Nebraska football fans were left frustrated on Saturday watching NU lose to Michigan State, even though NU outgained the Spartans 392-361 and were able to post an average of 3.5 yards/carry on the no. 1 rushing defense in the country. Of course, Nebraska’s minus-five turnover margin in the game was the most obvious culprit and rationale for the defeat.
But Nebraska’s punt return game has been terrible, and been terrible for some time. And against Michigan State, the disparity in that element of the game was enough to cost Nebraska a win—and a chance to play for a conference championship.
Nebraska lost the game by 13 points, and you can look back at two plays in the punting game that directly contributed to 14 Michigan State points. Even if everything else in the game that went wrong for Nebraska happened, the disparity in the punt game was sufficient to cost Nebraska its first loss to the Spartans in school history.
The first play was in the first quarter, with the Spartans on top 3-0. Michigan State was punting from its own 32, and Spartan punter Mike Sadler hung a beautiful 56-yard punt up in the swirling wind. Nebraska asked Jordan Westerkamp, who was carrying an injury, to field that punt without putting on a return or significantly pressuring the punt.
Westerkamp chased the swirling punt down, muffed it (as he did against Michigan a week before), and ultimately gave the Spartans possession at the Nebraska 8-yard line. Michigan State scored a touchdown at point-blank range two plays later.
The second play was in the third quarter, when Nebraska had pulled the score back to 20-14 in favor of the Spartans. The Blackshirts forced a Michigan State punt from the Nebraska 36 and once again did not pressure the kick. Sadler, one of the best punters in the nation, pinned Nebraska at its own 1-yard line, putting redshirt freshman Tommy Armstrong in a precarious situation against statistically the best rush defense in the country.
On the next play, Armstrong fumbled, giving Michigan State the ball at Nebraska’s 3-yard line. The Spartans punched the ball in one play later for an even-pointer-blank touchdown, ballooning their advantage to 27-14.
Two plays in the punting game—one mistake on Nebraska’s part, one stellar piece of execution on Michigan State’s part—directly resulted in fourteen points for the Spartans. It’s always a little dangerous to play the “what if” game, but it’s hard not to see those two plays as emblematic of Nebraska’s struggles throughout the season and a major factor in Nebraska’s loss on Saturday.
So far this season, Nebraska is averaging 3.6 yards per punt return. As observed by Jon Nyatawa of the Omaha World-Herald, that’s on track to be the worst average in school history. The much-maligned Santino Panico in 2004, whose only job was to fair catch and safely field punts, averaged 3.1 yards per return.
The falloff in punt return effectiveness is mystifying and a huge and under-appreciated explanation for some of Nebraska’s struggles this season. Take a look at Nebraska’s average starting field position, as compiled by FBSDriveStats.com.
Starting Field Position
Sure, punt returns are only one factor in terms of average starting field position. Kick returns, overall defensive effectiveness and generating turnovers on defense will all play a role in a team’s average starting field position.
But the most common way for a team to get the ball back is from an opponent’s punt, so it is fair to look at the punt return game as the primary vehicle to get good field position. And Nebraska has been struggling with that aspect of the game this year.
Some of that may be personnel driven. In 2011 and 2012, Ameer Abdullah was Nebraska’s leading punt returner, averaging 10.2 yards per return. In 2013, with Abdullah being the primary I-back, Jamal Turner was moved into the primary returner role. Turner’s injury (and ball security issues) gave the role to Westerkamp, who has also struggled with ball security and injury issues this season.
Nebraska’s special teams coordinator is Ross Els, who is also Nebraska’s linebacker coach and the team’s recruiting coordinator. That’s a lot on one man’s plate, especially when dealing with an entirely new corps of linebackers and trying to get Nebraska’s recruiting rankings out of the doldrums.
So there may be a number of solutions to Nebraska’s punt-return woes. But fans and supporters should not dismiss the critical nature of Nebraska’s punt return game. Put bluntly, even if the offense and defense are both working at maximum efficiency, it is hard to see how Nebraska could compete for a conference championship without improving its punt return game.
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