Nebraska football fans are some of the most knowledgeable in the country. They know their team and their sport inside out. And yet, I think Nebraska fans are overlooking a source of great concern for NU next season—the huge question marks in the kicking game.
According to CFBMatrix.com, having a returning kicker is an immensely underrated asset. Teams that return both a punter and a kicker are about 28 percent more likely to have a higher win total than the previous year. That is higher than the percentage chance to win more games (22 percent) if a starting quarterback is returning.
Conversely, teams that do not return a starting kicker or punter are 31 percent more likely to have a lower win total than the previous season.
So, yeah, that should give Nebraska fans cause for concern. Not only is Nebraska breaking in a new punter and a new kicker, but NU is also breaking in a new long snapper, a new holder and likely an entirely new cast of kick returners. How could all these changes affect Nebraska?
Putting Points on The Board
The most obvious effect of a strong kicking game is seen on the scoreboard. Last year, Nebraska ranked 54th nationally in field-goal percentage at 74.1 percent. That number was down significantly from 2011 (17th nationally, 82.6 percent) and from 2010 (third nationally, 94.7 percent). Nebraska was also perfect on extra points last year, having missed only one PAT since 2010.
So even when Nebraska’s field-goal accuracy has been down, NU is still comfortably in the top half of the nation in terms of converting field-goal attempts. What happens if that number drops? What happens if the combination of a new long snapper, a new holder and a new kicker means that Nebraska’s dependability with the kicking game goes away?
Most obviously, it means Nebraska will almost certainly score fewer points. And given how many games Nebraska won last year by the finest of margins, it should be clear that NU is not in a position to be giving points away.
Looking a little deeper, though, can demonstrate how a shaky kicking game could affect Nebraska in other ways. If head coach Bo Pelini doesn’t have faith in his place-kicker, he is more likely to eschew the field goal in favor of a more risky fourth-down conversion attempt.
Heck, Pelini was even considering going for it until Alex Henery demonstrated his confidence to hit the fateful 57-yarder against Colorado to launch the legend of the Skinny Assassin.
If Nebraska’s kicking game does fall apart, it will mean NU will either punt more often or will go for it on fourth down more often. Even assuming the same percentage of success as last year on fourth-down conversions (63.64 percent, 22nd nationally), that will result in Nebraska giving the ball back to its opponents more frequently and in better field position.
Those extra possessions, some of which with shorter fields to work, would put additional pressure on a young and rebuilding Blackshirts unit.
I think one of the most underappreciated results of a strong kicking game is the effect it has on field position. Last year, Nebraska was No. 10 nationally in touchback percentage from a kickoff (59.38 percent). Nebraska was No. 55 nationally in net punting, averaging 41.16 yards per punt.
Having a solid (if not spectacular) punting game and an extremely good touchback percentage means that the kicking game is forcing the opposing offense to drive a longer field to score. The more yards an opponent has to gain for a score, the more likely a defense stops that offense (the 2012 Big Ten Championship Game notwithstanding).
As we know, Nebraska’s defense struggled last year. According to FBSDriveStats.com, Nebraska was No. 82 nationally in terms of where its opponents started drives, averaging a start on their own 31-yard line. Of course, one of the reasons Nebraska struggled in this statistic is because of the high numbers of turnovers NU committed last year. But that number was, at some level, offset by a strong kicking game.
What if Nebraska’s kicking game isn’t helping the average field position? Certainly, Nebraska fans are hoping NU’s turnovers decrease. But even if that happens, if the kicking game falls apart, Nebraska could be in the same boat in terms of poor average opposing drive starting positions.
Again, Nebraska’s defense next year is going to be young and rebuilding. It can use all the help it can get. If Nebraska’s kicking game falters, that defense will have even more questions asked of it.
A particularly smart and handsome analyst called Nebraska “Kicker U” for its great history of producing kickers. And perhaps this year’s crop of kickers will answer the bell and continue that legacy for Nebraska. But it’s a big unknown at this point, one that I don’t think Nebraska fans are paying nearly enough attention to.
All stats are from cfbstats.com unless otherwise noted.
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