Stats Six-Pack: Wyoming-Nebraska
Photo Credit: Aaron Babcock

Stats Six-Pack: Wyoming-Nebraska

September 07, 2016

Everybody’s got film now. At least 60 minutes of it anyway, though in Nebraska’s case it also has three Wyoming overtime sessions to review. If this Saturday’s Wyoming-Nebraska game can’t be settled in regulation, advantage Huskers, I guess.

The bookmakers aren’t expecting this one to need any extra time, however.

THE LINE: Nebraska opened as a 23.5-point favorite and the line has ticked up a tiny bit from there to 24.5. The computers don’t like the Huskers quite as much with the average line at Prediction Tracker sitting at 23.04. Wyoming will be looking to string together back-to-back upsets after beating Northern Illinois as a 10-point underdog at home in week one.

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THE RANKINGS: The analytics-based rankings were a little torn on what the Huskers’ 43-10 win over Fresno State meant. Three sets of the five rankings we’re tracking this season bumped Nebraska up a couple of spots, which is enough to offset a couple of downgrades. As for Wyoming, it enters Saturday with a lower average ranking than Fresno State had last week. Overall, three of the five ranking systems listed above (FEI, Sagarin, S&P+) have Fresno State ranked ahead of the Cowboys after week one.

We’ll see at the end of the season if that’s still the case because, on paper, Wyoming looks a little more dangerous than the Bulldogs. The Cowboys have a quarterback who might be dangerous, a bell cow at running back and a defense that, in one key area at least, outperformed expectations in the opener.

Here are six stats to keep an eye on during Wyoming-Nebraska this weekend.

1. Controlled Explosions

In the average game between two FBS schools in 2015, 6.7 percent of the total plays run were what we call explosive plays (gains of 20-plus yards). Nebraska had a solid offense a year ago, ranking 37th in total yards per play and 24th in explosive plays. Slightly more than 8 percent of the Huskers’ plays in 2015 were gains of 20 yards or more. That’s good. But Nebraska was slightly better at the chunk play (rushes of 10-plus yards, passes of 15-plus), an explosive play’s little brother.

Fourteen games into the Mike Riley era at Nebraska, I’m starting to think that might be the defining element of this offense as operated by Tommy Armstrong Jr.: slightly explosive, but able to gain yards in chunks reliably. Last week against Fresno State, the Huskers only had three explosive plays — all from Alonzo Moore — but had 12 chunk plays, right at last year’s per-game average with a much heavier dose of the run. If that continues, I’d count it as a good development for Nebraska’s offense.

The Huskers’ defense made some progress, too. Fresno State was content to throw a bunch of short-to-medium routes with its redshirt freshman quarterback. The Huskers did a pretty good job keeping things in front of them and Nebraska won the chunk-play battle 12 to 6.

Wyoming might seem like less of a challenge in that regard given its straight-ahead style, but a good quarterback, and Josh Allen might be one, can change a lot of things. A similar chunk-play ratio on Saturday is probably necessary for Nebraska to get its projected four-score win.

Stat to Watch: Nebraska’s chunk plays versus chunk plays allowed. (Acceptable ratio: 2-to-1)

2. More Moore?

Senior wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp didn’t look like himself last Saturday, meaning plenty of Nebraska fans will enter Saturday expecting him to bounce back. Fellow senior wide receiver Brandon Reilly returns off a one-game suspension and folks in red will be looking for big things from him, too. Sophomore Stanley Morgan Jr. and junior De’Mornay Pierson-El only had one touch each (a catch and a fumbled jet sweep respectively) and those guys are two fan favorites. Maybe they should get more as well.

That’s one of those good problems to have, but don’t forget about Alonzo Moore in this equation. He tends to get lost in the discussion of Nebraska’s skill-position talent, but he’s earned more than that.

Not to belabor the chunk-play point, but Moore is an intriguing case. Against Fresno State he averaged 30 yards per catch and 17 yards per carry and that was on five total touches. This isn’t a new development for Moore. Last season he was responsible for a chunk play on 42.1 percent of his touches. Only Reilly (50.9 percent) was better in 2015.

There are a lot of guys at Nebraska that need touches at this early stage of the season. Moore is the one everyone forgets about, but offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf shouldn’t. If Moore is hitting for a couple of big gains, it’s generally a good sign of Nebraska’s overall offensive health. The senior had at least one chunk play in five of the Huskers’ six wins a year ago and no such gains in four of seven losses. If Moore is getting loose, it’s generally a good sign.

Stat to Watch: Alonzo Moore’s touches. (Acceptable number: 5)

3. Method to the Madness

While big plays are always welcome, there’s something to be said for the long, will-sapping drive. “Methodical drives” are defined as drives of 10 plays or more and Fresno State had as many (two) as Nebraska had last week.

That’s surprising on a couple of fronts. If Nebraska’s going to outmuscle a team it’s most likely to be a team like Fresno State, but the Huskers went three-and-out four times in 11 drives (not including the end-of-game kneel down). That’s even more surprising when you consider Nebraska’s 51 rush attempts. Too many dead drives kept last week’s game close longer than it needed to be.

We’ll see if Nebraska employs a similar run-heavy approach this week, but one of Wyoming Coach Craig Bohl’s primary concerns coming out of spring ball was the Cowboys’ size (or lack thereof) on the defensive line and its ability to hold up against the run. Wyoming passed that test last week holding Northern Illinois to 3.59 yards per carry, but this week will be a much bigger challenge.

According to Wyoming’s latest depth chart, the Cowboys could start a defensive line that averages 257 pounds across the front four and includes a 6-foot-1, 237-pound redshirt freshman at defensive end. Nebraska counters with an offensive line that averages exactly 299 pounds.

The Huskers will take a bunch of four-play scoring drives, of course, but the easiest way to put this game away early might be a few longer marches where Nebraska controls the flow.

Stat to Watch: Nebraska’s methodical drives. (Acceptable number: 4)

3 More to Monitor

Net Field Position: Carrying this one over from last week for two reasons: 1) Nebraska hasn’t been good in this area for the duration of the Riley era, and 2) Special teams, minus maybe kickoff coverage, wasn’t good in week one. Field position comes down to more than just special teams, but being solid in the “hidden third” would be a big help.

Turnovers: Another obvious one but I include it to enhance your game day enjoyment. Nebraska had zero turnovers against Fresno State, just it’s second game with no giveaways in the Huskers’ last 20. If you want a tailgate trivia question to melt minds at 8:30 a.m. on Saturday, here’s one: When was the last time Nebraska didn’t turn the ball over in consecutive games? (Hint: The back-to-back games spanned two different head coaches.)

The hint will really throw people off because they’ll probably forget about the end of the 2003 season when Frank Solich coached his last game, a 31-22 win over Colorado that included zero Nebraska turnovers, and then Bo Pelini, interim head coach, led the Huskers to a 17-3 win over Michigan State in the Alamo Bowl, which also included zero Nebraska turnovers.

If you don’t want to go the trivia route, simply provide the information and see what kind of odds you can get on a no-turnover prop bet for Saturday. That should pay off well if you win.

Lamar Jackson Targets: Fresno State wasn’t shy about going after the true freshman cornerback with its best receiver, Aaron Peck, a week ago. Jackson won his share of those battles. Enough so that he’s already got that corner mentality where he wants to be tested. I’m guessing that basic approach won’t last for long, so let’s see how often Wyoming opts to go Jackson’s way.

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