It’s been a long time since a single statistic has received as much attention as Nebraska’s defensive third down efficiency did this past offseason. There had to be some reason Nebraska’s defense faltered in 2011 after experiencing almost unchecked growth under Bo Pelini for the first three years.
The easy culprit was third down. Nebraska wasn’t getting off the field enough last year when it had the chance. The Huskers ranked 37th nationally in total defense in 2011, far from a collapse but also not too close to the Pelini standard. But look at third down efficiency and the problem seemed clear: Nebraska ranked 23rd nationally in 2008 (33.73 percent conversion rate), 15th in 2009 (32.29 percent) and fourth in 2010 (29.95 percent). In 2011, the Huskers dropped all the way to 64th in the country, allowing better than 40 percent of its third downs to be converted for the first time under Pelini.
Thus the solution was simple. Fix third down and Nebraska’s defense will be fixed. But third down doesn’t happen in a vacuum. There are two other downs preceding it that play a large role in determining a team’s success, and the early returns, taken at face value, haven’t been encouraging. Nebraska currently ranks 88th nationally allowing a 44 percent conversion rate on third down. The Huskers have, however, improved in each game. After allowing a 50 percent conversion rate against Southern Miss, Nebraska cut that to 45 percent against UCLA and 37.5 percent against Arkansas State.
As marginal as that improvement might look, there is one other encouraging sign. Following the UCLA game defensive coordinator John Papuchis said the goal for the defense was to be in 3rd-and-6 situations or longer. That’s “on schedule” for Nebraska defensively. Look at those numbers and Nebraska appears to have something working.
All of the following data comes from cfbstats.com which has situational stats for 3rd-and-7 or longer (referred to going forward as third-and-long and abbreviated 3&L). That’s a yard more than Papuchis’s stated goal for the defense, but close enough to provide a good historical comparison.
So far this season Nebraska has been in third-and-long situations on 25 of 50 third down snaps (50 percent). In the first four years under Pelini the best 3&L percentage came in 2009 (55.6) and the worst was in 2010 (44.93). The average for all four of those years combined is 50.19 percent. This year is right on pace in terms of how often Nebraska is putting teams in third-and-long situations.
There’s no national ranking for this stat, but let’s look at the defensive gold standard for a comparison. In the past four years Alabama has never finished outside of the top five nationally in total defense. How often did the Crimson Tide force the opposition into third-and-long over the same span? Just barely better than Nebraska — 50.5 percent.
But getting there is only half the proverbial battle. After that, you have to win third down. Over the past four years Alabama has allowed teams to convert only 18.45 percent of the time. Nebraska is at 22.95 percent over the same span. The best the Huskers have been under Pelini was in 2010 where teams converted just 16.1 percent of the time in third-and-long.
And that’s what’s encouraging for the Nebraska staff and fans about 2012 so far. Over the past two games, Nebraska’s opponents have gone 1-for-17 in third-and-long situations with the one first down coming on a defensive pass interference call on Andrew Green. In terms of 3&L percentage, that’s exactly 16 percent. It’s early in the season, but that’s on par with the best year at Nebraska under Pelini (2010) and better than Alabama in any of the previous four seasons.
When Nebraska gets into the third down situations it wants, the Huskers are as good on third down as anybody. Last year’s team? That defense allowed opponents to convert third-and-long 28.4 percent of the time, so there is some merit to all of the attention paid to that one down in the offseason. But if Nebraska is getting into third-and-long situations and off the field as often as it wants to in those situations, then why does the defense still look like a work in progress?
First and second down. This year Nebraska is allowing 6.2 and 5.04 yards per play on first and second down respectively. Both are nearly a half yard worse than 2011. The 6.2 yards per play on first down is the worst number under Pelini so far. The 5.04 yards per play on second down is better than only the 5.15 Nebraska averaged in year one under Pelini. The rate of first down conversions on first down in 2012 is 16.67 percent against a 16.5 percent average over the previous four years.
Then there’s second down. The Huskers are giving up a first down on 28.75 percent of its second downs this year, which ties directly into the higher yards per play on first down. That’s more than five percent worse than the four year average of 23.7 percent, and the highest conversion percentage of the Pelini era.
So, if you still want to point to a money down this season, look to second down conversions. Or look to the yards Nebraska is giving up on first down. Both play a big role in the overall perception of the defense. What a defensive breakdown by down really reveals is that good defenses make it difficult to get yards on every down.
Nebraska’s not there yet.