“I’ve got to admit, it’s getting better
A little better all the time
(It can’t get much worse!)”
- “Getting Better,” The Beatles
Nebraska football fans have been very worried about the demise of the Blackshirts in the last few months. Last year, Nebraska saw teams get to 60 points against it not once, but twice, a feat previously unthinkable for a Bo Pelini-led defensive squad.
As the 2013 season started, hopes were high that Pelini had addressed the defensive problems in the offseason. Those hopes were dashed when a Mountain West team came to Lincoln on opening day and notched 602 yards of total offense against Nebraska. Two weeks later, UCLA came roaring back from an 18-point deficit to have over 500 yards hung on the Blackshirts in a 20-point loss.
At that point, many Nebraska fans had given up hope. But since UCLA, the green shoots of a Nebraska defensive recovery have started to emerge. Sure, the quality of Nebraska’s opposition could mean that the defensive improvements are a false dawn. But the numbers are there to suggest that Nebraska’s young defense is starting to put things right.
Here is a table showing how the Blackshirts have done in terms of total yards, rushing yards and passing yards allowed in 2013.
Taking a look at the graph gives you a good idea visually of how the Blackshirts’ fortunes have been turning around. The early part of the season was a bit of a roller-coaster, with a dreadful start against Wyoming, a get-well game against a terrible Southern Mississippi team and then the second-half meltdown against UCLA.
But then you can see, for the most part, the numbers all start to head south. And that’s definitely a good thing for Nebraska, meaning that the defense has been consistently putting in better performances as the season has progressed.
You can also see that Nebraska’s pass defense has been steadily improving after the UCLA game in particular. Illinois was the first opponent Nebraska held under 200 passing yards, and the first opponent that had more rushing than passing yards. A significant percentage of Purdue’s yardage came through the air, but that had more to do with Nebraska totally shutting down Purdue’s rushing attack. And if you take away the 55-yard touchdown pass Purdue hit in garbage time, the statistics look even more impressive.
Other defensive statistics
Yardage doesn’t tell the whole story, though. Here in table form is how Nebraska has done in terms of points allowed, turnovers and sacks.
Again, putting the data in graph form can help display how Nebraska’s defense has progressed throughout the season. In points allowed, we see the same roller-coaster we saw with yardage in the first quarter of the season, culminating in the surrender of 41 to UCLA. But after that game, we see a steady decline in points allowed.
Sacks have also been steadily improving throughout the season. After logging just one sack in two games, Nebraska has had no less than three in the last four contests. The fact that Nebraska’s sack totals have gone up while its passing yards allowed have gone down suggests that the additional pressure (whether it is coming from a front four or extra pressure) has been effective.
Turnovers have been relatively constant for Nebraska, although it is no surprise that the game where NU forced the fewest turnovers is the one game of the six NU lost. However, what that suggests is that Nebraska’s fortunes from a defensive standpoint are not relying on turnovers. As the yardage and point totals have improved for Nebraska’s defense, while the turnovers remain consistent, the data would suggest that Nebraska’s improved defensive output is the result of overall improved play rather than relying on turnovers.
Much ink has been spilled (including by a certain smart and particularly handsome analyst) that an improvement to Nebraska’s defense will be key to a successful season. And it should be observed that part of the reason Nebraska’s defense looks better is because it has faced some pretty mediocre offensive opponents since UCLA.
But the fact remains that the Blackshirts have gotten the job done against the opponents they have faced, after the disastrous second half against UCLA. As the difficulty of the schedule ramps up, we will find out if that UCLA second half is the anomaly or the norm for Nebraska’s defense.
Or, you could always use the Twitter machine to follow @patrickrunge.