Nebraska Football: Mike Riley’s Magic Number for Winning

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“Sixty percent completion rate, it’s a magic number. Yes it is, it’s a magic number.”

– to the tune of “Three Is A Magic Number,” Schoolhouse Rock

With Nebraska off to its worst start in football since the pre-Bob Devaney era, Nebraska fans are freaked out. In trying to grapple with a reality that involves Nebraska needing to win out to avoid a 6-6 season (and the need to change the patch on its uniform to “Nebraska Football – A Non-Losing Tradition”), people have looked all over for answers. It’s the coach. It’s the defense. It’s the injuries.

Of course, sober and rational fans know that there are any number of nuances and competing factors contributing to five losses by a total of 13 points. But this is A Blog on The Internets, so a “silver bullet” answer is needed to fix Nebraska’s woes.

And as luck may have it, a look at the numbers might suggest something along those lines. A smart and particularly handsome analyst has already observed the striking correlation between Nebraska completing 60 percent or more of its pass attempts and winning. Here’s that table, updated for the Northwestern game.

Opponent Completions Attempts Completion %
BYU 24 41 58.5
South Alabama 26 38 68.4
Miami 21 45 46.7
Southern Miss 23 35 65.7
Illinois 10 31 32.3
Wisconsin 11 28 39.3
Minnesota 18 26 69.2
Northwestern 24 48 50.0

Games won are in bold.

The theory holds up perfectly for Nebraska this year. Nebraska is 3-0 in games where Armstrong’s completion percentage is 60 percent or over, and 0-5 when it is under 60 percent.

But how does that hold up in Riley’s history? Well, thanks to the fine folks at cfbstats.com, we can crack open the record books and take a look back at least to 2008.

Year Record with rate >= 60% Record with rate <60%
2015 3-0 0-5
2014 6-4 1-2
2013 3-3 2-4
2012 7-1 2-3
2011 3-7 0-2
2010 4-1 1-6
2009 8-4 0-1
2008 5-3 4-1
Overall 66-23 (.742 win pct.) 10-24 (.294 win pct.)

In other words, since 2008 Riley’s teams have won nearly three in four games where his team’s completion percentage is 60 percent or greater, and lost more than three in every four games where that completion percentage is less than 60 percent.

It does make some sense, though, when you look at how Riley’s teams have run the ball since 2008 (again, from cfbstats.com).

Year Yards/Carry
2015 4.94
2014 3.77
2013 3.46
2012 3.66
2011 3.27
2010 3.76
2009 4.13
2008 4.22

While this year’s yards-per-carry is more than acceptable (and might suggest an offensive game plan, particularly if quarterback Tommy Armstrong is unable to play against Purdue this Saturday, as reported by Michael Bruntz of Huskers Illustrated), history suggests that Riley-coached teams have never run the ball effectively. Therefore, it stands to reason that Riley relies on a quarterback completing a high percentage of his throws to move the ball effectively.

Watching Nebraska this year on offense tends to lend credence to the theory. Even with a nearly five-yards-per-carry average, Nebraska’s offense has very much relied on the pass to establish the run rather than vice versa. When Armstrong is in a rhythm and completing passes, everything else clicks. But when he isn’t (or, in fairness, his passes are being dropped), Nebraska’s offense bogs down.

Which makes for the potential of a fascinating experiment on Saturday. Should backup quarterback Ryker Fyfe play due to Armstrong’s injury, look to see if he’s able to hit that magical sixty-percent completion rate against Purdue. If he can hit that number, it will be interesting to see what Nebraska’s offense looks like.

Yes, it’s Purdue, and a good performance by Fyfe wouldn’t (and shouldn’t) displace Armstrong as the starter next week against Michigan State. But the completion percentage number is a good one to keep your eye on throughout the rest of this season – and to keep in the back of your mind as Nebraska looks towards 2016.

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One thought on “Nebraska Football: Mike Riley’s Magic Number for Winning

  1. who cares…go back to the run! What…can’t coach it? Whatever happened to “we’ll work with the talent on hand”? This is a running team, state, brand, tradition, conference, etc. None of this would have happened if they would have focused on the running game and actually had one. They are trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. This staff will not be here in a year or two. Great going Eighorst!

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