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C O M M E N T A R Y
T A D    S T R Y K E R
July 26, 2009

Last year, a groundswell of improved effort, mental toughness and emotional support for a new coach helped Nebraska football retake much of the ground it had lost in 2007. This season, cold, hard percentages should work in the Cornhuskers’ favor as they struggle to make more progress.

Nebraska improved from a 5-7 record to 9-4 despite carrying a tremendous handicap. Year-in and year-out, you won’t find too many nine-win teams that languish in the nation’s bottom 15 percent in turnover margin. Nebraska was there last season with 17 takeaways and 28 giveaways, finishing at minus-11 for the season (-0.85 per game) which gave the Huskers the dubious honor of placing 107th in the nation.

Talk about your extra baggage. Nebraska tied Missouri for first in the Big 12 North despite ending up 28 notches lower than the Tigers in turnover margin (Missouri checked in at 79th in the nation). That’s a little like placing third in the Kentucky Derby while carrying 15 more pounds than each of the other horses. You’re glad to finish as high as you did, but wonder how much better you could have done without the handicap.

A prime example was the 37-31 overtime loss to Texas Tech. Although Nebraska went without a giveaway until the game’s final play, the Huskers could not force a single Red Raider turnover. If Larry Asante hadn’t dropped a catchable interception on Tech’s fourth-quarter touchdown drive, Nebraska very likely would have won the game in regulation. If you give do-overs to Graham Harrell, you pay the price.

Nebraska has done so poorly at forcing turnovers the past two seasons (Nebraska was minus-17 and 112th in the nation in 2007) that sheer chance alone indicates the Big Red should get a few more in Bo Pelini’s second year at the helm – even if you didn’t consider the fact that Pelini has a reputation for developing aggressive, ball-hawking defenses.

The lightly regarded Big 12 North is bouncing around like a loose ball, just waiting for someone to pick it up and run with it. Nebraska is positioned as well as anyone to do just that, but it won’t happen unless the Cornhuskers can get a handle on a few more of those fumbles – and interceptions – that have eluded their grasp over the past two seasons.

Except for the 2003 season, when defensive coordinator Pelini unleashed Demorrio Williams, Barrett Ruud and the Bullocks brothers to force an amazing 47 turnovers (an average of nearly four per game), the Blackshirts have not been overly impressive lately when it comes to getting takeaways. The only other season this decade that NU averaged at least two takeaways a game was 2001, the year that the Huskers played in the BCS title game against Miami in the Rose Bowl.

The beauty of it is, at this point, Nebraska doesn’t have to be amazing in turnover margin to make progress as a football program. It would be enough if the Huskers could become only average.

Nebraska forced only 17 fumbles last season and recovered only five. This continued a disturbing trend from 2007, which saw NU force only 15 fumbles and recover only three. In both those seasons, the Huskers lost more than half of their own fumbles. The percentages are unnaturally skewed against the Big Red, and you’d think that the breaks will start to fall Nebraska’s way, especially with an experienced defensive front four led by All-America candidate Ndamukong Suh.

NU needs Barry Turner to return to the form he flashed as a freshman (six sacks), and Pierre Allen to be as productive at the other defensive end as he was last fall (five sacks, 10 tackles for loss). Barring injury, there’s no reason they shouldn’t if teams consistently double-team Suh, as most will be forced to do.

Linebacker is the Huskers’ biggest question mark on defense. Mathew May is a rising star, and could be a difference-maker with his speed. If at least one redshirt freshman linebacker can become a disruptive force by midseason, it will be a tremendous boost for the Blackshirts. And I look for increased speed on kick coverage units to produce a few turnovers for Nebraska this fall.

Combine a strong pass rush with a faster and more experienced secondary and the likelihood that offensive coordinator Shawn Watson will ask quarterback Zac Lee to be extremely careful with the ball, and Nebraska has the makings of a better-looking turnover margin. It would be a godsend for an offense that likely will need the advantage of consistently good field position this fall.

In 2006, the Huskers broke even (25 giveaways, 25 takeaways) and won the North. If they can at least break even in turnover margin again, they have enough talent to do it again. On the other hand, if Nebraska keeps carrying all that extra baggage and Kansas continues to shine (the Jayhawks finished first in the nation in turnover margin in 2007 and 45th last season), KU likely advances to its first-ever Big 12 title game on Dec. 5.

 

Formerly the sports editor at the North Platte Bulletin and a sportswriter/columnist for the North Platte Telegraph, Tad Stryker is a longtime Nebraska sports writer, having covered University of Nebraska and high school sports for more than 25 years. He started writing for this website in 2008. You can e-mail him at tad.stryker@gmail.com. | Archive

 
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