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The Battle on First Down

Cut a cross section from this Nebraska-Michigan State game and you’re likely to find the same things no matter where it comes from — This Saturday it’s unstoppable Nebraska against immovable Michigan State.

Maybe, given the conference and records involved in this game, it’s a stretch to assign unstoppable and immovable to these teams. Nebraska has sort of been stopped at times and Michigan State has kind of been moved now and then, but it’s still an elemental struggle that any football fan can point to and enjoy. Nebraska is the Big Ten’s best rushing team, Michigan State its best run stopper. The Huskers score the most points, the Spartans allow the fewest. Nebraska gains the most yards, Michigan State allows the least. Almost everywhere you look, it’s strength on strength.

Who wins in a game like that? It’s almost impossible to predict but that’s what makes it so compelling. The one thing we can say with some certainty is that the team that wins when the final gun goes off, is likely the team that won more often on first down. Why? Because even a good offense, or a good defense, will struggle when they’re playing against the chains.

Let’s look at how Michigan State’s defense and Nebraska’s offense stack up.

Nebraska enters the game averaging 7.36 yards per play on first down, the best average in the conference. On the season, Nebraska runs the ball on 71.94 percent of its first down plays. Only three teams in the Big Ten are more run heavy on first down — Minnesota (75.54), Wisconsin (75.28), and Michigan (74.12). The average Nebraska run goes for 6.31 yards, the average pass 10.09. Good numbers either way, but there’s a clear preference here for running the football.

That’s not unusual. In general teams are always going to run more frequently on first down. It’s a relatively safe play and the odds of putting yourself way behind the chains — like a first down sack would do — are decreased. That presents an interesting challenge for Nebraska and offensive coordinator Tim Beck this week.

Michigan State comes into this weekend allowing just 3.49 yards per carry on first down. Statistically speaking, that’s a tough number because it’s right on the edge of “on schedule.” If a team gains 3.49 yards running the ball on three straight plays, they’ll pick up a first down. Barely.

But the Spartans don’t allow 3.49 yards on every down. They give up, on average, 2.25 yards per carry on second down and 3.02 on third down. If the a team wants to just line up and smash Michigan State with three straight runs, on average, they’re coming up more than a yard short of a first down.

That’s one of the surest marks of a very good defense. In 2009, Nebraska’s defense was otherworldly in this regard. The Huskers gave up 2.96 yards per carry on first down, 2.77 on second down, and 1.79 on third down for a total of 7.52 yards. How will Nebraska attack a defense with similar numbers?

My guess is, at least early, the Huskers will try to run against the Spartans on first down. They’ll try to exploit any weaknesses they find in the scheme during the week and see if they can have success doing what they’re used to doing. But even if there are weaknesses, the defining element of the Michigan State defense this year is their athleticism. The Spartans are good enough to adjust and eat up mistakes quickly which makes the alternative, passing on first down, very intriguing.

As mentioned above, Nebraska’s very good when throwing on first down but it’s a riskier proposition. The Huskers average 10.09 yards per pass attempt (and 14.31 yards per completion), complete 70.5 percent of their passes, and have their best passer efficiency rating (182.32) on first down. Nearly a third of Nebraska’s first down passes have resulted in a first down. It’s tough to find too much to fault with Nebraska’s offense so far this season, but you could argue that they could stand to pass it even more frequently on first down.

On Saturday, the Huskers might not have a choice. Teams this season have run on first down against Michigan State an average of 59.39 percent of the time, which is below the league average. The reputation of the Spartans run defense precedes it, but it’s not exactly easy through the air either. Michigan State is allowing a completion percentage on first down of only 48.4 percent.

No matter how Nebraska decides to attack Michigan State on first down, their success will be an early indicator of how well the Huskers are playing.

A few weeks ago, at the midpoint of the season, Football Outsiders noticed something unique about Nebraska this season:

Nebraska is 19th in the country in third-down conversions because the Huskers avoid third-and-longs better than almost anybody. Their leverage rate is second in the country, and with a decent line blocking for quarterback Taylor Martinez and running backs Rex Burkhead and Ameer Abdullah, they are custom-built for converting on third-and-1 or -2. However, things fall apart on third-and-long. Taylor Martinez is a solid game manager, but drives end when Nebraska falls behind schedule. The No. 19 team in third-down conversion rate becomes the No. 107 team in Adjusted Third Down Rate.

Translate that into coach-speak and it sounds like this: “We’ve got to get yards early, got to stay out of bad situations, and got to stay on the field.” That’s how Tim Beck put it on Monday. Another way to put it? Staying on schedule is more important for Nebraska this season than most teams.

First down is but a single battle in the overall war between the Nebraska offense and the Michigan State defense, but it will be a telling one. If you want an early indication of who’s winning, chart the Huskers yards on first down while you’re watching. If Nebraska’s averaging more than than 4.21 yards per play, they’re doing better than most.