In the moments after Nebraska blew a 17-point lead at Colorado and lost 34-31 in overtime to the Buffaloes back on Sept. 7, Husker coach Scott Frost made an observation that’s shown up time and time again in the half-season since.
“Our margin of error’s pretty small right now,” he said then.
Since that 85-degree afternoon: three wins and three losses, including wins of four points and three, and a loss last week to Indiana by seven.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that the margin has remained thin. For a team short on overall depth of talent, progress in some areas has been largely mitigated by the typical — and atypical — attrition that comes along with the grinding fall schedule.
If a team is forced to navigate the knife’s edge each week in order to claim victory, it has to win the details and it has to win in the critical moments. Those are the areas that hurt the most against the Hoosiers and the pressure points that will go a long way toward determining Saturday’s winner between Nebraska and Purdue in West Lafayette, Indiana.
In the first half, the Husker offense moved the ball every time it got it, but failed to score on two trips to the red zone because of a fumble by sophomore quarterback Noah Vedral and a missed field goal by sophomore Barret Pickering. More frustrating: The miss was immediately preceded by a procedure penalty that negated a fourth-and-1 conversion.
“We can be better,” offensive coordinator Troy Walters said Wednesday. “In this league, when you get down in the red zone, inside the 20, you’ve got to score. We’ve had some struggles at the kicking positions, so we’ve got to take it in our own hands. Instead of settling for field goals, we’ve got to go score touchdowns. Against the offenses we’re going to play, touchdowns are going to win games.”
The Huskers are dead last in the Big Ten in red zone scoring percentage (67.7%) and No. 12 in touchdown percentage (51.6%).
In the second half, the Nebraska defense surrendered first downs on five of nine Indiana third-down chances and a fourth-down try, too.
That helped IU turn a 21-16 deficit into a 38-24 lead and eventually its first victory in Lincoln since 1959.
“We were terrible on third down on defense. Absolutely terrible,” Frost said. “If we would have been even decent on third down, we would have gotten stops and won the game. I don’t have any doubt of that.”
“We just did not execute third down and fourth down,” senior linebacker Mohamed Barry said. “They went for it on fourth down (twice), too. Kudos to them, that was smart of them. … Those two times they went for it was huge. It’s just us executing. First and second down throughout the game were real good downs for us.
“Third down is money down. We have to get off the field. That’s what we didn’t do. That’s why the defensive performance was not good.”
Nebraska’s defense is 13th in the Big Ten, allowing opponents to convert on 40.2% of third-down tries. In Big Ten play, the Huskers are allowing conversions on 45.6% of third-down tries.
“There were some times when we didn’t get a very good pass rush when we were rushing four, sometimes we had some coverage errors, some alignment errors,” defensive coordinator Erik Chinander said. “One time we had a guy double-teamed and he catches the ball, and that stuff can’t happen. So there’s a multitude. And it was not one group, not one player, it was a lot of guys.”
That all speaks to the same issue, which shows up in football games of all kinds: The devil is in the details, and the details matter most in situations like third down and in the red zone, when drives either end or continue and when points are either put on the board or momentum swings.
“It takes a lot of people just being really disciplined and detailed in what they need to do,” Barry said. “When you’re out on the field, if you don’t do your job, you make somebody else look bad. It’s not only about you. And it’s how you approach your life. You have to be detailed in everything that you do, and that’s what Coach (Frost) is talking about.”