Thought experiment: If you could change one play from Nebraska’s 33-28 loss to Colorado last Saturday, which play is it?
There are a couple of plays that come immediately to mind. Nebraska was sitting with a 70-percent win probability near the end of the third quarter, per ESPN, when an Adrian Martinez pass slipped through Stanley Morgan Jr.’s hands in the end zone. There was also the JD Spielman drop late in the fourth quarter. The Huskers had a 76.7-percent win probability before the play. Convert and it probably goes north of 90. After that there was Antonio Reed’s penalty on third-and-24, which resulted in a nearly 20-point drop in win probability.
Change just one of those and it probably makes a big difference. If you wanted to take the long view and improve the Huskers’ chances across the entire season, maybe you wipe out the play that injured Martinez. It looks like he’ll come out of that OK, but you never actually know until you see it so why not just wipe it from the record if you could?
None of those plays would’ve been my pick, however. In the interest of adventure and probability, I would’ve changed Greg Bell’s 10-yard run followed by a fumble on the first drive to a 23-yard touchdown run. Nebraska 7 Colorado 0, less than 3 minutes into the game.
Why that one? It gives Nebraska the lead and while that might seem somewhat arbitrary the numbers all show that simply playing from ahead is a significant advantage.
How do you take Mike Riley from a .500 (19-19) coach at Nebraska to a coach that won nearly 74 percent of his games? Look at his record when the Huskers scored first –– 14-5.
How do you take Bo Pelini from a coach with a .713 winning percentage at Nebraska (67-27) to a coach squarely at .500? Look at his record when the Huskers didn’t score first. It was 18-18, but 49-9 the other way (.845).
This isn’t a trend that’s unique to Lincoln. So far this season the team that scores first is winning at similar rates to those old coaching axioms like “win the turnover battle,” “get after the quarterback” and “stop the run.”
So far in ‘18 at FBS level, the team that has: scored first has won 83% of the time; won the TO battle has won 85% of the time; won the sack battle has won 84% of the time; won the big play battle has won 89% of the time; allowed less than 150 rush yards has won 80% of the time.
— SportSource Analytics (@SportSourceA) September 9, 2018
Scott Frost’s short history here isn’t as neat and tidy. He’s 19-8 over 27 games as a head coach overall (.704), and his 2017 UCF team, of course, won whether it scored first (8-0) or didn’t (5-0). A great offense can do that. His first team, however, was a little worse (3-5) with the first points of the game than without (3-2).
Clearly team strength matters here. Riley’s Nebraska teams, average overall based on total record, needed the edge of the added pressure a lead put on the opponent. Pelini’s teams, better overall, needed it less and benefitted more. We can feel good about where Frost should fall on that spectrum long term, but we don’t yet know how good his first Nebraska team will be.
While I came away impressed with most of the things the Huskers did against Colorado, this still strikes me as a team that is very much growing into what it will eventually be. I expect that to be a season-long journey. And teams like that can often be better sooner with the added edge of playing from in front.
It might be the difference to Saturday’s game against Troy looking like the betting market projects –– Nebraska -10.5 at last check –– or looking like a nail-biter (or even a loss). Group of 5 teams like this one are dangerous. The Trojans are used to winning. They have a culture that is proven to produce wins.
Troy won’t be short on belief no matter how the opening minutes of the game unfold, but those minutes do have the potential to either shake or bolster that belief. Think of the opening act of last week’s game. The Huskers won the toss, took the ball –– an attacking philosophy right from the start –– and for 2 minutes and 55 seconds it looked like Nebraska’s new offense was firing on all cylinders. The Huskers were poised to get points on the very first drive of the season.
Then the fumble. Then a deficit. Then another fumble. Then a larger deficit. Credit to the Huskers for battling back from that to regain control of the game, but what was the cost of that? Mentally? Physically? These are things that are tough to quantify outside of the most basic, ex post facto determination: Here’s a team’s record when it scores first, and here’s what it is when it doesn’t.
I’ll continue to wonder how the Colorado game unfolds if Nebraska goes up 7-0 or even 3-0. I now tend to think about all football games that way.
Last week it was against what was viewed as an even opponent, based on the spread at least. This week’s game –– a clearer upset if Troy were to win –– is the type of game where it might be even more important for the Huskers to open with a strong statement of intent. A statement punctuated by a score.
In his post-Colorado comments, Frost characterized the Huskers’ high penalty total, the inability to convert key fourth-and-shorts, the dropped passes at pivotal moments and the turnovers as the stuff average teams do.
“When you’re trying to go from an average team to a great team, you don’t beat yourself,” he said.
That is, of course, true. But there’s one other thing great teams tend to do that Nebraska didn't: Find a way to score first.
FBS HCs you don't want to let score first (records '05-'17): Urban Meyer (101-5), Nick Saban (105-8), Chris Petersen (100-10), Jimbo Fisher (61-7), Scott Satterfield (23-3), Jeff Brohm (29-4), Gary Patterson (86-13), Lane Kiffin (43-7), Ken Niumatalolo (54-9). & Tom Herman (23-4)
— SportSource Analytics (@SportSourceA) March 21, 2018
Maybe this week.