Nebraska has a third-down problem.
Last season, the Huskers ranked 99th in the country in opponent third-down conversion rate, yielding a first 43.1 percent of the time. Those numbers have improved slightly this season, to 78th in the country at 39.3 percent, but for a team with as many issues as Nebraska has right now, getting off the field can’t be one of them and it still very much is.
Getting to third down was supposed to be a positive for Nebraska this season. An aggressive, attacking scheme could then pin its ears back, fly to the ball and kill drives. The Huskers showcased that in the season-opener against Colorado when they put CU quarterback Steven Montez on the ground four times … it just hasn’t been the case since. There’s only been one third-down sack in Nebraska’s last three games.
A couple more trends to keep an eye on moving forward:
In short-yardage situations this season, Nebraska’s defense is giving up a 50 percent conversion rate to opposing offenses. If the other guys are within 4 yards of the line to gain, they’re 8-for-16 gaining it.
On five occasions this season, Nebraska has given up a first down on third down because of a penalty. Two have come in the fourth quarter. All five of them have turned what would have been fourth-down plays into first downs.
Three such conversions happened Saturday against Purdue, so maybe recency bias is skewing things a bit here but that in and of itself is concerning. In the Huskers’ most important game to date this season, they were at their worst in getting off the field.
And in the fourth quarter, Nebraska is giving up a first down on third down 42.1 percent of the time. Broken down by quarter, the Huskers have only really been good in the second: 6-for-15 (40 percent) in the first quarter, 6-for-17 (35.2 percent) in the second quarter, 9-for-19 (47.4 percent) in the third and the 8-for-19 clip in the fourth.
If you’re trying to do the math in your head, that’s a 44.7 percent conversion rate in the second half this season for a team that has been in close games late three times. Applied over the course of an entire game, that would be the 113th-worst mark in the country.
Third down wasn’t something that was addressed postgame Saturday, there were other issues that seemed more pressing at the time, but it needs to be addressed soon. Nebraska still has games against three ranked opponents left on its schedule and against three teams who currently reside inside the top-50 nationally in third-down offense.
It seems small, but how different would the Purdue game have looked if Nebraska hadn’t had the third-down holding penalty against cornerback Lamar Jackson? An interception turned into a first down for Purdue and even though the Boilermakers punted, it was a difference of starting at the Purdue 40-yard-line or the Nebraska 12.
What about the roughing the passer penalty in the third quarter that extended a scoring drive when the Huskers were trying to get back into the game?
We could question the merits of that call all day, but when you’re the most-penalized team in the country and you’ve gone four straight weeks with double-digit flags thrown on you, referees won’t give you the benefit of the doubt.
How different would Week 1 have gone if Nebraska had stopped just one of Colorado's three straight third-down conversions from 19, 15 and 7 yards away?
Or the three straight third-and-9 conversions Troy had in the fourth quarter in Week 2?
Both of those drives resulted in touchdowns for Nebraska's opponents. Both of those games ended with the Huskers within seven points of a win. Like everyone has been saying, it's the little things.
You can’t be a team that can’t get out of its own way and can’t force turnovers and can’t get necessary stops to get off the field. Nebraska is all of those things and the team is hurting because of it.
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.