Nebraska turnovers suggest deeper issues

LINCOLN, Neb. -- The numbers are ugly.

With Nebraska’s five-turnover performance in a 41-28 loss to Michigan State on Saturday, the Huskers continued a disturbing trend.

Since 2008, under coach Bo Pelini, Nebraska is 104th nationally in turnover margin at minus-28.

Over that same time, Nebraska has won 55 of 78 games for the 19th-best winning percentage among FBS teams.

Among the top-26 in winning percentage, only the Huskers own a negative turnover margin.

The average margin for the 10-most-winning-teams is plus-53 during that time. Again, Nebraska is minus-28.

That sticks out like a Big Red thumb.

The turnovers are a systemic problem in Lincoln, a byproduct of deep-rooted issues to which the Huskers, apparently, have no answer -- and worse still, little ability to identify.

The longer the turnover trouble festers, the deeper concern grows that Pelini and his staff can’t pull this program out of neutral and improve upon its year-after-year run of slight variations on the same nine- or 10-win, four-loss season.

The fumbles and interceptions are not a new thing, as Pelini suggested at his weekly press conference on Monday, saying that turnovers have “not been a huge problem this year.”

Even before Saturday, Nebraska ranked worse than all but three teams nationally at minus-8 in turnover margin over its previous four games. That the Huskers won three of those four, losing only at Minnesota on a minus-two turnover day, speaks to more of the resilience that enables Nebraska to win consistently in spite of its own mistakes.

I asked Oregon coach Mark Helfrich on Tuesday about the mentality that has allowed the Ducks to dominate the turnover game. Since Helfrich arrived from Colorado as offensive coordinator in 2009, Oregon leads the nation in turnover margin at plus-59.

“It’s something that you harp on every single day,” Helfrich said, “just like blocking and tackling and footwork. Like a lot of teams, we do a circuit of things both offensively and defensively.

“We try to hammer it home in every possible way.”

Nebraska, too, works on turnovers regularly.

Pelini said he couldn’t remember the last time that his quarterback fumbled a snap in practice. But that's what Tommy Armstrong did at the Nebraska 1-yard line on Saturday after the Huskers closed to 20-14 in the third quarter. He also said he couldn’t remember the last time that he saw an option pitch hit the ground in practice. That occurred on the third play from scrimmage on Saturday when Armstrong tossed the ball to Terrell Newby.

If it’s happening often in games but never or rarely in practice, perhaps it’s time to adjust the Sunday-through-Thursday routine to better simulate the game and create pressure situations.

If a drill existed to fix ball-security problems, offensive coordinator Tim Beck said the Huskers would have implemented it three years ago.

“I don’t know that there is one,” Beck said, “We just keep preaching it and coaching it and practicing on it, putting emphasis on it as much as we can.”

So is it a mental thing?

“I feel like I prepared the right way and my teammates prepared the right way,” Armstrong said, “so I don’t know what happened.”

Therein lies the bigger problem: The Huskers don’t know how to fix it.

A hard-to-accept reality for Nebraska is that it’s known by opponents as mistake-prone. The turnovers against Michigan State were largely unforced.

Errors on special teams nearly cost the Huskers a shot at victory over Michigan.

Jordan Westerkamp’s fumbled punt return last week handed the Spartans a short field en route to their first touchdown.

And none of this is new.

With each mistake-riddled loss, the unrest around Pelini’s program turns more intense. The Huskers must win out against Penn State on Saturday and Iowa next week to secure another nine-win season, the long-time standard for success at Nebraska.

But nine wins this fall, even amid a mountain of offensive injuries and promising youth on defense, won’t satisfy many.

Will it satisfy the administration? Pelini’s job security has become a popular topic of late. Rumors and the names of replacement candidates are bandied about in conversation around the state.

The fact is, nobody outside of a theoretical small circle possesses a speck of insight into the mind of first-year athletic director Shawn Eichorst. He’s mum on all matters football-related. And don’t mistake his sealed lips for dissatisfaction.

By all accounts, this is his style. Eichorst is consistent, for sure, if not a bit maddening.

Meahwhile, Pelini is unwavering.

“My job is to win football games,” he said. “That’s my approach. I’m not changing my approach. Regardless of what position we’re in, I don’t change my approach in how I do my job.”

Pelini was hired six years ago, known to Nebraskans for the merits of his 2003 showing as defensive coordinator, when the Huskers set a school record with 47 takeaways, including 32 interceptions.

Interesting that a decade later, his struggle to regain control over turnovers has left Nebraska, presumably in danger for the third time in 10 years, of even more turnover.