A Tale of Two Defenses
When a defense is giving up pinball-like numbers, it's easy to overlook positives. Especially, when they contrast so sharply with the negatives. Excluding penalties, Wyoming ran 74 offensive plays against Nebraska and 29 of them went for first downs. Eight of those plays came on third down, but only once did the Cowboys successfully convert on third down. Over 42% of the time, plays on first and second down went for first downs. But on third down, the Husker defense was dominant.
The 13% conversion rate was less than half of BYU's nation-leading total for 2012 of 27% and well ahead of national champion Alabama's 32%. Certainly, Nebraska needs to do a better job of putting opposing offenses behind schedule. But if they can continue to win on third down, their chances of winning games go up considerably.
These weren't hopeless 3rd down situations for the Cowboys either. Wyoming's failures came on 3rd and 8, 3rd and 2, 3rd and 4, 3rd and 10, 3rd and 8, 3rd and 10, and 3rd and 14. To be fair, these stats don't count penalties. Nebraska handed the Cowboys first downs with penalties on 3rd and 1 (offsides), 3rd and 8 (the Gregory sack turned roughing call), and 3rd and 8 (pass interference). Add those into the mix and you have a more normal (but still respectable) 4 for 11. If you give NU credit for the Gregory call, you have 3 for 11, which is 27% (like BYU last year).
If you want to extrapolate what we saw Saturday through the whole season, then notice that there's some good things that happened on defense. If the Huskers picked off two passes a game, they might lead the nation (as Oregon did with two a game a year ago). If they win on third down (even if they have trouble getting there), they'll avoid giving up 45, 63, or 70 points.
It wasn't all bad against the Cowboys. And if the Huskers can continue to stop offenses on third down and pick off some passes, they will win their share of games. Especially if they can continue to rush for over 300 yards as well.