This is the last of a series about what I consider to be the five Big Red Flags that, if not addressed by the time the season begins August 28th, could pose big problems for the Huskers this fall.
Earlier in this series, we examined what I believe to be the biggest problems with the quarterback (Adrian Martinez notwithstanding), running backs and receiver depth chart: Long on talent but short on experience.
And now let's take a look at perhaps the two biggest Red Flags of them all: unforced errors and special teams. Unforced errors include pass interceptions, fumbles, penalties and turnover margins.
Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory
Over the three years of the Scott Frost era, the erratic play of special teams and the propensity of committing unforced errors by Nebraska have led to the Huskers' dismal 12-20 record. All too often, the Huskers have managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. (When a team performs as poorly as the Huskers have over the past three years, penalties and poor special teams play usually contribute to these losses. That's why I've chosen not to list any of these dreadful losses. With 20 losses in three years, most of us would rather forget them.)
If Nebraska is finally going to turn the corner and produce winning teams again, it is going to have to make drastic improvements in these two areas.
There should be no doubt that unforced errors and poor special teams play are the great equalizer. Problems in these two areas trump superior talent, great coaching, home field advantage, home sell out history, state of the art facilities, favorable scheduling, football tradition etc. When a team defeats itself, it negates all these pluses. Simply put, sloppy play all too often results in painful losses.
First, we'll look at penalties, fumbles and interceptions Nebraska has committed in the first three years of the Frost Era.
2018 (12 Games): 92 times for 850 yds
2019 (12 Games): 61 for 518 yds
2020 (8 Games): 54 for 485 yds
(If you're keeping score, that's a grand total of 1,853 penalty yards in three years.)
2018 (12 Games): 28 times with 11 lost
2019 (12 Games): 27 with 12 lost
2020 (8 Games): 22 with 9 lost
(If you're keeping score, that's 57 total turnovers in three years by Nebraska.)
2018: -0.3 average per game (national ranking 87th)
2019: 0.0 (64th)
2020: -1.4 (122nd)
(Simply put, TO margins for Nebraska have been moribund during the Frost era.)
Although special teams are on the field for only about 20% of the time, they can have a big impact on the outcomes of football games. It is said that special teams don't often win games, but they certainly can contribute to losses.
Case in point: Miss a field goal or an extra point late in a close game, and we'll all remember the kicker's name and the final score.
Special teams include kickoffs, kickoff coverage and kickoff returns. The same goes for the punting game: Also included in special teams are field goals and extra points. In this segment, we'll look at perhaps the biggest problem the Husker Special Teams have to correct: Kickoff Yardage Deficit.
KICKOFF RETURN YARDAGE GIVEN UP BY NEBRASKA
2018: 695 Total Yards (0 TDs)
2019: 932 TY (2 TDs)
2020: 498 TY (1 TD)
KICKOFF RETURN YARDAGE MADE BY NEBRASKA
2018: 490 TY (0 TDs)
2019: 417 TY (0 TDs)
2020: 274 TY (0 TDs)
If we add the total yards given up by Nebraska in those three years, we get 2,125. And if we tally up all the kickoff yardage made by Nebraska, we come up with 1,181 total yards. That's a deficit of 944 yards for Nebraska.
Think how many games Nebraska might have won had the difference not been so stark. How many more wins would the Huskers have had in those three years? Of course, we'll never know.
The deficit directly affects one of the most valued commodities in the game of football: Field position. Having poor field position means a team has a longer distance to score and has more first downs to make. And the longer a team is on the field, the greater its chances of having a turnover or a penalty that can end a drive. And as I pointed out earlier, Nebraska's scoring average has dropped a full 7 points per game since 2018. Better field position could have helped the Huskers score more points.
So what should be done about the kickoff deficit? The first step is to give a full-time assistant coach the responsibility of special teams. And thankfully, Scott Frost did that in the offseason by naming Mike Dawson as special teams coordinator. (He also has to coach outside linebackers.)
Last year, Frost hired Jonathan Rutledge as special teams analyst (not as an assistant) to succeed Jovan Dewitt, who spent 2018 and 2019 as special teams coordinator and outside linebackers coach for Nebraska. (During his stay at Nebraska, Dewitt was diagnosed with throat cancer and ended up leaving the Huskers after the '19 season.)
One has to wonder why Frost handed off a moribund special teams program to an analyst instead of a full time assistant. Time will tell if the move to Dawson is going to make a difference.
Recently, a reader correctly pointed out an error I had made in one of my earlier columns. In the segment about the QB Room, I said that Husker QB Logan Smothers was a 2019 recruit. Technically, I was correct. LS did sign in December of 2019, but he was a member of the 2020 class. Whatever!
Husker Fans Salute the Troops Foundation
If you value the sacrifices our men and women in the U.S. military have made for all of us, you may want to donate to a great cause whose sole purpose is to salute, serve and support events that will have an impact on reducing the number of suicides that have plagued the brave men and women of our military for far too long. Husker Salute has been around for 13 years and hosts military members and their families to a game weekend in Lincoln when the Huskers are on the road.
Please note, no one on the Salute Board takes a salary. Salute is an all volunteer 501(c)(3) nonprofit foundation. All donations are tax deductible. To learn more about Salute and to donate, go to huskersalute.org. You'll be proud to support such a great cause.