First-Down Production
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

First-Down Production, Hit Rates, and Cooling on the Hardwood

December 09, 2019

It’s Sunday night. Here’s a Monday column.

First Down

This was a year of weird box scores. 

Nebraska won a game while losing the turnover margin. It lost games with a better yards-per-play clip. Nebraska outscored its opponents by three total points and lost seven times in 12 games. The penalties declined as the season went on and the wins went away. The defense got better and the offense cratered. 

Our last viewing of Nebraska Football in 2019 featured a team that was completely incapable of setting up drives. The Huskers ran 29 first-down plays against the Iowa Hawkeyes and gained a total of 56 yards in a 27-24 home loss. They got 2.50 yards a carry on first-down runs and a throw-up-worthy 0.67 yards per pass attempt.

And that wasn’t even the worst game of the season in terms of first-down production. If you include sacks with the passing numbers, Nebraska lost 2 yards on 12 total pass plays against Minnesota…  

(Quick aside: it’s beyond dumb we add sack yardage to rushing totals. It makes no sense. It should be subtracted from the quarterback’s final yardage through the air. Further, it’s also incredibly stupid we subtract kneel-down yardage lost from rushing numbers. I will die on this hill.)

…and it gained just 1.77 yards per carry on first-down runs against Northwestern. 

I thought we were dealing with a team that couldn’t even stay on schedule in the first place. 

Instead, a deep dive shows a team we already knew was woefully inconsistent on offense was actually a halfway decent side at gaining yardage on first down plays throughout the course of the season. 

  Yards Plays YPP
Runs 1,335 236 5.66
Passes 989 141 7.01
Overall 2,324 377 6.16

Nebraska ran it nearly twice as much as it threw the ball on first down, and when it did elect to throw the ball, the three Husker quarterbacks who saw time this season—Adrian Martinez, Luke McCaffrey and Noah Vedral (with one JD Spielman incompletion in there)—completed 62.5% of all passes. 

Nebraska was sacked just five times on first down. It turned the ball over eight times (six interceptions, two fumbles) but had an explosive play rate of 16.7%. Not bad at all. 

The key as Nebraska moves into 2020 will be cutting down the variance from game-to-game. Nebraska had so many moving pieces week-to-week—be it injuries to skill position players, injuries to quarterbacks, status of non-injured guys, a revolving door at wideout, snap concerns at various points throughout—and you can see all that reflected in practically any number you want to look at. First-down production is no different. Nebraska was awful against Iowa and Minnesota and fantastic in a Wisconsin game sandwiched in the middle. It wasn’t so much about what the opponent was doing to Nebraska week to week as much as it was about what is Nebraska doing to Nebraska? (The Huskers had a first-down penalty in 10 of 12 games.)

  • vs. South Alabama
    • Runs: 60 yards on 18 plays, 3.33 yards per play 
    • Passes: 77 yards on nine plays, 8.56 yards per play
  • at Colorado
    • Runs: 89 yards on 18 plays, 4.94 yards per play
    • Passes: 137 yards on 13 plays, 10.54 yards per play
  • vs. Northern Illinois
    • Runs: 125 yards on 16 plays, 7.81 yards per play
    • Passes: 149 yards on 16 plays, 9.31 yards per play
  • at Illinois
    • Runs: 167 yards on 31 plays, 5.39 yards per play
    • Passes: 150 yards on 16 plays, 9.38 yards per play
  • vs. Ohio State
    • Runs: 106 yards on 17 plays, 6.00 yards per play
    • Passes: 15 yards on seven plays, 2.14 yards per play
  • vs. Northwestern
    • Runs: 23 yards on 13 plays, 1.77 yards per play
    • Passes: 59 yards on 11 plays, 5.36 yards per play
  • at Minnesota
    • Runs: 57 yards on 14 plays, 4.07 yards per play
    • Passes: minus-2 yards on 12 plays, -0.17 yards per play
  • vs. Indiana
    • Runs: 139 yards on 25 plays, 5.56 yards per play
    • Passes: 130 yards on nine plays, 14.4 yards per play
  • at Purdue
    • Runs: 101 yards on 17 plays, 5.94 yards per play
    • Passes: 72 yards on 14 plays, 5.14 yards per play
  • vs. Wisconsin
    • Runs: 224 yards on 19 plays, 11.79 yards per play
    • Passes: 84 yards on 11 plays, 7.6 yards per play
  • at Maryland
    • Runs: 194 yards on 28 plays, 6.93 yards per play
    • Passes: 112 yards on 14 plays, 8.00 yards per play
  • vs. Iowa
    • Runs: 50 yards on 20 plays, 2.50 yards per play
    • Passes: 6 yards on nine plays, 0.67 yards per play

Those are solid numbers, save for a few duds, and that means the set-up plays from Scott Frost were working more often than not. Not a bad place to start as the Husker offense tries to rebound in 2020. 

(Luke McCaffrey, by the way, was ridiculously effective on first downs.)

A Championship Weekend Thought

I watched Oregon upset Utah in the Pac-12 Championship Friday night and witnessed Kayvon Thibodeaux go off. The 6-foot-5, 242-pound true freshman defensive end had four solo stops and 2.5 sacks. The No. 2 prospect in the 2019 recruiting class would probably be a nice thing for defensive coordinator Erik Chinander to have setting his edge in Memorial Stadium. 

Then I watched the Big 12 Championship game Saturday afternoon and witnessed Kenneth Murray go off. The 6-foot-2 junior linebacker had eight solo stops, three tackles for loss, a sack and a pass break-up. The dude was everywhere. He, I thought, would also be a nice piece for Chinander to have in his 3-4 defense. 

Murray’s road and Thibodeaux’s road are two completely different paths, though. Whereas the 247 Composite had the latter ranked as the No. 2 prospect in the country, a consensus 5-star, blue-chip, instant-impact weapon, the former entered college as a 3-star ranked as the 412th-best high school prospect in the country. 

I remember Murray as a freshman. He wasn’t this. 

As Nebraska’s rebuild looks like its either taking too long to get off the runway or sputtering trying to leave the gate, the 2018 guys and the 2019 guys haven’t been too featured. 

Wan’Dale Robinson is more Thibodeaux than Murray; he was ready to produce out of the gate. But Jamie Nance and Rahmir Johnson and Bryce Benhart? Caleb Tannor and Casey Rogers and Ty Robinson and Nick Henrich and Braxton Clark? Those guys have gotten time to build at the expense of wins in the short-term. 

Frost has played the long game for the albeit brief opening portion of his tenure.

With so much to replace on defense, and so many jobs that should be up for grabs on offense, 2020, at least as I look at it, seems like the year where we’re going to find out a lot about this staff’s identification chops and developmental ability. 

Without Lamar Jackson to anchor the secondary, will Clark, as a third-year sophomore, be ready to step in and contribute. With Alex Davis graduating, and all those snaps he absorbed the last two years completely up for grabs, is Garrett Nelson going to become a key fixture or is Tannor, another third-year guy with plenty of time to this point to add to his frame, ready to be the difference-maker Nebraska envisioned him being? Is Henrich ready? Is Benhart ready to kick Matt Farniok inside? 

When the cupboard is empty, the new ingredients get used the second they’re brought home from the store. Nebraska, in a number of areas, hasn’t had the luxury of developing the Badger way. Wisconsin can hold linemen for three years before they see action because the dudes ahead of them are 325-pound all-conference wrecking balls. People (myself included) were calling for Benhart in his first year.

It’s hard. And in a lot of instances unfair. 

But this upcoming season, now three years in, I wonder if we’ll start to see guys become like Murray so we stop spending so much of our time lamenting over all the missed Thibodeauxs. 

The Huskers certainly need it. 

Hot, Then Cold

Nebraska is a Live by the 3, Die by the 3 kind of team on the hardwood this season. That’s Fred Hoiberg’s M.O. That’s the shooter’s approach. Take it when it goes in, keeping taking it when it doesn’t because it eventually will.

It was there, for a hot minute. Fifty-three percent shooting or better in three of four games and a scorching 45% from beyond the arc over the same stretch. Nebraska was, as you can expect, 3-1 in those four outings. 

The shot has significantly cooled for what has probably felt like an excruciating last 80 minutes. Nebraska missed 24 of its first 27 shots from the field against Creighton as the blue overwhelmed the red and built a 42-11 mountain of a lead.  

On an FS1 broadcast, in front of the rival gym that just wanted to see nothing more than a tail-between-the-legs Husker squad leave CHI Health Center, Nebraska got. . .

. . . beat.

That’s it. 

Nothing more. 

There is no good in overreacting to this one because of the way it started.

Nothing to be gleaned about the remainder of the season. We knew after a season-opening loss to UC Riverside this was going to be a daunting task for Hoiberg in Year 1 and nothing has changed since. 

Nothing new to be learned about Hoiberg’s task at hand in resurrecting this program. This is what Creighton has done to Nebraska. It’s Hoiberg’s job to fix it. He won’t be condemned 10 years from now if he’s won five straight in the series because he lost the first one. 

Nothing insightful to be found in the way the Huskers lost. 

Creighton shot lights out. 

Nebraska didn’t. 

Creighton wanted the game. 

A roster full of players who had no idea the anger last year’s Nebrasketball group left with the Jays didn’t want it as much. 

Creighton ran. 

Nebraska walked. 

The blue was hot. 

The red was cold. 

Plenty of time left to get it back.

No. 1 LSU, No. 2 Ohio State

The committee got it wrong.

That’s all 

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