The “Blackshirt” tradition is one of the richest at the University of Nebraska. It began in 1964 when first-team defenders were given black pullovers at the start of practice, while everyone else on the unit wore gray pullovers. At the end of practice, all pullovers were handed in and then redistributed at the next practice. The idea was to keep the backups hungry for a starting position and to let the starters know their work was always far from over. The specifics have changed through the years, but the message remains the same: Nebraska is going to play tough, hard-nosed defense.
Last season, though, these so-called “Blackshirts” of Nebraska took a lot of heat from critics for not living up to the name and playing subpar defense. But was it really as bad as many made it out to be? A look at the numbers in 2013 will almost completely disagree with the heavy criticism.
The most telling and most impressive stat are two different things. To me, the most telling stat was Nebraska allowing 24.8 points per game, ranking 50th in the FBS. That’s where many critics find the fuel to say 2013 was an awful defensive season. A record like 9-4 is to be expected when you can’t keep opponents out of the end zone.
The most impressive stat, however: The Cornhuskers only allowed opponents to gain 4.9 yards per play, which was the 19th-best mark in 2013. You can look at that number and predict Nebraska probably held opponents to low averages through the air and on the ground. You’d be halfway correct in thinking so. The Blackshirts of Lincoln gave opponents 3.6 yards per carry (18th in FBS), but when it came to opponents putting the ball in the air, Nebraska allowed 13.4 yards per completion, which ranked 105th.
Don’t let the latter stat scare you, though. The Cornhuskers allowed only 212.7 passing yards per game (29th in FBS), which tells you one thing: Big plays were a problem in 2013. It was virtually the same story when it came to yards per game on the ground, as the Blackshirts surrendered a low 150.2 yards, good for 22nd in the FBS.
If you’re a Nebraska fan, you should have also especially enjoyed the defense getting off the field on third down. Opponents only moved the chains 31.25 percent of the time in third-down situations. I’m surprised this stat didn’t receive more love in 2013. This was huge for a team that often struggled to sustain an offensive attack.
This Nebraska defense was not as bad as many critics made it out to be. The argument is at least understandable because of a lump of points allowed to a few opponents, but the Blackshirts of 2013 did much better than the noise would suggest. And that’s by the numbers.