As far as match ups between two teams that, according to a handful of computer rankings, are battling for the title of the 20th-best team in the country go, Oregon-Nebraska packs a lot of punch.
The Ducks generate some of that on their own just by being best-branded program of the century. Nebraska adds a little juice due to its staff’s history, though not history of success of late, with Oregon. Then there’s the timing: Duck fans are nervous about the future of the program right now. Nebraska fans have been for the past 10 or 12 years, but this game? It comes at just the right time to be viewed as a turning point, a sign of progress.
Provided Nebraska wins, of course.
THE LINE: The Huskers opened as a 3-point favorite, as good an indication as any, considering home-field advantage, that these programs are viewed as about dead even. The line is holding steady there, too. At Prediction Tracker, the average of 50-plus computer projections has Nebraska favored by 2.6 points. On the high end, one projection has the Huskers winning by 15.67 points. The biggest projection for Oregon is a 7-point win.
THE RANKINGS: Nebraska made small gains following its win over Wyoming in four of the five ranking systems we’re tracking this season. FEI (a drive-based ranking) was the one exception and the Ducks are higher ranked there than anywhere else. FEI is also projecting a 7-point win for Oregon, and it’s worth noting that FEI has had the second-most accurate set of predictions this season, picking 82.76 percent winners straight up.
Here are six stats to keep an eye on during Oregon-Nebraska that might help the Huskers avoid that fate.
1. Find 4 Minutes
I typically pay no attention to time of possession. Old football coaches love it, but programs like Oregon have largely made it irrelevant. Against the Ducks, however, it appears to mean something.
Between 2009 (Chip Kelly’s first year as head coach) and 2015, the Ducks won 84 percent of their games, second-best nationally, while possessing the ball for an average of 26:41. Oregon lost the possession battle on average every game over that span. Round it off and call it 27 minutes for Oregon to 33 minutes for the opponent. That’s the usual Oregon gap, so simply winning the possession battle isn’t enough.
Widen the gap, however, and teams have found a way to beat Oregon. It’s the “best defense is avoiding the Oregon offense” method. In the Ducks’ 15 losses since 2009, Oregon’s average possession time is 23:32 compared to 27:47 in wins. Every team that has beaten the Ducks since 2009 has held at least a 6-minute edge in time of possession, but the average difference in those losses is all the way up at 13 minutes.
So if the average time-of-possession in an Oregon game is 33/27, how does Nebraska find the extra 4 minutes it would take to make that difference something closer to 37/23? The way everyone, including Nebraska linebacker Michael Rose-Ivey, is identifying as Nebraska’s path to victory — run the ball. Take out sacks, which are really clouding the issue in this particular case, and Oregon is giving up 5.42 yards per carry.
Nebraska has shown the willingness in two of its past three games to keep things almost exclusively ground based, but it has arguably never been more important that I think it will be in this one. If Nebraska holds the ball for 36 minutes or more and loses, something crazy probably happened.
Stat to Watch: Nebraska’s time of possession. (Number to hit: 36:30)
2. The Big Bang Theory
Part of the reason time of possession is a really iffy stat in most cases is because it requires additional context. For example, if Oregon is busting big plays all over the place and going on a bunch of five- or six-play scoring drives, it will lose the possession time battle decisively but probably be ahead on the scoreboard.
Because it was torched repeatedly through the air last year, Nebraska’s coaches haven’t been shy about mentioning explosive plays and the need to limit them. Those coaches have mentioned them even more often this week, because following a big gain is really when Oregon’s offense puts the pedal to the metal and drives can snowball quickly for an opposing defense.
Nebraska is going to give up some big plays. Every team does against the Ducks, but the key for the Huskers will be — and this is where this staff’s experience facing Oregon could be helpful — not letting those explosive plays accumulate, which is why it’s worth watching for explosive drives (drives averaging 10-plus yards per play).
Drive-based numbers are interesting because they often exist in extremes. A really short drive, unless it’s a three-and-out or a turnover, is usually of the explosive variety and results in a scoring opportunity. A really long drive — 10-plus plays is a “methodical drive” — also generally results in a scoring opportunity. Oregon, of course, can do it both ways as one of the most accomplished offensive teams of the past 10 years, but a defense likes its odds a lot better by asking the Ducks to methodically drive down the field.
Since 2009, 44 percent of all the Ducks’ points have come via an explosive drive, but just 20.6 percent via a methodical drive. Just to make the most direct comparison — while noting that Nebraska switched offensive coordinators three times over that span — the Huskers scored 32.9 percent of their total points over the same span on explosive drives and 24.2 percent on methodical drives.
As Mark Banker after last Saturday’s game: “Make them drive the ball.”
Stat to Watch: Nebraska’s explosive drives allowed. (Number to hit: 2)
3. Lead Don’t Follow
The nightmare scenario for Nebraska on Saturday is one in which Oregon comes out, zips right down the field for a touchdown, then Nebraska fails to convert a third-and-short on the ensuing drive giving the Ducks the ball right back, then Oregon hits a couple of big gains to go up 14-0 right away. If that happens, Memorial Stadium becomes startlingly quiet as memories of past big-game failings and deep questions about “when will Nebraska take the next step?” swirl through Husker fans’ heads.
But there are more than just emotional stakes here. Oregon likes the lead more than most teams. Like a horse race, you can track this by quarter. Since Mark Helfrich took over in 2013 the Ducks are 4-4 when trailing after the first quarter, 2-4 when trailing at the half and 0-6 when trailing after the third quarter.
Nebraska can employ whatever pace it wants to on offense, though the prescribed pace seems pretty clear, but it simply has to keep pace on the scoreboard early.
Stat to Watch: Halftime score. (Number to hit: A halftime lead)
3 More to Monitor
Oregon’s Rushing Yards: Since the start of 2015, no team has rushed for 200 yards against Nebraska. No team Nebraska has faced over that span has as much committed to, invested in or capability of success on the ground, however, so this will be a fun area to watch. The Ducks are 7-6 when rushing for fewer than 200 yards under Helfrich, 28-2 when they top 200 yards.
Tommy Armstrong Jr. Interceptions: There actually isn’t a huge difference in the Huskers’ winning percentage in games when Armstrong throws multiple interceptions versus games when he throws one or fewer. But if the name of the game here for Nebraska’s offense is to move the ball while playing a little bit of keep-away, I have a hard time seeing the Huskers pulling this one out with Armstrong throwing more than one interception. (And I put the focus solely on interceptions only because Nebraska has proven to be pretty good at avoiding fumbles.)
Nebraska Takeaways: The one big change in Nebraska’s defense from 2015 to 2016 at this very early juncture has been takeaways. The Huskers could significantly increase their odds of a win by forcing more than one on Saturday. Under Helfrich, the Ducks are 8-6 when committing multiple turnovers.