Nebraska, right now, is quite bad at football math. It’s bad at other things, too, but right now it’s the math that matters most. The Huskers are bad at balancing equations. Except when they’re good. When they’re good at balancing football equations it has tended to be at exactly the wrong time.
It’s not that Nebraska doesn’t know how these things all add up. That’s easy enough to figure out. Every football cliché ever uttered, knowingly or not, is based in this math. Collectively everyone on the team knows what the correct answer should be, but they’re no good right now at actually producing it. They keep failing the test.
This is how Nebraska loses a game in which it had nearly 600 yards, won the big-play battle and was slightly more efficient on a down-by-down basis.
“In three of our games, we’ve played well enough to win a game,” Scott Frost said after the Huskers’ 42-28 loss to Purdue. “We honestly look, in my opinion, like one of the most undisciplined teams in the country. And it kills me.”
You and everyone else who bleeds red, Coach.
But it has been sort of amazing to really live all of the ways Nebraska has failed to engineer its own advantages often while also failing to capitalize when those advantages actually emerge.
It’s hard to even know where to start with this, so we’ll start with the most glaring example. Nebraska had Purdue in third-and-7-or-longer nine times on Saturday. The Huskers came into the game forcing a third-and-long nearly 70 percent of the time, third nationally. That’s very good. Nebraska’s defense has created the sort of unbalanced equation a coach wants. College football teams are picking up a first down in that scenario just 23 percent of the time this season.
Except against Nebraska. The Huskers’ opponents through three games converted 28 percent, which ranked 98th nationally entering this game. Purdue? It converted six-of-nine. It converted third-and-longs via a defensive holding call that wiped out an interception –– “We can’t get holding calls on interceptions and then talk trash to their sideline and start dancing on the field,” Frost said –– a pass interference, an extremely questionable roughing-the-passer penalty and 44 rushing yards on three carries from not-a-dual-threat quarterback David Blough. All of Blough’s positive rushing yards came on third-and-long. He finished the game with 38 net yards.
Nebraska took a situation it could be expected to win 77 percent of the time and lost it 67 percent of the time. It over-balanced an equation that was unbalanced in its favor. That’s 0-4 football math.
Here’s some more.
The Huskers gave up points on Purdue’s first three drives of the game to erase a 7-0 lead, another equation that should’ve been in the Huskers favor. Nebraska recovered to force its first three-and-out of the day and JD Spielman returned the ensuing punt out around the Huskers’ 30-yard line. But Purdue had two penalties to choose from on that return, a holding call (declined) and a block-in-the-back penalty (accepted). That set the Huskers back to their own 7, already trailing 17-7.
Over the last decade of college football, a drive starting 70 yards from goal results in a touchdown 26 percent of the time and any score, which would’ve made this game a one-score game at that point, 35 percent of the time. A drive that has to cover 93 yards, however, results in a touchdown 17 percent of the time and any score 22 percent of the time. It’s basically a dead drive from the 7-yard line, but particularly so for teams that are struggling as the Huskers very much are. Spielman almost balanced the equation with his return, and the Huskers unbalanced it with a penalty. That’s 0-4 football math.
Here's some more.
Nebraska had an efficiency edge in this game, a 49.4-percent success rate to Purdue’s 44.4. That’s not a huge gap, so let’s look to explosive plays, the next biggest factor in winning games. Nebraska had 20 for 379 yards, Purdue 14 for 349. It’s hard to win both those categories and lose while only being -1 in turnovers, which the Huskers, surprisingly based on the first three games, were.
Explosive plays are valuable because drives that include them usually result in points about 75 percent of the time. That’s what Purdue did on Saturday. It had fewer explosive plays, but six-of-eight drives with at least one (75 percent) resulted in points. Nebraska had more explosive plays but those drives with at least one only resulted in points 40 percent of the time. That, again, is 0-4 football math.
He’s right. The Huskers did things to swing the underlying math in their favor in all of those games, but ended up either not doing it often enough or blowing the chances it did create. There's some good things in all of that, encouraging things for the future, but . . .
“I’m tired of looking at it,” Frost said.
You and everyone else who bleeds red, Coach. Nobody likes the kind of math that adds up to 0-4.
Brandon is the Managing Editor for Hail Varsity and has covered Nebraska athletics for the magazine and web since 2012, Hail Varsity’s first season on the scene. His sports writing has also been featured by Fox Sports, The Guardian and CBS Sports.