Turnover margin

Northwestern's scoop-and-score defensive touchdown figured prominently in its 34-31 overtime win over Nebraska last season. 

LINCOLN — Northwestern doesn’t beat itself.

That was a familiar refrain from Nebraska coaches and players this week about Saturday’s opponent.

“That’s the thing you respect about Northwestern — they play hard, they’re physical and they don’t make mistakes,” Husker coach Scott Frost said.

Frost then said the 1-3 Wildcats are likely playing their most important game of the season Saturday in Memorial Stadium.

“I think it’s the same for us,” Frost said.

The betting line says Nebraska is a 7½-point favorite. The Huskers’ 3-2 record would suggest the same.

History says Northwestern, having won three of four games in Memorial Stadium since 2011, has a formula that works, and it can be described in two words.

Turnover margin.

“If you look back at last year’s game and everything that happened, if we just hadn’t given them a strip-sack fumble, we most likely win that game,” Frost said of Nebraska's 34-31 overtime loss. The Wildcats returned quarterback Adrian Martinez’s fumble for a touchdown.

It was one of Nebraska’s eight giveaways in the last three games against Northwestern. The Huskers won 24-13 in 2016, but lost in overtime in 2017 and 2018, in part because of giveaways.

The Huskers’ miserable turnover margin has been a factor since they joined the Big Ten. And since the Big Ten West formed in 2014, turnover margin has played a major factor in Nebraska’s struggles and Northwestern’s success.

The Huskers are 14-17 in Big Ten West games. The Wildcats are 21-10.

Nebraska’s turnover margin in those 31 games is minus-16. Northwestern’s is plus-24.

“These guys don’t beat themselves very often,” Frost said. “We have to make sure we do the same.”

Frost said he’s not been a part of a turnover-prone team before this season. His first squad at Central Florida committed 25 turnovers — or two per game — but Nebraska’s current average is 2.8 per game. That’s ahead of the 2.5 pace it had in 2012 when it committed 35 turnovers in 14 games.

Nebraska has taken care of the ball in practice this week, Frost said, and only one of the three turnovers last week against Ohio State were mistakes he’d deem “careless.”

“But it’s happened too often to just say it’s just coincidence, so we need to be as dialed into protecting the football as we possibly can on Saturday,” Frost said.

After what Frost called a “really good Thursday,” Nebraska’s players are as ready to execute a gameplan as they’ve been this season. But winning the turnover battle will be key.

“And that’s a two-way street — that’s the offense taking care of the ball and that’s the defense creating some,” Frost said.

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