Where is Nebraska at as a football team?
If you ever get Kirk Ferentz to do the dullest TED Talk of all time (assuming you can even explain to him what one is), I have the perfect intro to get him started. All he needs to do is ask which one of these teams won the Big Ten West in 2021:
- Team A averaged 447.6 yards a game on offense and gave up 366.0 yards/game on defense.
- Team B averaged 303.7 yards a game on offense and gave up 328.9 yards/game on defense.
Kirk is now set up to wax poetic about the importance of the “little things,” namely special teams and not turning the ball over, to an increasingly bored crowd that will slowly walk out one by one over the next half hour after they realize they made a huge mistake in attending.
Not to put too broad a point on it, but special teams and turnovers was pretty much THE difference between Nebraska, a team that statistically looks like they should be dominant and Iowa, a team that looks like it should have struggled to make a bowl game. Like so many other teams, the margin for Nebraska between success and utter failure is razor-thin. If you take a closer look at Nebraska’s season, you will see three blowout wins against non-Power 5 opponents (Fordham, Buffalo, Northwestern), mixed with pissing away nine games mostly due to their own dumbfuckery.
From a numbers perspective, Iowa was +12 in the turnover column (best in the Big Ten). Nebraska was -5 in turnover margin, 11th in the Big Ten. If you average them out per game, Iowa basically netted one turnover a game, while Nebraska was -1 every other game, which is a massive difference. (And Iowa’s numbers include going -6 for turnovers in the Purdue and Wisconsin games. Take out those two games and Iowa averaged +1.5 turnovers a game, which is a bit ludicrous.) In terms of special teams, Iowa averaged 10 yards more on kickoff returns than Nebraska and 5 yards more on punt returns (Nebraska somehow averaged 2.7 yards per punt return.) Nebraska yielded 4 yards more a kickoff and 5 yards more on punts. All told, Nebraska netted some 25 yards less overall in the special teams game, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but we are talking averages and margins here. (Oh yeah, and they also went 8-for-16 on field goals and only Maryland missed more extra points.) To shuck a dead ear of corn, you can make a pretty compelling argument that Nebraska had the worst special teams in all of power five football.
Probably more illustrative are the specific examples and how much it hurt the Cornhuskers. Here are some of my favorite Nebraska lowlights:
1. Cam-Taylor Britt fielded a punt while running backwards on his own one-yard line and while being tackled in the end zone, he threw the ball forward, an illegal forward pass that rewarded Illinois with a safety.
2. Two missed field goals and an extra point blocked and returned for a two-point conversion against Oklahoma, which was functionally nine points left on the table in a game Nebraska lost by seven points.
3. The punt return for a touchdown by Michigan State in the fourth quarter to tie the game, which Nebraska then lost in overtime.
4. The opening kickoff returned by Wisconsin for a touchdown. (A game Nebraska lost by seven points.)
5. The glorious blocked punt returned for a touchdown by your Iowa Hawkeyes. (A game Nebraska lost by a touchdown.)
There are plenty more. Check out this link if schadenfreude is your thing.
At this point, you get the gist here. Nebraska, despite all the hot air spewed by everybody in Lincoln free-basing Big Red Kool Aid, probably has a fair bit of talent on their football team. Certainly they will have an offense that is much more explosive than Iowa’s (and defense that isn’t quite as good as Iowa’s), but due to shoddy leadership, they have been unable to turn that talent into actual wins on the football field year over year. In the last four seasons under Scott Frost, Nebraska is a staggering 5-20 in one-score games. That's too large of a sample size to chalk up to just bad luck. That shit is systemic. Iowa has benefited from this as much as anybody, going 4-0 against Nebraska, but each of those wins have been by a touchdown or less. My only worry about this game is that Nebraska somehow plays football with a full complement of brain cells. The good news is, with Scott Frost at the helm, the Cornhuskers appear to be stuck with permanent brain-freeze. Long may that continue.
And just like that, we’ve reached the end of the Let’s Fret road as fall is quickly upon us. Thanks for everybody that read this column. I'll see you in a couple of weeks for Aftermath. Go Hawks!
Homer Version: Scott Frost’s career at Big Red becomes Big Dead after another dumbfounding loss in an otherwise winnable game.
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