Campus Insider

Penalties, turnovers and special teams may be the game-breaker Saturday.

Coaches harp on them, and nearly every game is decided by them to some degree. They come in a variety of shapes and forms, but they all mean the same thing: points, and the difference between winning and losing.

Saturday's 2:30 p.m. game between Kansas State and Nebraska will bring intangibles to the forefront, and the difference won't be simply in winning and losing. The difference will be in each team's season -- how successful it will be, whether or not they will have a shot at Oklahoma in the Big 12 title game.

Turnovers change the game in an instant, and no team is better in the Big 12 at creating turnovers than the Huskers. Thirty-nine times they've swiped the ball from an opponent, giving them a +13 turnover margin that is nearly double their closest Big 12 rival, Oklahoma. The Huskers' Josh Bullocks leads the conference with six interceptions.

"It's a combination of the way they're coaching they're coaching their defense and the things they do," Coach Bill Snyder said. "Certainly the ability of their players has a lot to do with it. That's a monumental number of turnovers — they lead the nation in every concievable category as it relates to defensive turnovers."

Likewise, turnovers have given the Huskers a short field that plays into what they do on offense. The three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust mindset that was pioneered under Bob Devaney and cultivated under Tom Osborn, has once again reared its head in a rejuvenated fashion under Frank Solich. Nearly two-thirds of all touchdowns Nebraska scores are less than 50 yards in length, which is directly related to good field position from turnovers.

Other intangibles exist, though, equally as important. Nebraska and Kansas State rank 10th and 11th in the Big 12, respectively, in kickoff coverage, making it likely that at least one team will score on special teams at some point during the game. Nebraska return-man and backup I-Back Josh Davis is fourth in the Big 12 in return average at nearly 25 yards a try.

"I think the kicking game will have a tremendous impact on the outcome of the ballgame," Snyder said. "They've created shorter fields for themselves, and part of that is the kicking game."

Nebraska also features the Big 12's top punter in Kyle Larson, although Wildcat returner Darren Sproles is second in the league in punt return average. Still, Snyder said field position is another intangible that could be decisive when both teams relegate themselves so heavily to the ground.

You look at Nebraska and Kansas State, and the numbers, Nebraska has a tremendously talented punter," Snyder said. "The exchange of punts, under normal circumstances, creates a shorter field for Nebraska."

While Nebraska may have an edge in the kicking game, the Huskers are also one of the most penalized team in the Big 12, getting flagged for an average of 68 yards per contest. The Huskers also have the second-worst field-goal percentage — the only knock to their kicking game — and rank 10th in the Big 12 in red zone offense because of it, scoring just over 60 percent of the time inside the 20.

Saturday's game marks an opportunity to win in Lincoln for the first time in 35 years, but to do so, K-State will have to win the nickle-and-dime game.

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