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January 21, 2014

Rojo Breakdown: NU penalties on the decline

For the better part of the last two seasons, Bo Pelini has been on his best behavior. His sideline tirades have gone way down and his interactions with the media are generally sunnier. Television cameras follow his every step on the field, waiting to catch Pelini's latest outburst. But he has denied them that pleasure for the most part lately.

Then there's this year's Iowa game, a 38-17 loss.

For reasons unknown, Pelini reverted back to his old ways. He was in the officials' ears all day and earned a personal foul penalty for nearly hitting a referee while swinging his hat in anger. His comments after the game, which included profanity, certainly didn't help his case.

These actions did nothing but affirm the general thoughts of national football fans and media - that Pelini is a rage monster on the sidelines, and his teams follow his lead. The Huskers commit turnovers and penalties at a significant rate because he's out of control.

Most of those assumptions are not only unfair, but unbased - Pelini has undoubtedly had some sideline blowups, but he has absolutely mellowed in recent times. The Iowa game was an outlier, not the norm. And while NU's turnovers remain high (the Huskers' 29 turnovers this year ranked 114th in the nation), the penalties have dropped with Pelini's anger.

Nebraska has committed 88 penalties or less over the past three seasons - not exactly the gold standard, but a step in the right direction after it committed at least 94 in each of Pelini's first three years. The Huskers were flagged just 76 times for 665 yards this season, both lows in the Pelini era.

The numbers are dropping, but they're still very high. Even in this career-best year for Pelini, Nebraska committed 5.8 penalties per game (77th in the country) for 51.2 yards (82). In Pelini's six years, NU has been flagged 553 times for 4,887 yards - a staggering average of 6.8 penalties and 60.3 yards per game. The Huskers have committed seven or more penalties in more than half of Pelini's games.

Interestingly enough, NU is often able to overcome its self-inflicted wounds. The Huskers are 31-16 (.659 winning percentage) under Pelini when committing more penalties than their opponent. But that number is significantly lower than their .823 winning percentages when committing the same amount or fewer penalties than the opposition.

Year Record when committing more penalties than opponent Record when committing fewer penalties Record when committing same amount of penalties Penalties per game Penalty yards per game
2013 6-2 2-1 1-1 5.8 (77) 51.2 (82)
2012 6-1 2-1 2-2 6.3 (74) 60.5 (95)
2011 2-4 5-0 2-0 6.6 (82) 52.9 (73)
2010 6-3 4-1 0-0 7.8 (106) 70.9 (115)
2009 6-2 2-1 2-1 7.1 (92) 63.9 (102)
2008 5-4 2-0 2-0 7.2 (102) 61.5 (99)
Total 31-16 17-4 9-4 6.8 60.3

*National rank in parentheses

So Nebraska is still seeing too much yellow on the field, but the numbers are going in the right direction. The Huskers posted lows under Pelini in 2013 in false starts (13), offensive holding (eight) and offside (two) penalties in 2013, and its 14 personal foul penalties were tied for the second-fewest under Pelini (for the truly dedicated, there is a breakdown of every penalty committed since 2008 at the end of the story).

But there is room for even more improvement. The Huskers have committed more false starts (116) than any other penalty other under Pelini, and personal fouls (100) are second. Some of those are tough calls (consider Randy Gregory's phantom penalty against Wyoming in the opener), but for the most part, they can be easily eliminated. The same goes for delay of game (30), offside (24), substitution infraction (15) and unsportsmanlike conduct (11) penalties. All of those tend to be mental mistakes, which can be reduced with greater concentration and attention to detail.

Some penalties are simply going to happen. The NU defensive backs employ a very physical style, so defensive pass interference (58) and defensive holding (24) penalties have to be accepted at times. And deploying a mobile quarterback who extends plays and improvises for big gains is inevitably going to lead to more offensive holding calls (69). Some penalties just come with a team's style of play.

But as the Huskers have shown in the past few years, they can be better. This past campaign was a banner year under Pelini. It's impossible to say if that had anything to do with his decrease in sideline histrionics or behavior in practice. But whatever he's changed up recently, he's getting results, and Nebraska is on the right path to correcting what has been an at-times crippling issue.

Penalty 2013 2012 2011 2010 2009 2008 Total
12 men on the field 0 0 0 0 1 1 2
Clipping 0 2 2 0 0 0 4
Defensive holding 3 2 8 6 4 1 24
Defensive pass interference 3 16 8 11 13 7 58
Delay of game 3 4 6 5 5 7 30
Face mask 3 2 0 4 2 1 12
False start 13 15 19 21 28 20 116
Illegal block 8 3 3 3 3 4 24
Illegal formation 3 2 2 2 1 0 10
Illegal forward pass 0 1 0 0 0 1 2
Illegal motion 2 1 0 0 0 0 3
Illegal procedure 5 0 3 1 1 0 10
Illegal shift 0 2 0 2 0 0 4
Illegal touching 1 0 1 0 0 1 3
Ineligible man downfield 0 1 1 0 0 1 3
Intentional grounding 0 2 1 2 1 1 7
Kick-catch interference 1 0 0 0 1 0 2
Offensive holding 8 9 12 14 12 14 69
Offensive pass inteference 0 1 0 1 0 0 2
Offside 2 1 4 4 5 8 24
Personal foul 14 18 13 23 14 18 100
Roughing the kicker 0 1 1 0 0 0 2
Roughing the passer 1 0 1 2 3 2 9
Sideline interference 0 1 0 1 0 2 4
Substitution infraction 4 3 1 5 1 1 15
Tripping 0 0 0 0 1 1 2
Unsportsmanlike conduct 3 1 0 1 4 2 11
Total 76 88 86 109 100 94 553



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