Prairie Band Casino

Numbers Game: Losing Early

What does good defense look like? The answer to that question might sound a little different depending on who you ask.

Fans like to see low yardage and point totals, but coaches often look at things a little more specifically. They know a team isn’t going to totally shut down every opponent. Busts and big plays happen on both sides of the ball, but if you’re winning on a down-by-down basis that’s typically the best overall indicator of success.

I asked former Nebraska secondary coach George Darlington last week what sort of benchmarks Nebraska used to set in that regard.

He offered three:

1) Put the opponent in second-and-8 60 percent of the time.

2) Force a three-and-out on 40 percent of the drives in a game.

3) Allow a conversion rate of 30 percent or less on third down.

This 2013 defense, through three games, is close to achieving one of those goals. Care to guess which?

It’s No. 3. The Huskers currently rank 38th nationally allowing a 33.33 third down conversion percentage which is somewhat remarkable given what Nebraska’s doing on other downs.

Forty percent three-and-outs? Nebraska’s currently at less than 20 percent. The Huskers have forced five three-and-outs on their 31 statistically significant drives (no kneel downs, no drives during blowouts) this season.

What about benchmark No. 1? That better gets to heart of the problem for the Huskers early this season — they’re giving up an average of 7.89 yards per play on first down. That’s more than 1.5 yards more than at any point over the last five seasons and it’s been a slow but steady climb to get there.


Losing Early

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What’s that mean for a defense? The more yards a team gives up on first down, the more often it’s playing at a disadvantage. If an offense is constantly on schedule — and second-and-2, which is what Nebraska’s allowing on average right now, is more than on schedule — it can constantly be on the attack, taking shots down field or getting creative rather than running a bunch of six-yard outs just to try and get out from behind the chains. It’s probably not a coincidence then that Nebraska currently ranks in the bottom 25 nationally in allowing gains of 10-plus, 20-plus and 30-plus yards this season.

Here’s another simple way to look at it: About half of all the plays in a given season are on first down. If a team has an average defense it should be giving up about half its yards there. The 2009 Blackshirts, Pelini’s best defense to date, gave up just under 43 percent of its yards on first down. It consistently had an advantage over the offense.


Yards by Down

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This year’s defense has allowed nearly 65 percent of its total yards on first down plays, which make-up only 52 percent of the total plays the Huskers’ defense has faced. It’s not a recipe for success.

How does Nebraska change it? Part of it might have to do with the opponents Nebraska has faced thus far. Typically, teams are about 70-30 run-to-pass on first down. For all of the offensive innovation of the past decade or so, offensive coordinators are still much happier playing it safe and running early. This year, however, Nebraska’s opponents are at about a 60-40 run-pass split. Consider the offenses Nebraska has faced and maybe that’s not a total surprise, but their success on first down has been.

For whatever reason, Nebraska’s been loathe to blitz a lot early this season, regardless of down. Part of that might have to do with the youth on defense overall but particularly at safety. You have to be confident in your coverage if the goal is to send extra men and force the ball out quickly. I don’t know if Nebraska’s there yet, but it might have to get there quickly.

Blitzing on first down typically isn’t an ideal situation but you can at least show blitz. Watch an NFL game and you’ll see a blitz look, regardless of if it comes or not, on almost every play. It might take a while to sell that given how little Nebraska’s brought pressure this season, which makes it even smarter to start now.

Because 7.89 yards per play on first down simply isn’t going to cut it. If you have to gamble a bit to get there, so be it.


A few other numbers worth noticing this week…

According to, the average starting field position for Nebraska’s offense in 2013 is its own 26-yard line. That ranks 106th nationally and 11th in the Big Ten.

–Also from, Nebraska’s defense is giving up 24.5 points for every 10 drives. That’s about a field goal more than average. I was somewhat surprised it was that close.

–Nebraska is currently tied for fifth nationally with just two sacks allowed this season. Both came against UCLA.

–Mauro Bondi’s 65 percent touchback percentage ranks 20th nationally.