LINCOLN — Nebraska coach Bo Pelini, like many college football defensive minds, will not cop to being a “stats guy.” Not in this age of offenses run amok. Not when, as Pelini suggested at Big Ten Media Days, rules changes and interpretations inevitably tilt against defenses, from the NFL on down.
But Pelini will accede to the value of turnover margin. The proof is all over NU's recently ended training camp, where players made a concerted effort to remind offensive skill players of ball security. Linemen. Defensive players.
Yes, defensive players. Even as they tried to rip the ball out or pluck one out of the sky. Thirty-five giveaways in 2012 is a mother to invention.
“Working against our offense, it's been a challenge, because — knock on wood — I think our offense is doing a good job of protecting the football right now,” Pelini said at his Monday press conference.
Which points to the other half of the turnover margin equation: Takeaways. Under Pelini, the Huskers have forced an average of 21.8 turnovers per year. That's a tie for seventh in the Big Ten over that same span. A five-year high of 28 takeaways — in 2009 — put them at 21st nationally. NU finished with 23 takeaways in 2010 (49th) and 2012 (48th). In 2008, Nebraska forced just 17. In 2011, just 18.
The Huskers haven't been able to surge to the top of the nation's takeaway chart since 2003, when Pelini's then-zone-based scheme baffled opponents with a school-record 32 interceptions and 15 more fumble recoveries. Those 47 takeaways tied a school record and would have topped the national charts in each of the last five years.
It also would have translated into major success. Since Pelini returned to Nebraska, four of the five squads that led all BCS conference teams in takeaways played in BCS bowls. Two of them — Texas in 2009 and Oregon in 2010 — played for the national title. Oklahoma State (2011) and Oregon (2012) narrowly missed playing for it in the last two years.
Pelini said Monday he did emphasize takeaways in camp.
“We've actually done a pretty good job at times in camp of getting the ball out,” Pelini said. “The emphasis was there.”
But Pelini said he won't teach bad fundamentals in the pursuit of creating turnovers. Some teams in college football might be willing to sacrifice several yards just to pull and poke at the ball. Pelini prefers the first guy to the ball stops forward progress while additional players work at popping the ball loose.
“I don't know that it's conservative,” Pelini said. “I'd like to think we do it the right way.”
He pointed to a mistake made by a Wyoming opponent last year in which a Cowboy receiver caught a quick hitch pass — and broke free from a defensive back who went for the ball — eventually going 80 yards for a touchdown. Though Pelini didn't mention the opponent, Wyoming receiver Robert Herron scored an 82-yard touchdown in the Cowboys' season-opening loss to Texas. Two Longhorns reached for the ball and knocked each other away from Herron, who ran for the score.
“That's bad football,” Pelini said of the play. “You can't go down that road.”
Linebackers coach Ross Els agreed. He said he's never been in a program that taught tackling any other way. In Els' second-to-last year at Ohio in 2009, the Bobcats tied Texas with a nation-best 37 takeaways — which included 17 recovered fumbles. Els said Ohio had “some pretty darn good athletes for the MAC” and used a zone defense, which assigns defenders to an area and trains them to watch the quarterback's eyes instead of gluing onto a receiver. Iowa, which has averaged 25.6 takeaways over the last five years, good for second in the Big Ten, uses this system.
The Big Ten has traditionally been a zone league, which is in sharp contrast to Pelini's system, where defenders may have a zone to defend, but cover the receiver tightly within that zone, challenging quarterbacks to make throws into tight spaces. Wyoming quarterback Brett Smith — who's thrown 174 straight passes without an interception — may have a hard time completing passes against that suffocation, but he may also get away with a bad throw that a basic zone defense could pick off.
“The good thing is, you might get a good break on the ball,” Els said of a zone scheme. “The bad thing is you might lose track of the receiver. Here, we match up receivers — play tighter coverage — so we have better coverage on the guy, but we might not see the ball thrown right away. It's just a different philosophy.”
Early in camp, wide receiver Kenny Bell said, Nebraska's pass defense intercepted quarterback Taylor Martinez too often for the offense's liking. As Martinez improved, so did the overall ball security of the offense. Skill players were especially mindful of not fumbling the ball. By the end of camp, safety Corey Cooper said, takeaways were much harder to create.
“They didn't want to turn the ball over,” Cooper said. “It's not easy. But it won't be easy on Saturday. That's why we drill it. We'll see come Saturday.”