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The Importance of Explosiveness

We’re continuing our tour through Bill Connelly’s “Five Factors” — concepts we’re going to use this season — today with a look at explosive plays. If you missed the past two installments, here are the stories on turnovers and offensive efficiency.

Explosive plays are a tricky thing for a couple of different reasons. One, it probably has little to do with coaching. An offensive coordinator can’t send in “the explosive play that always nets between 20 and 30 yards.” He can perhaps notice something on film leading up to the game, a hole to exploit, and pop a big gain early on but if the opposing staff is worth anything they close that hole pretty quickly. There’s also something to be said for calling a good game, setting up your moves if you will, that could lead to some big plays over the course of a game or season, but for the most part explosive plays seem to happen independent of strategy in most cases.

In my mind, that makes it as much about talent as anything. A great running back will have better odds of busting a 60-yard run than an average back will. Same goes for receivers, quarterbacks and probably even the offensive line, who, if they’re really great, can maybe net even an average back a couple of big plays.

So how do you become more explosive? The best answer might be to get more explosive talent, but that’s not really a workable solution on a year-to-year basis. It could take years to do that even if it was a switch a coach could just flip. (It’s probably not.)

Given the somewhat ambiguous nature of “explosiveness,” that can be problematic because this is the most heavily weighted of Connelly’s five factors. He gives it a 35 percent weight in his calculations and it had the strongest correlation to winning in 2013. Last year teams that had a yards per play edge of between 1 and 1.5 yards won the game 86.2 percent of the time. A YPP advantage of just 0.5 to 1 yards gave teams a .720 winning percentage in 2013.

Connelly offered a pretty sound explanation as to why in a separate post for Football Outsiders. It might just come down to simple margin of error:

Nothing is more demoralizing than giving up a 20-play, 80-yard, nine-minute drive. But unless your team is Navy, that doesn’t happen too often. Defensive coaches often teach their squads the concept of leverage — prevent the ball-carrier from getting the outside lane, steer him to the middle, make the tackle, and live to play another down. It is the bend-don’t-break style of defense, and it often works because if you give the offense enough opportunities, they might eventually make a drive-killing mistake, especially at the collegiate level. If you allow them 40 yards in one play, their likelihood of making a drive-killing mistake plummets.

That seems particularly pertinent when applied to Nebraska, a team that has been its own worst enemy often in the past, so let’s look at explosiveness using yards per play. Here’s how Nebraska fared in that regard last season:

Some notes:

–As you can see, Nebraska’s actual win-loss record last year (9-4) was one game better than its win-loss record based on yards per play (8-5). The Huskers lost the YPP battle to Wyoming by nearly two full yards in the opener yet won the game.

–There’s also the Michigan State-Penn State flip-flop that we saw with efficiency. Nebraska was less explosive overall against Penn State but won in overtime. And then there’s that Michigan State game again. The Huskers out-gained the Spartans by 1.62 yards per play last November — teams that did that won more than 89 percent of the time in 2013 — yet lost.

–While yards per play is probably the easiest way to express overall explosiveness, it doesn’t give us a very good idea of just how heavily an offense is relying on big plays. You probably know by now that Nebraska, playing without Taylor Martinez for two-thirds of the season, took a significant dip in explosive plays in 2013. You can define those plays however you want, but I use any gains of 20 yards or more so as to weed out 11-yard out routes and the such. Based on that threshold, Nebraska had 58 explosive plays last season, down from 80 the previous season.

Another way to look at this is by viewing explosive plays (20-plus yards) as a percentage of the total plays. Here are those percentages for Nebraska the past four seasons:

Not a huge amount of variance there, but it doesn’t take much to make a difference. To give you an idea of scale here, last year’s least explosive team based on yards per play was Florida International. The Panters had an “explosiveness rate” of just 3.38 percent. The nation’s most explosive offense, Florida State, had an explosiveness rate of 11.5 percent, which is sort of remarkable when you consider that that means the Seminoles had about one in every nine plays go for 20 yards or more.

Nebraska hasn’t been close to as good or bad as either of those teams at any point over the past four seasons. The sweet spot for the Husker offense seems to be about 7 percent. The Huskers topped that mark in both 2012 and 2010 which also happen to be the last two appearances for Nebraska in conference title games.

–So, if we agree that explosive plays matter and that Nebraska probably needs to be better in this area than it was a year ago, how does that happen? As alluded to above, I’m not sure there’s a great answer to that question.

But, if you agree that explosive plays are due in large part to talent, playing a West Division schedule could offer some relief. (As would a fully healthy Jamal Turner and additional back-up touches for Terrell Newby, a young player with home run potential.) Nebraska has a pretty significant talent edge over the rest of the division and if you look at the schedule as a whole Miami is the only team that has a clear-cut talent edge over the Huskers. (Michigan State’s about equal.)

Will that result in more big plays in 2014? Your guess is as good as mine, but we’ll definitely be monitoring it this season.