The Cornhuskers are off to a fast start.
After a disappointing 6-7 record in coach Mike Riley’s first season, Nebraska is off to a 5-0 start and ranked No. 12 in the latest Associated Press top 25. The Cornhuskers started the year by defeating non-conference foes Fresno State, Wyoming and Oregon, followed by Big Ten victories over Northwestern and Illinois. The schedule is going to get tougher over the next seven games, but Riley has this program trending in the right direction in his second year at the helm.
Why is Nebraska 5-0 and poised to challenge for the Big Ten West Division title? Here are five stats that show why the Cornhuskers are a better team in 2016 and provide insight into the 5-0 start:
5 Stats to Show Why Nebraska is off to a 5-0 Start 2016
78-6: Nebraska’s Scoring Edge in the Fourth Quarter
Finishing games was a problem for Nebraska last year. The Cornhuskers lost six games by eight points or less in 2015, including games to BYU on a last-second Hail Mary pass, in overtime to Miami and a 28-20 defeat to Iowa in the regular season finale. This year’s team seems to have a different edge in the fourth quarter. Nebraska is outscoring its opponents 78-6 in 2016 in the final 15 minutes, which was critical in comeback victories over Illinois and Oregon this season.
288.8: QB Tommy Armstrong’s Total Yards Per Game
Armstrong’s play is the biggest key to Nebraska’s Big Ten West title hopes. In his first year under coach Mike Riley last year, Armstrong had an up and down season. However, the senior is off to a good start in 2016 and looks like a quarterback more comfortable with the scheme and coaching staff. Armstrong averages 288.8 total yards per game and 7.64 yards per play. Additionally, the senior has only two interceptions through 129 pass attempts and has increased his completion percentage to 58.9.
+4: Nebraska’s Turnover Margin
Luck plays a role in turnover margin, but Nebraska also has to do a better job in this area after posting a minus-12 total last season. So far, the Cornhuskers have accomplished that, posting a plus-four margin through five games. The 10 forced turnovers by Nebraska in five games is nearly as many as this team had in all of 2015 (15). A positive turnover margin could be the difference in a couple of close games this year.
234.2: Nebraska’s Rushing Yards Per Game
Total yards in any category isn’t the best way to judge the performance of a team, but the increase in rushing yards is critical for Nebraska. The Cornhuskers averaged 180 rushing yards per game last season and have increased that total to 234.2 in 2016. Additionally, the 47.4 average carries per game ranks second in the Big Ten behind Ohio State. Why is this total important? The Cornhuskers have balance on offense, can control the time of possession and help their defense – especially a rebuilt defensive line – by limiting the plays of the opposing offense.
Also worth noting: Nebraska's offensive line lost guard Jerald Foster to a preseason injury and had to break in three new starters. Additionally, Tanner Farmer has been dealing with a high ankle sprain. Despite the injuries and turnover, this group has allowed only three sacks and is clearing plenty of rushing lanes for a talented stable of running backs.
3: Passing Plays Allowed of 30 Yards or More
Every stat mentioned here has to come with an asterisk. Nebraska has played only five games, so these numbers are going to change quite a bit over the next seven matchups. However, the early signs are encouraging for the Cornhusker secondary. This unit ranked 10th in the Big Ten in pass efficiency defense last season but is third after five weeks in 2016. Why the reason for the improvement? Senior safety Nate Gerry is having a strong start to the year, and cornerbacks Chris Jones and Joshua Kalu have stepped up in their second season as starters. These two corners have combined for seven pass breakups and have limited opposing offenses to just three passing plays of 30 yards or more. That’s on track for major improvement after Nebraska surrendered 26 passes of 30 yards or more in 2015.