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Turnovers struggles a consistent trend for Nebraska

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Oklahoma vs. Nebraska, 9.17

Oklahoma's Kani Walker (right) recovers a fumble ahead of Nebraska special teams players on a punt in the second quarter Saturday at Memorial Stadium.

When Scott Frost took over as Nebraska’s head coach following the 2017 season, there was no doubt he was bringing Erik Chinander with him.

Of course, Frost brought his entire UCF staff to Nebraska, but his defensive coordinator was perhaps the most deserving of all. That’s because Chinander’s 2016 defense forced 26 turnovers and his 2017 group finished No. 2 nationally with a whopping 32 turnovers.

Chinander’s aggressive defense might not have led the NCAA in yards allowed, but the extra possessions it generated for Frost’s up-tempo offense were integral to UCF’s undefeated season.

The duo aimed to bring the same style of football to Nebraska, with hopes of building a competitive defense that could continue forcing turnovers at a high level.

“I’ve been a lot of places where you practice blitzes and practice getting after the quarterback on third down, but then when it comes time to really do it, you play safe,” Chinander told the Journal Star in 2018. “I don’t think you can do that if you really want to create turnovers.”

Four-plus years later, and it’s clear that Chinander’s vision never quite translated into NU’s on-field performance. A 21-turnover performance in 2019 was the best of Chinander’s tenure, but it still wasn’t enough to garner a positive turnover differential.

To be fair to Chinander, NU’s turnover troubles run much deeper than one man or even one decade.

Dating back to 2002, Nebraska has finished with a positive turnover differential just three times (2003, 2009 and 2016). The Huskers have also finished even twice (2006, 2019), but that leaves 15 seasons and counting where NU’s opponents came away with more turnovers than the Huskers did.

Since 2002, Nebraska has lost 236 fumbles and recovered just 142; interceptions are more even, with Nebraska throwing 251 and forcing 267 over that time period. That adds up to a turnover differential of -78 over the past 20 years, including seven seasons where NU finished with a margin of -10 or worse on the season.

Early in Chinander’s time as Nebraska’s defensive coordinator, the Huskers weren’t far off from where they wanted to be. The 2018 defense ranked No. 57 nationally with 20 turnovers forced, and the 2019 group jumped up to No. 34 with 21 turnovers forced. The Huskers still finished with a turnover margin of -2 in 2018 before finishing even in 2019, but NU regressed in the turnover department in the seasons that followed.

During the COVID-shortened 2020 season, Nebraska ranked No. 103 nationally with seven forced turnovers, and even a veteran group with several NFL talents couldn’t change that in 2021. Nebraska forced 13 turnovers last season, good for 104th in the country.

Heading into the 2022 season, Chinander knew that needed to change.

"We've got to get a few more sacks and we've got to get a few more turnovers," Chinander said in late July. "I'd like a lot more and a lot more, but, if we can get another sack a game, another turnover a game. We did a good job of intercepting the ball last year. We didn't get enough punch-outs and enough fumble recoveries, so we're really concentrating on that as we start fall camp."

Even still, Nebraska has only won the turnover differential in one of its four games so far this year, with a season total of -2 in turnover difference. The Huskers currently sit No. 48 nationally with five turnovers forced, something that was certainly a factor in interim head coach Mickey Joseph’s decision to fire Chinander.

“Chinander is a good man and a good coach, but the numbers did not add up,” Joseph said. “I did not see us getting better. For four weeks, I did not see us getting better from week one to week four.

The fact that NU sits in the bottom five nationally in total defense is no coincidence, either. Even teams that might not be able to stop their opponents from driving 60 or 70 yards down the field can make their lives easier by producing turnovers, something NU has struggled at for years.

As Bill Busch takes the reigns of the Husker defense, there’s plenty of different areas requiring his attention.

Asked on Tuesday about what kind of defense he wanted to see for the rest of the season, Joseph didn’t immediately jump to turnovers.

“A defense that stops the run and stops the pass and shuts people out; that’s a good defense,” Joseph said.

But, the numbers don’t lie — Nebraska’s turnover troubles have greatly contributed to a streak of five consecutive losing seasons.

For all of his success at UCF, Chinander couldn’t remedy that situation. Regardless of whether or not Busch can manage that in the final eight games of the season, these troubles have plagued Nebraska across coaching staffs, defensive schemes and conferences.

With a trend that deep, it’ll take more than a week or two to fix.

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