of it all.

If you coach the Big Red, it must be a million times worse because there can’t be anything more insulting than that.

It’s the death blow, for an opposing coach to go into a game and think, “We’re going to scheme and you’re going to scheme, because that’s what we know to do, but none of it matters because really all we need to do is hang around.”

Just wait. If the opposing team does basic football things, that’s often enough. Purdue did and it won 28-23, putting Nebraska’s season on life support.

This isn’t a conversation about mistakes, though there were plenty of those again. This isn’t a conversation about one-score losses, though this was a deceptive one again.

It is a conversation about a program, 41 games into the current iteration, incapable of enjoying whatever advantages it creates. That’s why those two topics we’re not talking about keep coming up because everyone makes mistakes.

Through defensive indifference, this ended up as yet another one-score loss. At the end of the year, people like me will chalk it up that way because things like that have predictive value, but in the moment we all know it wasn’t.

This was a game where Nebraska got the upper hand early, which is rare, but never really looked like it had it, which is not rare.

That’s really the bottom line here. Good football is boring. You establish your advantages (recruiting, tradition, current level of play, etc.), come up with ways to increase them (scheme, matchup, etc.) and then, if you can recreate those conditions in the test tube of a game each week, just let them work for you.

Dynastic winning in college football—like Nebraska had under Tom Osborne, like Alabama has now—is like watching an aggressive interest rate bankrupt a person. It’s horribly sad if you’re the loser, devilishly fun, in the inevitability of it all, if you’re the winner.

Football success then, is like making loans or opening a casino. Do things right and, if you’re the house, the result should be all but assured.

Nebraska, of late, is not the house. No, it’s the gambler who is in deep to the wrong guys. He somehow gets enough to pay his debt and buy his freedom, but never does. Why just get back to even when, with one more bet, you could double it?

We’ve all seen how that story goes.

Here’s a visual representation of what not letting the game work for you looks like. We’re not even talking about beating Ohio State or Penn State or Iowa or Wisconsin. This is a game in which Nebraska was a touchdown favorite. Though it could be a touchdown-underdog game or any game in which the result is largely up for grabs against a Big Ten opponent, which is most games any Big Ten team is going to play unless it’s Ohio State.

Many of these charts follow a similar trajectory for Nebraska. I’ve looked at most of them.

As a touchdown-favorite who started on defense and got a stop, Nebraska’s win probability when it got the ball for the first time Saturday was 69%. When it scored a touchdown on the opening drive, it climbed to 77%.

It’s easy to make fun of win probability because it only ever comes up when it’s off, but these models are based on real results from real games. Thousands of them. Just wait.

When Adrian Martinez threw an interception, returned for a touchdown by Purdue’s Jalen Graham, that win probability dropped from 85.4% to 66.3%.

Nebraska answered quickly. OK, feeling good. Back up to nearly 80% after Martinez’s touchdown run to make it 14-7.

In a tie game late in the second quarter, following a high-risk decision by Purdue to go for it near midfield, Nebraska had a free spin at the wheel with 20 seconds left. If it completes the pass that was just out of reach for wide receiver Samori Touré, who knows? But it does not. That’s -0.3% in win probability, though win probability has no way to measure what the play that was right there would’ve been worth.

A dominant drive to start the second half can wipe out that concern. It was a free spin after all, a chance to seize the game offered by the football gods. Instead, the Huskers’ three-and-out to start the third quarter drops their win probability by 3.2%.

Martinez’s second interception, on an improv shovel pass attempt, drops it 7% but it’s still 66.7% at that point. Two-thirds of the time, a nameless, faceless college football team wins that game.

We could go on like this through every momentum-swinging play, but it’s not until Purdue takes a 21-17 lead that it is finally the favorite to win and that’s not really the point, anyway. The point is how Nebraska continually gives away higher ground, which is how Nebraska continues to make gains in “how good” it is without having anything to show for it.

If you’re talking about predicting the future, all that matters is what’s replicable. The problem for Scott Frost and Nebraska is that losing, despite doing things that would most often result in a win, is the only replicable part so far. It defies the math. It short-circuits my brain.

Was there any moment on Saturday when Nebraska looked like the team playing at home and coming off a bye? Both are meaningful advantages, yet there was no way to differentiate this Big Ten West loss from any of the others. It was as if Nebraska had no inherent advantages at all, which is how it often is.

Everyone reaches their own breaking point with that sort of stuff. Many already have. As someone prone to probabilistic thinking, there’s a non-zero chance that this game was simply an individual event and not a further indictment of Nebraska’s current state, and I’ll always carve out room for that non-zero chance.

But his one doesn’t feel that way to me. I’m predisposed, for whatever reason, to playing the “Just Wait” game. Up to this point—given that Nebraska football has generally looked like a program on the wrong side of randomness—I was happy to do so.

Though if Nebraska can’t get this sort of game as a favorite, at home, with an extra week to prepare, I finally have to ask: What are we waiting for?

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