Published Friday, December 27, 2013 at 12:01 am / Updated at 10:57 pm
Nebraska's turnover turnaround

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — A couple of errant throws settled into the hands of Nebraska's defensive backs during practice Friday, and the full unit celebrated.

There was some screaming. A few leaping hip bumps. Several congratulatory helmet slaps.

It's exactly the surge of positive emotion that's always been associated with an interception or fumble recovery for a defense.

But that hasn't happened on NU game days much lately.

Nebraska went from forcing 2.3 turnovers per game during its first six weeks of 2013 to two total takeaways in the season's final six contests. Ciante Evans grabbed a one-handed interception against Penn State and Avery Moss had a pick-six against Northwestern. That was it.

Why the change?

Coach Bo Pelini offered a couple of theories Friday, mentioning that the November cold (and occasional wind) forced opponents to play more conservatively. The fact that the Huskers led for about 23 percent of game action during the last six weeks didn't help, either. Offenses that didn't want to take play-calling risks rarely needed to.

NU's players still had plenty of potential for takeaways, Pelini said. Enough to keep him from expressing major concern Friday.

He knows turnovers might end up deciding Wednesday's Gator Bowl, but Pelini anticipates that his players will be in position to play opportunistic football against a Georgia team that's given up the ball 10 times in four losses this year. The monthlong break between games could lead to some mistakes by the Bulldogs, as well.

“A game like this, I think that'll be big,” Pelini said. “Hopefully there's going to be some opportunities to get some takeaways, because that'll be a big part of the football game.”

Nebraska's defenders were doing fine in that aspect early in the year.

Had the Huskers continued at their turnover-producing pace from the first six weeks, they would have finished the regular season tied for 15th nationally in takeaways. Instead, they're tied for 105th.

“There's always things we can do better,” junior cornerback Josh Mitchell said. “Obviously you always want interceptions as a DB, but the thing we need to do better is we've got to strip the ball.”

Nebraska's defenses have recovered an FBS-low three fumbles this season. And that's never really been a strength of Pelini's units, either.

Over the past six years, no defense has recovered fewer fumbles than the Huskers, who've fallen on loose footballs less than once every two games. NU's forced an average of 0.78 fumbles per game during that same stretch, the 13th-worst rate nationally.

NU coaches have always said that following the rules within the defensive system — not trying to force the issue — can often put players in favorable positions, especially in pass coverage.

Nebraska's been in the top half of the national interception rankings in five of Pelini's six years, including seventh in 2009 and 11th in 2010.

The Huskers had 11 picks after six games this year. They want to get back to that. Friday's session seemed like a step in the right direction. They'll know more Wednesday.

“When the opportunities are there,” Pelini said, “we've got to make the most of them.”

* * *

Video: NU's first practice in Florida

Video: NU coach Bo Pelini talks after practice

Video: Huskers take a dip in the ocean

Contact the writer: Jon Nyatawa    |   402-473-9585    |  

Jon Nyatawa has covered local sports, primarily Nebraska football and baseball, for The Omaha World-Herald since 2008.



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