Patrick Runge@@patrickrungeCorrespondent IMarch 5, 2013

Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Nebraska football fans instinctively know that fumbles are a problem for NU. But a closer look at the numbers gives some real insight as to why fumbles are a problem—or, more precisely, when fumbles are a problem for Nebraska.

My new favorite website, HuskerMath, has crunched the numbers about Nebraska’s fumbles from 2010-2012, and the results really do give some insight about where NU needs to improve. Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are from cfbstats.com, my former favorite website (don’t worry, cfbstats.com, I still love you!).

First, let’s start with the basics. And, oh boy, are the basics ugly. Nebraska lost 22 fumbles in 2012, which meant NU was No. 124 in the country in that statistic. Out of 124 teams. That’s bad.

Things were better in 2011 where Nebraska had 11 lost fumbles, putting NU tied for No. 61 nationally. But that number is a little deceptive when you consider that Nebraska had 32 total fumbles that year, tied for No. 117 nationally. In 2010, Nebraska lost 16 fumbles (No. 117 nationally) out of a total of 45 (!) fumbles (No. 119 – out of 119).

So, yeah, Nebraska has a fumbling problem.

But HuskerMath takes things a step further, looking at when those fumbles occurred from 2010-2012, and comparing that data to the rest of the nation. There are six times a fumble can occur—on first down, second down, third down, fourth down, on a kickoff return and on a punt return. In rough numbers, here’s where fumbles occur on a national average.

 First Down 33% Second Down 28% Third Down 20% Fourth Down 3% Kickoff Return 6% Punt Return 11%

As HuskerMath points out, it is interesting to see how first and second down are more common for fumbles, although part of that might be because first and second downs happen with more frequency than third downs. So how do Nebraska’s fumbles fit onto this distribution chart? The answer truly does give some insight.

 Time of Fumble National Average Nebraska Average First Down 33% 27% Second Down 28% 27% Third Down 20% 25% Fourth Down 3% 0% Kickoff Return 6% 6% Punt Return 11% 15%

There are two things that jump off the page from that chart (and not just because I helpfully boldfaced and italicized the numbers). Nebraska is much worse than the national average losing fumbles on third down and on punt returns. Remember, this is data from 2010-2012, so it’s a big enough sample size for those numbers to mean something and not be overly skewed by one individual or one game (cough, Northwestern 2012, cough).

Let’s look at third downs to start. What’s happening, generally, for Nebraska on third downs? Sure, it tends to be when the pressure is on and people tend to make mistakes. Is it evidence that Nebraska’s offense in the last three years doesn’t handle pressure well?

There might be a simpler answer. Third down, especially when it is third and long, is when Nebraska (like any other team) has to take more risks in an attempt to stay on the field. It also tends to be a “sure-pass” down, meaning opposing defenses can pin their proverbial ears back and rush the passer. That’s bad for Nebraska’s fumbles both because of Taylor Martinez’s fumbling propensity and NU’s offensive line struggles.

In short, third down tends to be when the ball is in Martinez’s hands. He needs to make a play, and everyone in the building knows he needs to make a play. Sometimes it works out with amazing results. Martinez’s Crouch-like run against Wisconsin in the B1G title game last year? On third and 11.

But sometimes it doesn’t. And, at least for the last three years, it results in Nebraska putting the ball on the carpet and giving it away way more than the national average.

Then, there’s the punt returns, also known as the Santino Panico effect. Without looking at the numbers, I will say that I was surprised the discrepancy between the national average and Nebraska’s number was so small. Last year’s Northwestern game, in which two straight punts were fumbled, was a prime example of how poor special teams execution hurt Nebraska.

So what have we learned from the fine work at HuskerMath? Nebraska has a fumbling problem, but paying special attention to execution on third down and to punt returns should yield the best results in solving that problem.

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