photo and story by Patrick Runge
Nebraska football fans had a lot to digest after NU’s near-miss comeback against Michigan State, coming up on the wrong end of a 27-22 score. So they can be forgiven for not diving into the numbers as Nebraska reaches the midpoint of the 2014 season.
That’s what we’re here for, of course. So here are three numbers that you wouldn’t have expected to see, and how those numbers either explain where Nebraska is or help gauge where it is going in 2014.
All stats courtesy of cfbstats.com.
No. 8 Nationally in Rushing Offense
Many Nebraska fans turned last weekend’s game against Michigan State off as things got into the third quarter. While not laudible (and boy did they miss a show!), that decision was understandable given how anemic Nebraska’s offense looked. Coming into the game, Nebraska was no. 3 nationally in rushing offense, and NU was expected to pound Heisman candidate Ameer Abdullah and make their hay on the ground.
Nebraska ended the game—and that includes NU’s fierce comeback, remember—with 37 carries for 47 yards.
But it does give you an idea of how good Nebraska had been running the ball in the five weeks prior to Michigan State that even after such a dismal performance, Nebraska only dropped from no. 3 to no. 8 nationally. It suggests that Nebraska’s rushing attack is still formidable, even with the disastrous disappearing act it did against the Spartans on Saturday night.
No. 20 Nationally in Punt Returns
Hey, remember last year when Nebraska’s punt return game was a huge hindrance? Last year, Nebraska was no. 123 (out of 125) in punt returns, averaging 3.04 yards per return. Which, basically, represented Nebraska punt returner catching the ball and immediately falling forward.
With the discovery of true freshman Demornay Pierson-El, though, everything has changed. Nebraska is now no. 20 nationally in punt returns, averaging 14.95 yards per return. In addition to the obvious benefits of the additional 11-plus yards of field position with every punt, Nebraska has scored two touchdowns. The second, against Michigan State, was truly the turning point keying Nebraska’s near comeback.
In other words, Nebraska’s punt return game has gone from a liability to hide to a strength that can put NU in position to win a game it had no business making even close.
No. 21 in Both Polls
This might be the most remarkable statistic of all, particularly if you were one of those people who turned the Michigan State game off shortly after halftime. Nebraska came into the game ranked no. 17 in the AP poll and no. 19 in the Coaches’ Poll. When Nebraska was down 27-3 going into the fourth quarter, NU fans were primarily worried about the game becoming a complete blowout.
The fourth-quarter comeback made many Nebraska fans feel better, but certainly didn’t make up for how humbled NU’s offense was in the first three quarters. But apparently, the comeback also registered with poll voters, who only dropped Nebraska two and four spots respectively.
Is that relevant? Well, to an extent. Yes, the College Football Playoff committee is independent from the polls. But it’s hard to imagine that the perception of Nebraska as not falling too far—even with being held to only 47 yards rushing—won’t have some effect on the committee.
And before you write a comment reminding me that Nebraska looks miles away from a playoff team (which is a fair observation), remember that the committee also picks the rest of the “big six” bowls based on their rankings. Should Nebraska end the season at 10-2 or 11-1—not at all an unreasonable objective given NU’s remaining schedule—that cushion from the Michigan State loss could be crucial for Nebraska to make a big-time bowl game.