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Talent Isn't What's Costing Nebraska Football Games Right Now
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Talent Isn’t What’s Costing Nebraska Football Games Right Now

October 15, 2018

I don’t buy that the Huskers can’t.

Talent, for one, is largely subjective. It’s the reason no one can ever agree on the “LeBron vs. Jordan” debate or the reason Rivals rates a high school kid a 4-star while 247Sports awards him just three.

When you win, most of the time it’s because you’ve cultivated the talent you’ve acquired. Some teams can win on pure talent alone — offensive line coach Greg Austin said recently the 2016 UCF team won a couple games that first season under Scott Frost because they were just more talented than the other teams — but sustained winning requires the presence of an equation, not just one variable.

For the most part, the “winning off pure talent” thing is how I can explain away the fact half of Nebraska’s six losses to begin the season carried postgame win expectancies to the good.

A 33-28 loss to Colorado carried with it a 93.3 percent win probability. A 24-19 loss to Troy had a 54.8 percent win probability. Saturday’s Northwestern loss had an 84 percent win probability.

The win expectancy thing looks at the statistical profile for a team and calculates how frequently that team would have won its game. From the creator: “It is intended to say, ‘Given your success rates, big plays, field position components, turnovers, etc., you could have expected to win this game X percent of the time.’ It has nothing to do with pre-game projections or opponent adjustments.”

So, no biases. Nebraska could and should probably be 3-3 right now with wins over what is currently a 5-1 ranked Colorado team, a 5-2 Troy team and a Northwestern team that ranks 68th in S&P+ on the road. The other three losses come to teams Nebraska should be losing to at this point.

Talent gets them in that position.

Talent is a quarterback that has 1,447 total yards and nine touchdowns in four full games as a true freshman. (While Adrian Martinez has looked dynamite, his big numbers are slightly masking relative inefficiency, which isn’t really that big a deal given some of the completion rate stuff and the decision making come with the territory with young quarterbacks… but still.)

Talent is having one wideout break your program’s record for single-season yardage one year and then his partner in crime be on pace to do the exact same thing the next season. (JD Spielman is currently on pace for 1,074 receiving yards this year.)

Talent is a secondary that has flashed the potential to do this.

Nebraska has talent both on offense and on defense. The young trio of Martinez, Spielman and running back Maurice Washington should be exciting. Luke Gifford and Mohamed Barry and Dicaprio Bootle and Aaron Williams and Ben Stille and the Davis twins and the newcomers are all talented. The issue plaguing Nebraska right now is not talent.

It’s mental.

Talented players make mistakes. Don’t think those two are mutually exclusive. Lapses in judgment don't have anything to do with talent. When Carlos Davis crashed into Clayton Thorson on Northwestern's 99-yard, game-tying touchdown drive and drew a 15-yard penalty, it had no bearing on his ability to rush the quarterback. 

You can point to the three fourth-quarter penalties, all on the final two Northwestern drives. You can point to the fourth-down call in overtime. None have anything to do with talent. 

Nebraska doesn’t know how to win. I will keep writing this and keeping saying this because I believe it’s true. The same folks acting doom and gloom in the face of a Northwestern loss were the ones saying Nebraska could start a hot stretch if it won. And doing so isn’t irrational.

All season long, players have talked about just needing one, just needing to taste victory one time to give them some confidence. Safety Deontai Williams has talked about approaching games like they’re the Super Bowl because you just need one to kickstart you. Frost absolutely believes teams can learn how to win and forget all the same.

“[Vince] Lombardi said it that winning is a habit and unfortunately so is losing,” Frost said Saturday during the postgame.

Nebraska hasn’t felt what it’s like to win in 10 games. Given everything the program has endured during those 10 games, it’s probably easy to forget what the champagne tastes like.

This is the progression of a rebuilding team; you lose games you’re supposed to win because you don’t know how. In Nick Saban’s maiden voyage at Alabama, the Tide was 4-6 in one-possession games. Bob Stoops’ 1999 Oklahoma team was 0-2. Dabo Swinney’s first full year at Clemson featured a 1-4 record in one-possession games.

Yes, continuing to acquire talent is important for Frost in the coming seasons because Nebraska has a serious lack of depth at some spots and no depth at others. But in the interim, talent isn’t what’s keeping Nebraska from winning football games.

“We played a good game for about three-and-a-half quarters and we did a lot of good things and for once we had the offense and the defense clicking,” linebacker Luke Gifford said Saturday. “To throw it away like that, it hurts. It hurts a lot. Especially when we’re not a bad team. We can do a lot of good things.

“Like Coach Frost said, we have made a turning point and I think we’re on the way up but those are the types of games we have to finish. We’re close. We’re really close.”

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