There is no question that the Blackshirts have carried this Nebraska football team in 2009. So much so that Bo Pelini and Shawn Watson were comfortable completely revamping the offense to a highly conservative, ball-control style so as to limit mistakes, play field position and let the defense go out and make plays to win games. The best recent example I can think of when it comes to Nebraska’s style is that of the 2000 Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens. With Ray Lewis, Tony Siragusa, Peter Boulware and Rod Woodson, the Ravens held opponents to less than 10 points in 15 of 20 games. Meanwhile the offense, quarterbacked by Trent Dilfer and anchored by an excellent offensive line with the running of Jamal Lewis, ground out win after win by playing keepaway and not putting their defense in bad positions by committing turnovers and penalties.
Now the Huskers 2009 offensive line is not going to go down as one of the best in school history, so the comparison does fail there. But the strategy is the same. Don’t take chances, limit mistakes and let the defense dominate. The strategy can work, as seen above, but it is also dangerous because you don’t have the kind of offense that can overcome mistakes and if somebody scores 20, the game could be lost. The strategy also shows cracks if you cannot manage the ball control aspect and that is where I think Nebraska could be living on borrowed time this weekend. Check out my figures below. I have gone back through the last seven seasons of Husker football and looked at the total number of plays run (which is a more complete stat that time of possession because you aren’t always playing when the clock is running.) The percentage number represents the percent of Husker offensive plays to the opponents’ offensive plays.
Total Plays NU OPP
2009 – 12 games – 748 830
Avg per game 62.3** 69.1 90.1%
2008 – 13 games – 919 803
Avg per game 70.7 61.7 114.5%
2007 – 12 games – 898 941
Avg per game 74.8 78.4 95.4%
2006 – 14 games – 965 882
Avg per game 68.9 63 109.3%
2005 – 13 games – 864 874
Avg per game 66.4 67.2 98.8%
2004 – 11 games – 734 838
Avg per game 66.7 76.1 87.6%
2003 – 13 games – 908 875
Avg per game 69.8 67.3 103.7%
While the average number of plays per game the Husker defense is on the field is not the worst in the last 7 years, look at the only two years that rate higher. 2004 and 2007 were the two losing seasons under Bill Callahan with the 2007 Huskers being the worst statistical defense in school history. Plus, already this season the Blackshirts have been on the field for 27 more plays than last year’s defense was in an entire 13 game season.
Offensively, the average of under 63 plays per game is the lowest in the period. Now you could look at numbers like this and say the offense is getting a lot of short field drives or hitting a lot of big plays, shortening scoring drives. The 2009 Huskers average of 25.4 points per game is better than 2003-2005, but consider that in the first four games that average was 39.2. Since the start of the conference season, that average is 18.7 points per game, so the production on the scoreboard has been on decline.
Just for comparison, look what Nebraska’s last three national championship teams did. Each year, the Husker offense ran significantly more plays that did their opposition – thus, a much fresher defense.
1997 – 13 games – 937 717 130%
1995 – 13 games – 855 726 117.7%
1994 – 12 games – 897 765 117.2%
Bottom line is this, when compared to the offense, the Blackshirts have essentially played a 13 game season and they haven’t had a break since the first weekend of October. Despite denials by coaches and players that the impact of the extra work is paying a heavy toll, there have been some signs of fatigue with a lessened pass rush from the front four. Some of that was schematic by design to contain running quarterbacks like Kansas’s Todd Reesing, but this Saturday the Huskers cannot afford a containment game with Colt McCoy against the best receiving corps NU has seen.
The numbers can be sobering, but it does not guarantee the Blackshirts won’t or cannot do their assignments this Saturday against Texas. NU will “empty the tanks” to win this game, but the Blackshirts fuel gauge needle is likely a lot closer to “E” than they would like.