LINCOLN — Think in terms of steps toward a fantastic museum. Or a series of plateaus that eventually leads to a peak. To get to the top, you have to make the journey, plot the course and not be careless about it.
Husker football’s next plateau — given its recent, ragged history — is to post a winning record, play in a bowl game and stop the downward slide of four losing seasons.
But for a program rich in tradition and institutional support, the annual goal is to win the Big Ten West division. The Huskers haven’t done that yet, coming closest in 2014 and 2016, when games at Wisconsin served as de facto division title games. The Badgers won both.
What does Nebraska have to do to get over the hump? There’s a stat for that — sort of. It’s more like a profile, compiled from the seven West champions. Four Wisconsin teams, two from Northwestern and one from Iowa. Nebraska lost to them all by an average score of 34-20. The 2019 NU squad lost by 16 to West champ Wisconsin.
“That’s a good team,” Nebraska coach Scott Frost said that day of the Badgers. “We’ve got to keep bringing more talent into this program, so we are going into gun fights with fully loaded guns.”
Six of those West champs were pretty darn good. The seventh was often very fortunate. That’d be the 2018 Northwestern team that had no business beating the Huskers, but did in a season full of great escapes. We’ll get to that team in a bit.
First, a hard reality. Heading into the Big Ten championship tilt — all won by East teams — those seven West squads had won 86.1% of their games. Projected over a 12-game regular season, that translates to 10.3 wins. They won 88.3% of their Big Ten games, which effectively means going 8-1.
The closest Nebraska has been to either standard was 2016, with a 9-3 record after 12 games and a 6-3 record in the Big Ten. Since then — not close at all.
But winning teams usually produce numbers that point to their winning ways. And in this case, it starts with defense and takeaways.
Projected onto a normal 14-game season for a Big Ten West champ — Northwestern played just nine games in 2020 — the seven divisional champs averaged 24.7 takeaways per year, or nearly two per game. Outside of the 2014 Wisconsin team — which had the best offense of the seven thanks to Melvin Gordon — each of the West champs ranked in the top three in takeaways.
The 2018 Northwestern squad — which finished 8-4 — was average at a lot of things. But the Wildcats had 15 takeaways against their divisional foes. It’s little wonder they swept the West despite a mistake-prone offense.
The trend continues with sacks. West champs averaged 34 per season. Yes, Wisconsin shoots those numbers upward. But the Badgers have won four divisional crowns, so there’s a lesson to learn. UW gets after the QB.
Nebraska hasn’t been north of 30 sacks since 2013, when Randy Gregory played defensive end. Gregory helped the Huskers produce 29 sacks in 2014. Since then, the sacks have been more of a snack.
“We can’t count on having to blitz all the time to generate pressure,” Frost said after the 2019 loss to Indiana. NU logged 13 sacks last season, and six came from middle linebackers or safeties — the blitzers.
Of the West champs, only one gave up more than 21 points per game (2018 Northwestern at 23.2) and four held their opponents to fewer than 17 points per game. The range between the best and worst scoring defense? 9.3 points. The offensive range was 10.4 points.
And in two somewhat obscure defensive stats tracked by teamrankings.com, West teams shared a common identity: They made teams expend a lot of plays and yards to score points. The yards per point and points per play measurements don’t seem fancy, but they matter. For example, the opponents’ yards-to-points ratio against the 2020 Northwestern team was 21.5.
What’s the best Nebraska team in the past 15 years? The 2009 team, right? Its defense led the nation in both categories. You remember the 2009 offense, right? OK, then.
The numbers help reveal not only how stingy your defense is in the scoring zone, but also the kind of position your special teams and offense leave a defense in. Turn the ball over at your 18, and the defense is likely giving up three points no matter what. Give up a kickoff return for a touchdown? That goes on the defense.
Other than the 2014 Wisconsin team, every West champ ranked in the top 20 in yards per point. The more yards opponents had to gain to score, the higher the ranking. The 2020 Northwestern team — which stopped Nebraska twice inside the 20 — ranked second nationally. The not-great 2018 Northwestern team ranked 18th. For comparison, the 2006 and 2010 Nebraska defenses — both divisional champs — ranked 16th and 18th.
Nebraska ranked 87th last season, in part because of all the short fields it gave to opponents. NU’s best ranking under Frost is 71st. A potent offense can overcome it — the 2012 Huskers did despite ranking 99th in opponent yards per point — but it’s rare.
Takeaways. Sacks. Fewer special teams gaffes. And, to quote Nebraska quarterbacks coach Mario Verduzco, “no more frickin’ turnovers.” That’s a big part of the West champ formula.
Offense? Of course scoring points doesn’t hurt, but none of the West champs ranked in the nation’s top 20 for points per game. None ranked higher than third in the Big Ten. It doesn’t mean they’re not good offenses — Wisconsin’s system is fairly brilliant in the way it controls the ball — but points production isn’t necessarily the priority.
The best of the West emphasized points prevention. Six of the seven teams — 2018 Northwestern being the outlier by less than one second — possessed the ball longer than their opponents.
Quarterback play? Of course it helps, but here is the list of division-winning QBs: Joel Stave, C.J. Beathard, Alex Hornibrook (twice), Clayton Thorson, Jack Coan and Peyton Ramsey. Of that bunch, Beathard was the only one to make first- or second-team All-Big Ten when he threw for 2,809 yards and 17 touchdowns in 2015.
And of those seven West champs, the best pass-catcher was ... who? George Kittle caught 20 passes on the 2015 Iowa team — 15 fewer than Henry Krieger-Coble. Kittle, Wisconsin tight end Troy Fumagalli and Badger receiver Quintez Cephus are notable draftees from those seven teams. Purdue has great receivers — and hasn’t won anything. Minnesota’s great receivers came close, but have no Big Ten hardware to show for it.
Now, offense is clearly a factor in the West’s 0-7 record against the East in Big Ten title games. It’s one thing to win the West, and another to beat Ohio State. That’s the double-edged dilemma of playing in the Big Ten.
But by virtue of the Big Ten’s scheduling gods, Nebraska knows what’s it like to play Ohio State these past five years. It does not know how to win the West, at least not recently. In the past four years, NU is 7-16 against its division. Eleven of the 23 games were decided by 10 or fewer points, and Nebraska is 3-8 in those.
In that same time period, Northwestern is 17-6 against the West, including perfect records in 2018 and 2020. Seventeen of those games were decided by 10 or fewer points, and the Wildcats won 13.
That’s a kind of Northwestern magic that isn’t bound to last, and a kind of Husker slump that should eventually reverse. But the past four games between the two teams were decided either in overtime or the final play of regulation — Nebraska’s offense or special teams was on the field each time — and the Wildcats won three. They’re the current media darling, while the Huskers are on red alert.
The closeness of those games — the fact that Nebraska twice took the divisional champs to the wire — underscores how close the Huskers are to the top of their division.
But the profile of divisional champs tends to say this: Protect that defense, and unleash it.
The Blackshirts are the best Husker unit headed into 2021, and the numbers agree — the West is won when that’s true.