14 in '14: Chewing on the numbers

2014-07-18T23:15:00Z 2014-07-26T18:16:06Z 14 in '14: Chewing on the numbersBy BRIAN CHRISTOPHERSON / Lincoln Journal Star JournalStar.com

In six weeks there will be a game to discuss.

Until then, the Journal Star's "14 in '14" series marches on. Topics have already included the most indispensable Huskers and the biggest Big Ten games for the season ahead.

And now? Stats. Fourteen interesting numbers from last year's Husker team to consider as you think about this year's squad.

Some good. Some bad. They are in no particular order.

* 12: That’s what Nebraska would have ranked nationally in total defense last year if September had never existed. It'd be nice if you could really wipe away bad months like that, huh? Can't do it. But it's understandable why some Husker fans are cautiously optimistic about the 2014 defense when you consider the data. After giving up 202 yards to an FCS running back Sept. 21, Nebraska ranked 108th in total defense. After beating Georgia in a New Year's Day bowl game, it ranked 39th (370 yards a game).

Without the nonconference yardage (which included 602 yards by Wyoming, 504 by UCLA and 465 by South Dakota State), the Huskers gave up an average of 329 yards a game, which would have ranked 12th. Now, that can be misleading. For instance, NU’s turnover problems gave opposing offenses such short fields that, in certain cases, chewing up a lot of yards on drives wasn’t even possible. But when someone raises the topic of whether Nebraska can be a top-10 defense, the numbers from the last nine games should tell you it’s not as far-fetched if the parts click.

* 61: “Explosive” plays still cropped up more than the Blackshirts would like. Nebraska gave up 61 plays of greater than 20 yards, which ranked 76th nationally, according to cfbstats.com data. One thing the Huskers did do a better job of was cutting down on the home-run play, allowing just eight plays of 40 yards or more, one fewer than Alabama. And the Huskers gave up only one play of 50 yards or more — the 55-yard touchdown by Purdue in garbage time. In 2012, Nebraska gave up 16 plays of 40 yards or more and 11 longer than 50.

* 6: That’s the number of times in the past seven years Nebraska’s kicker has ranked in the top 20 nationally in field-goal accuracy. Going back to Alex Henery’s freshman season in 2007, the only time an NU kicker was outside the top 20 was in 2012, when Brett Maher ranked 54th. But even that was a better season than the numbers suggest, with five of his misses coming from beyond 40 yards and two from outside 50. Last year, kicker Pat Smith ranked fifth nationally in accuracy by making 13 of 14 field goals. Fair or not, it's going to be a really high bar for incoming freshman Drew Brown or Mauro Bondi or whoever trots out there to kick.

* 15: That is how many times Nebraska lost the battle for field position the past two seasons. Stats guru Brian Fremeau posted that number on ESPN’s website in a recent story, noting that NU’s record in such games was 7-8. When Nebraska wins the field-position battle, Fremeau points out, the Huskers haven’t lost a regular-season game since 2011. Last year, “Nebraska allowed 17 percent of opponent drives to start on the Huskers’ side of midfield (115th nationally) and Nebraska started 26 percent of its own drives inside its own 20-yard line (110th).” 

Nebraska's games against Michigan State and Iowa immediately come to mind. The Huskers may have felt like they won more plays than they lost against Sparty, but it doesn’t matter when MSU begins five possessions on NU’s side of the field, including three inside the 25, and two inside the 10. Meanwhile, Nebraska’s best starting field position was on its 37. Four drives began inside its 10. Considering that, Nebraska losing by 13 points that day isn’t nearly as surprising as the fact it was even that close.

* 119: That was the Huskers' national ranking in turnover margin last season (minus 11), which provides the best explanation of the numbers above. Nebraska’s turnover woes of recent years get replayed around here more than “Titanic” on TV. But the trend makes it impossible to ignore. After finishing 33rd in turnover margin in 2009, which is the last time NU was on the plus side of the category, the Huskers were 61st in 2010, 67th in 2011 and 108th in 2012. Scary. Even the biggest glass-half-full personality will need to see proof the Huskers can change this before believing.

* 1: That’s how many takeaways the Husker defense had in the last six regular-season games in 2013 after having 15 the first six. It's worth bringing up because the offense, for understandable reasons, has generally taken the brunt of the criticism for NU’s turnover problems. But the Husker defense and special teams need to do their part if Nebraska is going to flip the turnover stat. According to cornerback Jonathan Rose, Husker defenders have been preaching takeaways constantly. “Basically, we’re looking for fumbles, interceptions, any way we can get that ball out,” Rose said this spring. “We talk to linebackers about getting strips, ripping the ball out, then DBs come behind them, get the ball and scoop and score. That’s been our main focus.”

* 67.6: Let's talk about experience through percentages. Of the yardage produced by Nebraska last year, 67.6 percent of it was accumulated by players returning to this year's team. In regards to rushing yardage, 94.2 percent of last year's output returns. In receiving yardage, 63.9 percent returns. In passing yards? Just 38 percent. So, yes, people are still reserving judgment on Tommy Armstrong as a passer. Smooth as he looked in the option, he needs his completion percentage (51.9 percent last year) to climb and his TD/INT ratio (9/8) to improve. The interception column is probably the biggest of them all.

It should be said that past Husker QBs — even ones now seen as legends, like Tommie Frazier — took their lumps in their first year or two in the program. Frazier completed 44 percent of his passes and didn't connect on more than 47.5 percent in a season until his senior year. But Frazier also was 22/5 in his TD/INT ratio his first two years. And by the time he was a senior, he was among the top 15 quarterbacks nationally in pass efficiency. Different offenses, different teams, different spellings of Tommy/Tommie. No comparisons here. Just a reminder that some of NU's best quarterbacks, big winners, were not polished passers and had to do some on-the-job growth.

* 15: Randy Gregory’s 10½ sacks were the most by a Husker newcomer. And his nine sacks in Big Ten games were just one off the record in league play, set by Jim Skow in 1985. Skow had 15 total sacks that year, which ties Trev Alberts in 1993 for NU's single-season record. Fifteen. Keep that number in mind. Just in case.

* 9: The good news for the Huskers is that they’ve won that many games in a row decided by a touchdown or less dating to 2012. They’re a team that clearly has shown some grit during some weeks when victory seemed improbable. The bad news is there have been seven losses of greater than a touchdown during the streak. No loss is accepted very well around here, but those face-plant losses by multiple touchdowns are something the Huskers need to erase.

* 200: Reach this number of rushing yards and Nebraska was 5-0 last year. Sure, 300 is preferred. The Huskers are 15-0 in the Bo Pelini era when hitting 300. But 200 is a sizable enough mark in its own right. Even though the Huskers finished 19th nationally in rushing offense, at 215 yards a game, they actually didn’t crack 200 yards rushing after the Purdue game Oct. 12. Perhaps not coincidentally, that’s also when all-conference guard Spencer Long went down and the rash of injuries began.

* 1,804: That’s how many rushing yards No. 8 needs to become No. 1. Do that and Ameer Abdullah catches Mike Rozier as Nebraska’s all-time leading rusher. It’s a tall order and will require good health, which is never guaranteed in this game, especially when you tote the ball 281 times, as Abdullah did a year ago while running for 1,690 yards. You need to be both good and lucky to break a record. But let’s say, for fun, both happen for Abdullah in 2014. A year ago he averaged 130 yards over the course of 13 games. Let’s say he keeps pace with last year’s average and leads the Huskers to the Big Ten Championship Game. Calculator: 130 x 14 = 1,820.

* 3.0: Nebraskans talk about the punt-return game almost as much as the weather, except the weather isn't as frustrating. The number 3.0 was last year's punt-return average, worse than "the Santino Panico year." We won't beat that horse anymore. Special-teams work was stressed heavily this spring, done in the middle of the practices with Bo Pelini in the thick of it. And Nebraska should have plenty of options for returners, whether it's Jordan Westerkamp, Jamal Turner or one of the incoming freshmen, such as Glenn Irons, Demornay Pierson-El or Trai Mosley or somebody else. Bottom line: There's too much talent in Nebraska's locker room to rank 123rd in anything.

* 26: That's how many more career catches Kenny Bell has than all the other Husker wide receivers combined. Bell has 134. Everyone else has 108 combined. Bell is 32 catches from NU's career receptions record, 578 yards off the school career receiving yardage record. He also could make a run at the touchdowns record with an opportunistic year. He has 15. The record is 25, held by Johnny Rodgers.

* 5-3: It’s hardly an advanced stat, but it’s the most important. We’re talking wins and losses. A year ago at this time, one of the most alluring prospects of the 2013 season was the fact Nebraska had eight home games. Protect the home turf and just think of the possibilities. But the Huskers failed in that regard, going just 5-3 in Memorial Stadium. All of the losses were by at least 13 points. Two were by three touchdowns. A Hail Mary saved NU from a .500 home record. The Huskers actually looked like a more relaxed team on the road. Think about the best wins last season — Michigan, Penn State, Georgia. That’s where the most poise was shown.

This year, Nebraska needs a rerun of 2012 at Memorial Stadium, when it went 7-0. Miami is the only game in Lincoln that seems a tossup. Lincoln needs to be a source of comfort and confidence for the Huskers again, the kind of place where you rack up seven wins and build steam for road games, such as Michigan State, Wisconsin and Iowa. With that kind of journey ahead, you simply can’t afford to scratch the car while driving around the block.

​Reach the writer at 402-473-7439 or bchristopherson@journalstar.com. On Twitter @HuskerExtraBC.

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