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Nebraska: Beyond the Box Score Preview

I almost didn't write this post at all, for one simple reason: if we really are to endure heavy rains and potential winds tomorrow night, then little of the analysis below really matters.  In ridiculous weather conditions, strengths and weaknesses even out, and the game becomes about who makes fewer mistakes and who has fewer disasters in special teams.  But for now, we'll pretend that the weather doesn't have a significant impact on the proceedings.  Cross your fingers.


Nebraska: 2009 Beyond the Box Score Preseason Offensive Preview

For this analysis, we're going to look at the comparative strengths and weaknesses of Nebraska's offense as compared to Missouri's defense.  Resist the urge to compare them too closely, however, as these are the raw numbers, not the schedule-adjusted "+" numbers.  It's still a bit too early to look at those numbers broken down to this level (the whole idea of the "+" adjustment is to tie as many teams as possible together, and that just hasn't happened yet--one good or bad game from a previous opponent can impact your "+" numbers a bit too much).  Instead of saying "____ is better because their offense ranked 44th and the opponent's defense ranked 46th" or something, let's just look at where each team is particularly good or bad.

Nebraska Offense vs Missouri Defense
Category NU Offense MU Defense
Close S&P (Rk) 0.838 (37) 0.651 (31)
Close Success Rate (Rk) 41.1% (70) 42.8% (80)
Close PPP (Rk) 0.43 (21) 0.22 (8)
Rushing S&P 0.757 (52) 0.767 (90)
Rushing Success Rate 42.0% (64) 51.0% (114)
Rushing PPP 0.34 (39) 0.26 (51)
Passing S&P 0.923 (36) 0.540 (10)
Passing Success Rate 40.3% (70) 35.0% (27)
Passing PPP 0.52 (24) 0.19 (5)
Standard Downs S&P 0.980 (19) 0.733 (37)
Standard Downs Rushing S&P 0.962 (9) 0.762 (72)
Standard Downs Passing S&P 1.005 (42) 0.693 (19)
Passing Downs S&P 0.897 (14) 0.697 (91)
Passing Downs Rushing S&P 0.786 (40) 0.859 (120)
Passing Downs Passing S&P 0.953 (9) 0.660 (62)
Red Zone S&P 0.940 (75) 1.075 (94)
Q1 S&P 0.796 (59) 0.723 (57)
Q2 S&P 1.075 (7) 0.463 (5)
Q3 S&P 0.995 (15) 0.996 (116)
Q4 S&P 0.882 (26) 0.671 (46)
1st Down S&P 0.990 (8) 0.743 (67)
2nd Down S&P 0.830 (47) 0.763 (73)
3rd Down S&P 0.962 (19) 0.658 (49)
Line Yards/Carry 3.26 (24) 3.47 (118)
Standard Downs Sack Rate 2.6% (30) 2.4% (96)
Passing Downs Sack Rate 2.0% (10) 9.3% (35)

Grain-of-salt assumptions:

  • This is a really interesting matchup.  Overall, MU's and NU's strengths and weaknesses are similar--NU is average in efficiency (Success Rates) and very good in explosiveness (PPP).  MU is average in stopping efficient offenses and very good in stopping the big play.  As they say on pay-per-views...SOMETHING'S GOT TO GIVE.
  • Generally speaking, Nebraska holds the advantage on the ground, Missouri in the air.  As we'll see below, NU has put together a solid passing attack (particularly on Passing Downs), but Mizzou has played the "allow short completions and nothing deep, and tackle well" game very effectively so far.  Meanwhile, run blocking presents a significant advantage for Nebraska.  Gameplans for each team will be key here, as both units have advantages.
  • While Missouri has been effective stopping the pass, they have allowed quite a few long rushes on Passing Downs.  Now, of all the problems to have, this isn't a bad one--after all, you can allow nine yards on 3rd-and-11 and get away with it.  But what this says, I think, is that they are letting teams off the hook a bit in terms of forcing a 2nd-and-10 then allowing a 7-8 yard run to set up a 3rd-and-short.
  • NU is devastating on first downs.  Missouri has alternated between effective and ineffective stopping the run, and first-down rushes will go a long way toward deciding NU's overall output.
  • The first quarter could be vital here--neither NU's offense nor MU's defense are particularly strong out of the gates, and whoever performs better could garner an unexpected advantage.


[T]he key to [Zac Lee's] success could be his elusiveness.  Joe Ganz was able to extend coverage on a lot of plays by avoiding the pass rush and creating things outside the pocket.  NU's offensive line was not too tremendous, and he possibly made them look better by avoiding sacks.  If this is true, then Lee will need to do the same in 2009.

In the end, Lee shapes up to be anywhere between the #2 and #5 QB in the North, depending on both how he performs and how another newbie QB performs--one-time Nebraska commitment Blaine Gabbert.

Zac Lee: 68-for-105, 927 yards (8.8 per attempt), 7 TD, 3 INT

It's hard to know what to make of Zac Lee's performance thus far.  His overall numbers are quite stout, but the one time he faced a good defense (Virginia Tech's, which is clearly better than Missouri's), his output was pretty much the exact opposite of what he's done the rest of the year--11-for-30 passing, 136 yards, 0 TDs, 2 INTs.  Is Missouri's defense closer to that of Virginia Tech's or Arkansas State's?  Obviously Virginia Tech's, but by how much?


Running Back

Taking poor line yardage figures into account, NU's running backs were quite strong in 2008, and they should be even better in 2009.  Marlon Lucky was the go-to guy heading into the season, but he just didn't do anything on the field to keep from losing a large percentage of his carries to Roy Helu, Jr. (being injury-prone didn't help).  Using the Points Over Expected (POE) measure, Lucky's 2008 carries generated 2.7 points fewer than would have been expected against given opponents (164th among 267 eligible FCS backs).  Meanwhile, Helu generated 14.9 points over expected, good for 30th in the country and 6th in the Big 12 behind Kendall Hunter (5th), Chris Brown (8th), Derrick Washington (15th), DeMarco Murray (26th), and Keith Toston (27th).  The third guy in the backfield, Quentin Castille, was almost exactly average, generating 1.7 POE.

Roy Helu, Jr.: 73 carries, 464 yards (6.4 per carry), 5 TD; 11 receptions, 91 yards
Rex Burkhead: 18 carries, 84 yards (4.7 per carry), 1 TD; 7 receptions, 62 yards, 1 TD

Apparently Roy Helu was held out of practice yesterday due to illness--I'm going to assume he's going to be fine, but if he somehow misses the game or is limited, that is a crushing blow to NU's offense, particularly if the wind is strong.  Helu did nothing whatsoever against Missouri last year (5 carries, 11 yards), but his strength has been a known weakness for Mizzou this year--between-the-tackles running.  He is not a burner, and he will struggle getting to the outside against Mizzou's fast DEs and LBs, but if Missouri cannot shore up the middle of the defensive line this time around (we'll know if it's an actual problem for Mizzou, or if it was just really good execution from Nevada), then he will find plenty of yards.  Meanwhile, Burkhead, the freshman backup, has been competent and unmemorable thus far.

Wide Receivers / Tight Ends

The good news for Nebraska is, there are quite a few candidates for becoming Zac Lee's go-to receiver; the bad news, of course, is there's no guarantee that one will emerge.  Menelik Holt has good size but was -1.8 POE (320th in the country).  Niles Paul is a solid threat in kick returns but produced -5.7 POE (382nd, third-from-last in the conference ahead of just CU's Patrick Williams and ISU's Darius Darks).  Curenski Gilleylen passed up a Mizzou offer to play for the Huskers but produced only 11 yards in two catches last year.


The bright spot, however, comes at tight end.  Every new QB can use a bailout option at the TE position (Mizzou fans are banking on Andrew Jones becoming just that for Blaine Gabbert), and junior Mike McNeill looks like a pretty nice bailout.  He and Helu out of the backfield can allow the Huskers to pick up some yards while remaining conservative and letting Lee grow more confident.  Jeremy Maclin's former high school teammate would have looked really good in black and gold.

Niles Paul (WR): 10 catches, 110 yards, 1 TD; 1 rush, 30 yards, 1 TD
Menelik Holt (WR): 9 catches, 98 yards, 1 TD
Curenski Gilleylen (WR): 8 catches, 255 yards, 1 TD
Chris Brooks (WR): 8 catches, 111 yards, 1 TD

Mike McNeill (TE): 11 catches, 138 yards, 2 TD
Dreu Young (TE): 2 catches, 61 yards

What I said in the preseason still goes--Zac Lee has lots of options and no well-defined go-to guy.  Four receivers have caught between 8 and 11 passes, but against Virginia Tech, nobody did anything.  Gilleylan, their one deep threat, managed a 35-yard catch, but only Helu had more than two catches on the day.  This is a serious problem if NU's running game isn't clicking.  McNeill is a rock-solid tight end, but again--no deep threats here other than Gilleylan.  And if Gilleylan can only be counted on for a catch or maybe two, he's only so much of a threat.

Offensive Line

Here's where my own stats confuse me.  With good rushing stats and decent sack totals, it seems like NU would have had a pretty good line in 2008.  But the line yards measure--not a perfect stat, obviously, but a pretty good one--credited most of NU's rushing yards to the backs, and it really is likely that Ganz's scrambling ability (just think of how much he was on the run against Missouri) bailed the line out of some pretty poor sack numbers.  In the end, NU's line ranked poorly, below Iowa State (60th), Kent State (53rd), Southern Miss (51st) and Marshall (50th).

Thus far, the offensive line has performed better than I expected them to.  They're in the Top 30 in both line yards and sack rate, and they looked great against Virginia Tech.  Strangely, the other games on their schedule have actually dragged them down a bit, so for all we know the VT game may have been the outlier, but clearly this is a solid unit, and if Missouri's D-line hasn't improved against the run, they'll happily take advantage of it.



Nebraska: 2009 Beyond the Box Score Preseason Defensive Preview

Nebraska Offense vs Missouri Defense
Category NU Defense MU Offense
Close S&P (Rk) 0.603 (18)
0.851 (33)
Close Success Rate (Rk) 34.0% (20) 43.9% (45)
Close PPP (Rk) 0.26 (27) 0.41 (33)

Rushing S&P 0.553 (21) 0.643 (93)
Rushing Success Rate 32.9% (20) 41.2% (74)
Rushing PPP 0.22 (31) 0.23 (101)

Passing S&P 0.653 (28) 1.030 (13)
Passing Success Rate 35.2% (32) 46.2% (31)
Passing PPP 0.30 (32) 0.57 (10)

Standard Downs S&P 0.692 (28) 0.946 (29)
Standard Downs Rushing S&P 0.586 (16) 0.754 (76)
Standard Downs Passing S&P 0.862 (62) 1.196 (9)

Passing Downs S&P 0.378 (5) 0.702 (48)
Passing Downs Rushing S&P 0.391 (32) 0.501 (67)
Passing Downs Passing S&P 0.371 (6) 0.789 (42)

Red Zone S&P 0.627 (8) 0.718 (116)

Q1 S&P 0.566 (23) 0.717 (82)
Q2 S&P 0.719 (59) 0.855 (41)
Q3 S&P 0.469 (10) 1.095 (9)
Q4 S&P 0.593 (29) 0.867 (31)

1st Down S&P 0.643 (30) 0.886 (27)
2nd Down S&P 0.504 (9) 0.851 (44)
3rd Down S&P 0.615 (33) 0.875 (32)

Line Yards/Carry 2.78 (61) 2.64 (91)
Standard Downs Sack Rate 7.4% (23)
2.3% (25)
Passing Downs Sack Rate 8.8% (46)
5.0% (38)

More grain-of-salt assumptions:

  • We will very quickly figure out whether Missouri's struggles with the run have been due more to poor execution/blocking or simply a concerted effort by opponents to take away the run.  Illinois and Nevada ganged up on the run to make Blaine Gabbert beat them, and it worked on both counts--they did take away the run, and Gabbert did beat them.  NU probably won't give the run too much attention, focusing more on making Gabbert uncomfortable in the passing game.  If so, then that should, in theory, open up running lanes, especially since Nebraska's defensive line is only average against the run.  But if there are still no running lanes while NU is in dime coverage, it could be a long season for the offensive line.
  • If Missouri gets anything going offensively in Q1, consider it a huge break of serve.  NU is stout early on, and Missouri has been very slow out of the gates.  Meanwhile, both teams are at their best after halftime, so that will be an interesting competition to watch as well.
  • The smart money is on Nebraska outperforming Missouri overall in the first half.  On NU O vs MU D, the per-quarter rankings cancel out, but NU's defensive advantage in the first half could lead to Missouri having to play from behind a bit in the second half.  This is familiar territory, and as long as the crowd stays in the game, I'm okay with this scenario, but it's something to look out for.  If Missouri takes the lead into halftime, they have to like their chances.
  • Whether or not Missouri is running successfully won't necessarily matter if they're throwing well, so ignoring run vs pass for a second, Missouri's output could be very dependent on how they perform on Standard Downs.  With opponents ganging up on the run, they have been very effective passing in these situations, while NU has been mediocre in stopping the Standard Downs pass.  If they can pass well and avoid Passing Downs (which have obviously been an NU strength), they should be just fine on offense.

Defensive Line

While nobody is going to mistake this unit for that of Oklahoma, this is clearly the most proven defensive line in the Big 12 North, at least in terms of the pass rush.  Ndamukong Suh has slowly morphed from inconsistent playmaker to every-down dominant (he led Nebraska in tackles last season, as a defensive tackle, and posted 19 TFLs and two huge pick sixes), while Baker Steinkuhler, if he can gain the form of a 5-star athlete quickly, could make teams pay for doubling Suh.


They were great at attacking in 2008, but it was possible to push them around a bit.  Bo Pelini's defense has the reputation for attacking and blitzing a lot, but the strength of the attack is limited if you struggle against the run.  Derrick Washington put up 139 yards and two touchdowns against them, Tech's Baron Batch went for 97 yards on just 10 carries, and Robert Griffin posted 121 yards.  In all, NU's rush defense (#60) wasn't terrible, but it certainly wasn't great.  Clearly that will need to improve considerably if Nebraska is to assume a spot in the Top 25 as they are now predicted to do.

Ndamukong Suh (DT, Sr.): 18.0 tackles, 6.0 TFL/sacks, 6 Passes Broken Up (PBR), 2 QBH
Pierre Allen (DE, Jr.): 10.5 tackles, 3.0 TFL, 1 PBR, 3 QBH
Jared Crick (DT, So.): 9.5 tackles, 3.0 TFL, 3 QBH, 1 blocked kick
Barry Turner (DE, Sr.): 11.0 tackles, 5.0 TFL, 1 FR, 5 QBH
Baker Steinkuhler (DT, RSFr.): 8.5 tackles, 1 TFL

Five defensive linemen with over 8.0 tackles on the season...and only two linebackers.  You will not find a harder-to-analyze defense than Nebraska's, and it's because of the front four.  The line-specific stats--line yards, sack rates--have only been decent-to-average for Nebraska this year.  They're not getting to the quarterback an obscene amount of the time, and they've only been decent in line yardage...and yet a) the defense has thrived on Passing Downs anyway, and b) what the line lacks in plays made (though they've still made plenty), they make up for in activity.  They're all over the place, and because of that, they're very much a big-play unit.  When they make a big play, it's huge.  When they give one up, it's also huge.

If you have read what Seth and I have been saying about this game, we've alluded to the Missouri offensive line as a "potential" problem, not an outright problem yet.  The main reason for this is simple: for better or worse, Missouri always makes adjustments a) between non-conference and conference season and b) during bye weeks.  What we have seen thus far from the offensive line is probably not what we will see from here on out...but that doesn't guarantee it will be better.  In 2007, every adjustment they made was for the better.  In 2008, not so much  But if the offensive line hasn't improved now that the Missouri staff knows what it has and pares down its rotation, then the NU defensive line has a rather significant advantage here.  And if you dominate in the trenches, then you can overcome quite a few deficiencies elsewhere.


It's unclear how much potential this relatively young unit of LBs has, and how quickly they can be expected to fulfill said potential.  Clearly, the Huskers have a lot of hope in Compton, but...well, he's not any more highly-touted than Lawrence was, and Lawrence hasn't done anything of note yet.  There's something to be said for the fact that the Husker D is now in its second year under Pelini, and knowledge of the scheme and higher levels of intuition will make things better.  And there's also this: the Huskers had a respectable, 34th-ranked LB corps in 2008 despite the fact that there really wasn't a big-time playmaker among Dillard, Lawrence, and departed seniors Cody Glenn and Tyler Wortman.  Pelini clearly knows LBs, and even if none of these guys are All-Conference caliber, this unit at least won't be a liability.

Will Compton (RSFr.): 13.5 tackles, 1 PBR, 2 QBH
Sean Fisher (RSFr.): 12.5 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 FR, 3 QBH
Blake Lawrence (Jr.): 8.0 tackles

Not sure what to think about the linebackers just yet.  It's certainly impressive that they're being led by two redshirt freshmen...but neither of them has actually done a whole lot yet.  Of course, with the D-linemen hogging all the tackles, there might not be much for them to do here.  If it's true that Nebraska is going to play dime coverage a good portion of the time tomorrow night, then we may not really see enough of them to make any sort of substantive conclusion then either.


The secondary is as experienced as the LB corps is inexperienced, but there doesn't appear to be as much upside.  Again, they gave up a few too many big plays, but I guess that is to be expected against the offenses they faced.  They posted good success rate numbers, and that helped the pass defense a decent amount. 


Meanwhile, the cornerback position seems to have more potential overall--Anthony West ended up having himself a solid sophomore season, breaking up nine passes and picking two more off.  (As means of comparison, Castine Bridges had seven pass breakups from the CB position, Carl Gettis six and Kevin Rutland five.)  Prince Amukamara showed some potential as well. In all, NU's secondary was their highest-ranked unit in 2008, and gauging experience levels (and strength of schedule), you can expect those numbers to be maintained in 2009.

Larry Asante (S, Sr.): 19.0 tackles, 1 INT, 1 FF, 3 PBR
Prince Amukamara (CB, Jr.): 16.5 tackles, 2 TFL, 1 INT, 1 FF, 2 PBR
Matt O'Hanlon (S, Sr.): 13.0 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 INT, 1 FF, 1 FR
Rickey Thenarse (S, Sr.): 7.0 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 FF
Eric Hagg (S, Jr.): 8.5 tackles, 2 TFL, 1 FF, 1 QBH

With this many safeties making this many tackles, it suggests to me that NU has been playing quite a bit of nickel and dime coverage already this season.  It sounds like Larry Asante will be near 100% after tweaking an ankle, but Rickey Thenarse is out with a knee injury.  With Thenarse out, a dime coverage look will mean that somebody is on the field a lot more than they are used to being.

As a whole, though, it's hard to know what to make of this unit too.  I have only seen the Virginia Tech game (and only the fourth quarter of that), and clearly the killer breakdown by Matt O'Hanlon in that game--giving up the 81-yard pass with a minute left--did little to prove to me that Nebraska had grown past its "too many big plays" reputation.  Beyond that game, however, the secondary has done just fine in shutting down a series of iffy (at best) passing attacks.  VT is not a passing team, and it goes without saying that Missouri has the best passing game of anybody Nebraska has faced thus far.  If the defensive line doesn't dominate, the secondary could be left out to dry.

Special Teams

Nebraska special teams in 2009 were pretty hit-or-miss.  Alex Henery was an outstanding kicker--it's hard to overstate how clutch it is to beat a main rival (Colorado) with a 57-yard field goal with two minutes remaining.  In all, he made 18 of 21 FGs, and he has by far the most proven leg in the Big 12 North.  He will also likely be trusted to assume punting duties in 2009--NU was pretty weak here last year, and while it's never a given that a good kicker will be a good punter, I'm going to give him the benefit of the doubt here. ... Really, if punting isn't a liability, the special teams unit could be a major asset for Nebraska in close games, particularly in terms of kicking.  Henery really is a stud.

Punt Returns Rank: 25th
Net Punting Rank: 31st
Kickoff Returns Rank: 45th
Opponents' Kickoff Returns Rank: 65th

Field Goals: 8-for-9 (long: 46)
PATs: 19-for-19

Henery is still a stud, and the punting has been fine.  The worse the weather, the more important special teams become, and really neither unit has proved itself too vulnerable in this regard.  Neither team has been great at kickoff coverage, but neither has been great at returning kicks either, so who knows?  If it comes down to legs, then NU has the advantage at kicker (Grant Ressel has been unbelievable, but Henery's been good longer) and Missouri has the advantage at punter, where Jake Harry has been simply wonderful (Missouri is #2 in the country in Net Punting).


Three Keys to the Game


Nebraska's offense is at its best on first downs, and if they are gashing Mizzou for chunks of 5, 6, or 7 yards, then they will be tough to beat.  Meanwhile, if Missouri doesn't succeed on first downs, then they are playing into NU's hands--the Huskers' defense is great on Passing Downs.  It's probably always the case, but win first downs, win this game...especially if the weather is bad.

Derrick Washington (and De'Vion Moore...and Kendial Lawrence...and the hosses up front)

If NU really is going to rely on a dime package to get the job done against Missouri, then the Tigers have to run the ball well.  They might get away with dink-and-dunk short passing, but with this strategy, Nebraska might be trying to pull off what Bowling Green did for a while--cover everybody and make Gabbert freak out, get happy feet, and leave the pocket.  Bad things happened to Missouri when that happened, and while he clearly learned as the game wore on, a) NU's better than BGSU, so in theory they'll be able to execute the strategy even better, and b) it's a much more sound strategy than "Make Gabbert beat you"...because he will.  If they are trying to drop as many into coverage as possible, and Missouri still can't run the ball, then...well, they don't deserve to win.  Nebraska is only decent up front against the run, not great--consider this a huge challenge to everybody involved in the running game--the backs, the line, the coaches, everybody.


Again, this is always the case.  If you don't win the turnover battle, you will obviously struggle to win the game.  That said, the projection for this game is Missouri by 0.4 points.  Turnovers are worth anywhere between about 4 and 14 points.  Do the math.  In such a tightly-projected game, one big mistake could make all the difference.


Who am I to disagree with my own numbers?  Clearly since a team can't win by 0.4 points, we'll round up.  Weather slows down the track a bit, and Mizzou wins 28-27.