LINCOLN, Neb. — Nebraska is undefeated going into its bye week mostly because of its total dominance in the fourth quarter.
The Achilles’ heel of the 2015 Huskers was giving up leads late, or not being able to score when they needed to when trailing late in the game.
But that’s completely switched this season.
In five games, No. 12 Nebraska leads its opponents 78-6 in the fourth quarter. The Huskers have come back in the fourth quarter twice to win already this season, against Illinois on Saturday and Oregon a few weeks ago. They also kept Northwestern at an arm’s distance to seal a road victory, something they couldn’t do last year.
“I think our team has made plays to win games, and I think the fourth quarter is when you’re doing that,” coach Mike Riley said after the Illinois win. “I think the biggest part is mental competitiveness. Keep your poise, keep playing.”
There are two reasons why Nebraska has dominated late this season.
The first is the dedication to running the ball late.
The Huskers average 13 runs per fourth quarter, which is nearly twice as many as last season, and average close to 7 yards per carry.
Nebraska is more committed to the run in 2016 than last year, but the Huskers also are running far more efficiently in the fourth quarter than last year, when they averaged nearly 4 yards per carry.
A few players attribute the fourth-quarter run game successes to the conditioning in the offseason. Senior center Dylan Utter said he thinks Nebraska has been in better shape than every team it has played.
Senior running back Terrell Newby said that’s what pushes the offense.
“That’s one of the things we take pride in,” Newby said. “To see the defense getting tired, that’s what we thrive on.”
The second key reason Nebraska has owned the fourth quarter is time of possession.
Because Nebraska is running so well, the Huskers hold the ball longer and milk the clock. And when they do punt, the defense gets off the field quickly.
In four of Nebraska’s wins in 2016, the Huskers offense was on the field for more than 10 minutes of the 15-minute quarter.
In Nebraska’s first five games last year, that happened zero times.
The difference this year, senior safety Nate Gerry said, is simply effort.
“Last season we lost six games or whatever it was to fourth-quarter games, and one of those things we have been focusing on in practice and throughout the season was just finishing,” Gerry said. “Just one thing we always talk about, being a defensive guy, you do not have to know anything as long as you hustle to the ball and do your best effort.”
Sophomore Linebacker Dedrick Young said the defense gets a new mentality when the scoreboard hits four.
“We just have some mentality that we don’t want anyone scoring on us in the fourth quarter,” Young said. “We want that to be our quarter.”
The caveat to the fourth-quarter dominance is the previous three quarters for Nebraska often have been lackluster.
The Huskers only led Fresno State 21-10 heading into the fourth and led Wyoming by just seven. They trailed both Oregon and Illinois headed into the final quarter.
So as much as the Huskers love being a fourth-quarter team, they know they can’t lean on that all year.
“I think so far we have done a great job in the fourth quarter,” Gerry said. “But we have got to put together a full game if we want to be an elite defensive group.”
That goes for more than just the defense, too.