Nebraska Football vs. Illinois Photo No. 19

Nebraska’s Will Honas (3) celebrates after a tackle against Illinois during the game at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020, in Lincoln, Nebraska.

There were no fans to witness a beat down reminiscent of the Mike Riley days on Saturday. Nebraska came in as a 16-point favorite and lost 41-23 to a 1-3 Illinois team. It’s year three, and Nebraska’s offense has not taken off like some expected after Frost’s time at Oregon and Central Florida. 

Though the spotlight is focused on Frost’s offense, and for good reason, the defense’s failures should not be ignored.

In the Penn State win, Nebraska gave up 501 yards, yet only 23 points. Despite the Nittany Lions’ 54% success rate on runs, Penn State’s passing took a nose dive to just a 36% success rate.

Against Illinois, Nebraska gave up 492 yards and 41 points. Illinois was dynamic on ground with above a 56% success rate on runs, ninth-best in the country during week 12, and jumped to a 48% success rate on passes.

One key difference was that Nebraska had a +1 turnover differential in the win, and lost with a -5 turnover differential. 

Turnovers flip games and teams that win the turnover differential, usually win the game. In 2019, teams with at least +1 in turnover differential won 76 percent of the time. Getting the turnovers has been the issue as fumbles are hard to come by for Nebraska.

Nebraska has recovered two fumbles and pulled in three interceptions, all on pass plays, through four games this season and is -5 in turnover margin. A defense that’s job is to cause havoc isn’t forcing turnovers because, ultimately, turnovers can be luck dependent. Illinois had four fumbles against Nebraska, but recovered all of them.

There is reason to believe that opportunity creates turnovers. Sacks and tackles for loss or for no gain are positive plays that could possibly result in more chances for takeaways. Moving the offensive line around should cause issues, after all, and being physical is a hallmark for the Big Ten.

To add, the following charts are done with filtering out any garbage time. Garbage time is defined here when one team leads by 43 points or more in the first quarter, 37 points or more in the second quarter, 27 points or more in the third quarter and 22 points or more in the fourth quarter.

In 2020, my hypothesis isn’t illustrated in the data. There is no apparent relationship between sacks and turnovers or between forced fumbles and stuffed run rate, which are runs for 0 or less yards, so turnovers don’t necessarily come from other positive defense plays.

One part of Erik Chinander’s defensive philosophy is to create turnovers and get the offense back on the field. The majority of drives, it’s hard to get that turnover chance and having the ball bounce your way is another story.

In a bend-don’t-break defense, the opposing offense may march down the field on your defense. Instead of big plays, the offensive drives are methodical and should require precision from the offense as it continues to drive.

Early downs, which are first and second downs, can help predict how a defense will do on third down. In the top right corner where Nebraska is, defenses give up more yards on early downs and then give up shorter third downs. 

On Saturday, Illinois’ average third down distance was right above three yards while Nebraska’s was a little over eight yards. Illinois converted 68.75% of its third downs in non-garbage time while Nebraska was at 33%. 

What’s pointed out is that Nebraska’s third down defense is bad, but offenses on early downs make that down easier.

A look at third downs this season for Nebraska is one filled with nightmare fuel for Husker fans.

Illinois’ average distance against Nebraska was just above three yards, the shortest average third down distance for a Big Ten team during week 12 and second-shortest for all teams in week 12.

This is a concern for a bend-don't-break defense. Yes, the expectation is a lot of yards and little explosiveness but giving teams easier third downs easily extends drives and this season, shorter third downs are still much harder to defend.

In the Big Ten, Nebraska has given up 66 plays of at least 10 yards, which is eighth in the conference. Explosive plays come from teams that move the ball well, pointed out by ESPN’s Bill Connelly in a fascinating study of his a couple years ago.

In a nutshell, the best way to prevent an explosive play is to prevent a successful play. A bend-don’t-break defense relies on offenses marching down the field and not giving them explosive plays. With Nebraska, teams have marched down the field and the opportunity for an explosive play expands.

This season, teams entering the red zone have scored touchdowns on 54.55 percent of all opportunities, and that’s a healthy positive for now. If teams continue to drive, that touchdown rate will creep up and that was already seen with Illinois’ red zone success last week. 

The Fighting Illini scored three first-half touchdowns in the red zone and added another touchdown in the second half, scoring four touchdowns on seven non-garbage time redzone drives. The more opportunities a team has, the more they will likely score seven instead of three points.

Offenses have driven down Nebraska’s defense consistently, and excluding the first half against Penn State and some of the Northwestern game, Nebraska’s defense hasn’t earned the Blackshirts moniker yet.