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Numbers, Statistics and Lies: Week Four

Nebraska was soooo close to pulling off the upset vs Oklahoma. Plus a much-improved Michigan State team awaits the Huskers on Saturday.

Buffalo v Nebraska Photo by Steven Branscombe/Getty Images

For those of you new to Corn Nation, NSL is a weekly dive into statistics. This is not any sort of advanced stats; only basic stuff that is cherry-picked based on my whims that week. The numbers the chicken entrails point to carefully selected for further analysis are compared to the eye test. About that ‘eye test’, you should know that I usually forget to DVR the games and even when I do, I have so much stuff going on that I don’t have time to rewatch them. I also think I might need glasses. You’ve been warned.

Numbers That Caught My Eye

23 - Holding Oklahoma to 23 points is impressive. No other team has held them below 27 points since the 2016 season. That is 65 games. That number was also the fewest points the Sooners have scored while winning a game since 2013.

2.5 - The Huskers averaged 2.5 yards/carry against the Sooners. Oklahoma (rightly) based their game on bottling up the Nebraska run game and had the horses to spy Adrian and keep him contained. Nebraska’s offensive line struggles were obvious even to a casual observer.

On the flip side, the Sooners averaged 5.5 yards/carry. In 2020, 2.5 vs 5.5 would have been the recipe for a blowout loss for the Huskers. Last season, the passing game was ineffective and failed to move the ball downfield. If the run game wasn’t functioning (ie. the quarterbacks scrambling for their lives), Nebraska was predictable and easy to stop.

Fast forward to 2021. Nebraska averaged 11.6 yards/attempt and 15.2 yards/completion compared to the Sooners 6.3 and 8.9 per attempt and completion respectively. The production in the Husker pass game was NOT the result of desperation or being behind and abandoning the run game. Scott Frost didn’t go full air raid. Nebraska threw 25 passes compared to Oklahoma’s 34. (Nebraska rushed the ball 38 times and Oklahoma rushed 35 times). Adrian was sacked five times (two on that final possession) but there were also times he would have had time in the pocket to sit down and have tea with the Queen before throwing the ball.

The eye test says that the Husker pass game is a fully functioning component in the offense. Having a full complement of receiving options back on the field certainly helps. Seven receivers caught passes for Nebraska on Saturday. Six were wideouts or tight ends - the RB who snagged three catches was Rahmir Johnson, who is a prototypical receiving back.

Overall, whenever the Huskers snapped the ball, they gained 6.1 yards. Oklahoma gained 5.9 yards on each snap (on average).

The Blackshirts did their job. The passing offense did too. The Huskers were a Pipeline or kicking game away from a stunning upset. I’m not even going to be greedy and think we needed both. One or the other of those pieces would have been enough (IMO).

Color-Coded Pile of Numbers

The Husker offense, even after the rush offense was bottled up by Oklahoma, is still in green territory - at least where yards are concerned. You can see the first signs of trouble in the scoring offense row. A big reason the Huskers are not scoring points? Red zone issues.

Missed field goals are definitely costing Nebraska points. I’ll try to take a look this week at how many turnovers and penalties are occurring in the red zone for the Huskers and report back after the Sparty game.

As far as the defense, there is a lot of red in the color-coded pile for a group that looks to be gelling pretty well. The Blackshirts are #26 nationally in scoring defense - one of the stats that really matters. The Huskers are giving up yards, especially in the rush game, but aren’t giving up points. When you look at the red zone defense and third down defense, it doesn’t make sense. When teams get to the red zone or get to third down, they are converting at a pretty high clip, yet the Huskers are not handing out points like candy.

What gives?

Well the Husker offense has been to the red zone 19 times this season (12 touchdowns; three field goals). Opponents have reached the red zone only eight times, with six touchdowns and one field goal. Oklahoma and Illinois accounted for three of those red zone opportunities apiece and converted all six. Right now, the low numbers of red zone opportunities for Husker opponents have resulted in a high % of conversions. This will bear watching as we move into conference play against some good competition. Will the good teams get into the red zone more often and will they continue to convert at such a high clip?

Also of note: the Blackshirts have only allowed one fourth down conversion all season (out of six tries).

Michigan State

The eye test tells us that Sparty is quite possibly the most improved team in the B1G right now. They have a monster running back and a quarterback who takes care of the ball. This is a team that keeps the chains moving and capitalizes in the red zone.

On defense, the Spartans look pretty solid too. They give up some yards in the pass game, but look at those ‘havoc’ stats. They get to the quarterback and force turnovers. Nebraska can’t rely on it’s newly functional pass game to win this one. Michigan State will tee off on Adrian if we do and it could get ugly fast. The run game is going to have to find some tough yards to set up the receivers.

Scott Frost said in his Monday press conference that what he thought was the missing piece for the Huskers right now is the crease running game. Opening the hole just a bit and hitting the hole to find those hard yards will make this offense sing. It will be a tough assignment for a young o-line that has struggled to do that so far.

So, what do you see in the numbers or color-coded pile that I didn’t mention? Let me know in the comments!