Hot Reads: A Lead Needs to Be Better for Huskers' Defense in 2019
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Hot Reads: A Lead Needs to Be Better for Huskers’ Defense in 2019

March 22, 2019

On Thursday we looked at Nebraska's 2018 offense when it had a lead versus when it didn't.  That looked about like you'd expect. The Huskers were better, from a yards-per-play perspective, when they had a lead. Problem was, they didn't have a lead very often.

Defense wasn't nearly as neat and tidy. Nebraska's defense was ahead a little more than the offense, 44.3 percent of snaps, but still ranked in the back half nationally (81st). In terms of yards per play, however, Nebraska's defense allowed more yards when leading than when trailing. Here's the same table from Thursday, but for defense. 

Game State % of Snaps (Rank) Yards Per Play
Leading 44.3 (81st) 6.03
Tied 11.1 (113th) 5.82
Trailing 44.7 (92nd) 5.59

That's interesting. Let's try to unpack what's going on to some degree.

In looking at these numbers I've found that things can get a little weird in blowout territory, on offense and defense. If a team trails or leads by multiple scores, at some point it's always possible that getting the game over––not moving or stopping the ball, or even scoring or preventing scores––becomes the primary goal. So if we break things down a little more based on the size of the lead, here's what Nebraska's defense was doing in 2018.

Game State Pass YPP Rush YPP
Winning 15+ Pts 7.00 5.12
Winning 8-14 Pts 9.49 3.29
Winning 1-7 Pts 6.62 4.57
Tied 7.50 4.58
Losing 1-7 Pts 5.27 5.09
Losing 8-14 Pts 6.59 4.89
Losing 15+ Pts 5.84 6.68

The passing numbers jump out there. We know a defense should expect to see more passes when it has a lead. That should be OK for a defense, maybe even an advantage similar to having a third-and-long in that you've decreased an offense's options somewhat and have an idea of what's coming.

But Nebraska didn't handle it well. The Huskers gave up more passing yards per play when leading (7.32) than when trailing (5.80). That's a pretty significant jump. Two things worth noting there. One, Northwestern's fourth-quarter comeback is a big chunk of those numbers. The Wildcats averaged 10.5 yards per pass attempt when down one score and 7.2 when down two scores in the fourth quarter alone. In both cases, the yardage allowed was about a quarter of what NU allowed on the season in those scenarios.

Two, while the yardage may have been somewhat atypical, the interceptions were more in line with the model. Seven of Nebraska's 11 interceptions on the season came when the Huskers' defense had a lead, and five of those happened with a lead of 15 points or more. Based on the seasons I've looked at, that's fairly typical turnover behavior. 

The rushing numbers also show the trend you'd expect. That's all good news from Nebraska's perspective. The Huskers were fairly typical on defense in those two areas, and simply having a lead more often could speed defensive development in Year 2.

But the passing numbers should give you pause, at least a little bit. They echo the Blackshirts third-and-long numbers to a degree in that when Nebraska had what should've been an edge, it wasn't able to capitalize on it often enough.

I'm not exactly sure yet why that was, just that the numbers show it in two different aspects of the game now. It sort of underscores a theme of the offseason. At least it's a theme for me. The offense appears to be well positioned for a traditional trajectory in Year 2 (i.e. it should continue to improve). I think the defense can, too, there's just some quirks in there. It a little less traditional, and thus a little harder to project.

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