Published Wednesday, January 15, 2014 at 1:00 am / Updated at 12:47 pm
football
Nyatawa: Huskers' 99-yard touchdown broke trend of trouble inside the 20

LINCOLN — Nebraska receiver Quincy Enunwa was racing down the sideline at the Gator Bowl, past an erupting Husker bench, and offensive coordinator Tim Beck must have at some point caught himself wondering why it couldn't have been that easy all year.

Enunwa's 99-yard touchdown catch proved to be the deciding score in Nebraska's 24-19 win over Georgia on Jan. 1. But perhaps lost in the moment was the supreme improbability of that score.

The heave from the end zone, Tommy Armstrong to Enunwa, will get replayed often during the offseason as Nebraska players, coaches, recruits and fans enjoy the positive vibes associated with the bowl victory the play helped to clinch.

But Beck, who'll soon bury himself in film study and analysis of his unit, certainly knows how close the Huskers were to handing the ball back to Georgia, relinquishing their 17-12 lead and possibly losing the game.

The 99-yard play wasn't luck. The call was gutsy, unconventional and well-timed. The protection was superb. The throw was on target. The catch, the broken tackle and the subsequent sprint downfield were examples of an elite athlete rising to the occasion.

But consider its rarity.

A Nebraska offense had never recorded a 99-yard play from scrimmage until the Gator Bowl. Georgia's defense had never given one up.

Of the 112,095 snaps by FBS offenses this season, only two were 99-yard plays. One for Nebraska. Alabama's AJ McCarron and Amari Cooper had the other.

The Huskers themselves never really gave much insight into the anatomy of the Armstrong-to-Enunwa bomb that put them up 24-12. Their comments recapping those crucial 15 seconds were mostly matter-of-fact, sounding something like Armstrong's take: “Quincy was open and he made a play.”

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No big deal.

Well ...

Except when one considers the two plays before it and the 82 other snaps by Nebraska's offense inside its own 20-yard line this year — and that a seasonlong trend indicated that the Huskers, on third-and-14 from the half-yard line, were doomed.

Nebraska's offense started 41 drives inside its own 20-yard line this season, not counting end-of-half kneel-downs or game-clock run-outs.

Ľ Five of those possessions (12.2 percent) ended in touchdowns. Two others resulted in field goals. The rest concluded with punts (25) or turnovers (eight). There was one safety.

Ľ NU didn't even record a first down on 18 of those possessions (43.9 percent).

Ľ Of the 84 snaps inside the 20 before the 99-yard pass against Georgia, 26 — close to one-third — went for no gain or negative yardage. There were three false starts, four fumbles and two sacks.

Ľ The Huskers averaged 4.1 yards per play on those 84 snaps. They averaged 5.7 yards per play beyond their 20.

And when you take away the 41 drives that originated inside the 20 from the Huskers' stat book (remember: 12.2 percent resulted in TDs) — you find that they scored touchdowns on 35.1 percent of their possessions.

That kind of increase is, of course, not unusual for offenses. Better field position gives the unit a better chance for points. Even the best offenses, when backed up at their own end zone, saw a dip in their production.

Baylor, the nation's top scoring team at 52.4 points per game, put up a touchdown just 20.5 percent of the time when drives started inside its own 20. The Bears reached the end zone on 47.7 percent of their other drives.

Florida State, at 51.6 points per game, had 37 possessions start inside its 20, and 15 of those (40.5 percent) resulted in touchdowns. The Seminoles scored touchdowns on 53.5 percent of drives that began past the 20.

As Nebraska molds its identity this offseason, presumably building around the talent and potential of its improved defense, there could be a philosophical adjustment for Beck and the offensive coaches, too.

A high-risk, high-reward system designed for a speedy quarterback, five senior offensive linemen and a receiving corps led by a physically superior stud could now be destined for a remodel. And one would assume the adjustments for next season will include a few more contingencies for bad field position.

In 2011, Nebraska had five touchdowns on its 26 possessions that started inside its own 20-yard line. In 2012, the Huskers turned seven of their 42 inside-20 drives into touchdowns in 2012. So their scoring percentage on drives starting inside the 20 dipped from 19.2 percent in 2011 to 16.7 percent in 2012 to 12.2 percent this season.

What's hidden in the box scores are momentum changes. How do drives that immediately stall out and impact field position ultimately affect the game's final outcome?

We do know that when the Huskers have had a drive stall out inside their own 10-yard line during the past three seasons, opponents have enjoyed an average starting field position at the NU 42-yard line.

So flash back to the Gator Bowl. Imagine Enunwa hadn't made that catch. Imagine Nebraska had to punt from its own end zone. Imagine Georgia's offense got the ball, just one first down out of field-goal range, trailing by five with four minutes left in the third quarter.

Uh-oh, right?

But Nebraska's offense made the play. Made it look easy, actually.

“Being back there, we've struggled a little bit this year,” Armstrong said after the Gator Bowl. “We told our guys, 'Hey, block up front. We're going to try to get as much as we can.' Quincy came up with the catch and he broke a tackle. That gave us a bunch of momentum, going up 24-12.”

It gave the Huskers the game. And perhaps provided a reminder, issued as ideally as possible for a group of competitors on an important perception-shaping afternoon, that NU's offense has plenty of alterations to consider.

* * *

>> Video: See the 99-yard touchdown from Tommy Armstrong to Quincy Enunwa:

Contact the writer: Jon Nyatawa

jon.nyatawa@owh.com    |   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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