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Nebraska Football

Hot Reads: The Biggest Gain for Nebraska's Defense This Season

November 6, 2018
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Nebraska's progress on offense this season has been pretty easy to see. Minus the Troy and Michigan games –– the former with backup quarterback Andrew Bunch making his first start, the latter against perhaps the best defense in the country –– the Huskers have put up yards on every opponent. The mid-season growth came in how Nebraska converted those yards into points. The offense put up 120 more yards per game, but that coincided with a scoring jump from 21.3 points per game to 38.3.

Tracking the improvement on defense is more difficult. The Huskers allowed more yards per game in October than in September, but the points allowed dropped from 38.8 to 28.0. The Bethune-Cookman game is clouding that October number. Take out the nine points the Blackshirts allowed against an overmatched foe and the October average was 34.3, which feels like a better representation of where this defense was at heading to Ohio State.

And that's almost exactly what the defense allowed to the Buckeyes when you take out the safety. But Scott Frost said Monday he didn't view that defensive performance as average. Far from it. It was proof of progress.

"There were some signs of things that happened on defense that were really encouraging to me," he said. "Forcing turnovers, playing as hard as we did, getting more hats to the ball, being a little more physical, seeing some big hits. Every week it’s gotten better. They probably played their best game."

That's "their best game" against the best offense in the Big Ten (statistically speaking).

The gains for the Nebraska defense have been noticeable in one category –– takeaways, specifically creating opportunities for takeaways (i.e. the part a defense can control). The Huskers's turnover luck still hasn't improved drastically. After Week 5, Nebraska had recovered 33.3 percent of opponent fumbles (national average year to year: 50 percent), which ranked 99th nationally. After Week 10 the fumble recovery percentage is at 38.5 percent, a regression to the mean that has been worth, well, zero spots in the rankings. The Huskers still rank 99th nationally.

Nebraska has taken a small jump in terms of converting passes defended into interceptions. That was one of the most confounding things of the first half of the season. The Huskers ranked 28th in pass breakups after Week 5, but just 8.3 percent of its passes defended were interceptions (national average year to year: 20 percent) which ranked 124th. Nebraska is up to 94th now (14.8 percent) thanks to getting back to average over the last month. Six of the Huskers' 30 passes defended since Wisconsin have been interceptions, 20 percent.

While the Huskers' turnover luck has changed a little for the better, the real difference over the second half of the season to date has been the takeaway opportunities (forced fumbles plus passes defended) Nebraska has generated. At the end of Week 5 Nebraska was generating a TakeOpp on 7.08 percent of its plays defended (84th). After Week 10, the Huskers' were tied with Ohio State for 20th at 9.12 percent.

That jump was thanks to one of the best TakeOpps rates from Week 6 to Week 10. Over that span, the Huskers created a takeaway opportunity on 11.59 percent of plays defended. That ranked second in the country. Only Michigan State was better (12.06 percent).

Barring some unforeseeable dominance on the scoreboard over the final three games, Nebraska's standard defensive numbers will probably end up a little below average at the end of the season. You can already seeing the offseason talking points starting to form. Because the offense has been able to move the ball on just about every team, the defense will draw a ton of attention as people assess the Huskers' chances in 2019. (Though special teams might not be far behind.)

But in at least one category –– maybe one of the most important categories for this defensive approach –– the Huskers defense has made gains as impressive as Nebraska's offense has.

It has just been a little harder to see.

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