Hot Reads: Beating the Blitz
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Hot Reads: Beating the Blitz

June 26, 2019

All across the country college football teams are getting better or worse right now. Few people outside of those programs can see it––the summer is the shadowiest part of the college football calendar––but it's definitely happening. You just won't know how those summer months were going for your favorite team for another few months.

For Nebraska, these summer months feel particularly important. The Huskers have about as much momentum as a team can coming off a 4-8 season. If you're a Husker fan, that's made for a nice offseason, but if Nebraska is going to really be a division contender this fall, as some predict, these summer months need to be productive. There are things from 2018, obviously, that Nebraska needs to fix.

This week in Hot Reads, we'll be taking a look at a few of those areas from a statistical point of view. It's an offseason punch list, if you will. Day 1 we looked at first-down efficiency, Day 2 tackles for loss.

When you think of all of the reasons Nebraska's offense had to struggle last year––new (freshman) quarterback, new scheme, brutal schedule––it's sort of amazing just how well the Huskers did in 2018 from a numbers perspective. When you run down the rankings report from last year, be that report traditional or non-traditional, there are not a lot of "yikes!" moments. In most categories Nebraska was slightly above average and in some, particularly the run-game stats, it was very good. That's really the range––good to average––with just a couple of exceptions.

One of those exceptions in 2018 was Nebraska's performance on what Bill Walsh called "blitz downs." In his calculation of those numbers for college football, Bill Connelly defined those downs (based on when run/pass rates changed) as first-and-18+, second-and-14+ and third-and-3+. Those are not favorable situations for an offense. Teams will never be "good" in those situations, some will just better than most.

Nebraska was not last season. The Huskers' success rate on blitz downs (24.1%) ranked 111th and their big-play rate (5.4%) ranked 117th. They didn't give up a lot of sacks in those situations––8.5% of plays, 51st nationally––but overall Nebraska's offense struggled when the difficulty was dialed up.

No real shame in that, particularly for a first-year group in a strong blitzing conference

". . . [C]oordinators on third down had more exotic packages than maybe we expected," offensive coordinator Troy Walters told Derek Peterson this spring. "I thought it would be more similar to what they did on first and second down but you get in third down and teams are a little more exotic, which means we’ve got to stay out of third-and-long because we’ve got some great defensive coordinators that come up with exotic packages and blitzes."

Year 1 scenarios can often be a matter of finding how much a team can handle. Can it do the basic things well? OK, how about some more advanced stuff? What about the hardest things? Where's the breaking point? How soon do things become too much?

One of the breaking points for the Huskers' offense was those extreme situations. That said, struggling to a large degree when all offenses will struggle to some degree hardly feels like a glaring problem in the first year of an overhaul, particularly when Nebraska was very good at simply avoiding that problematic scenario in the first place; 76% of the Huskers' first downs in 2018 came on first or second down, which ranked ninth nationally. That's a pretty remarkable out-of-the-gate number.

What Nebraska's blitz-down struggles last year do feel like is an opportunity in 2019. When the Huskers were on schedule in 2018 they were pretty efficient and explosive offensively, ranking 10th in standard-downs success rate and 17th in big-play rate. Very good offense is often just a matter of staying in favorable situations. Great offense is often that plus succeeding even when the odds aren't in a team's favor.

That might be the next level for the Huskers in 2019. When you think of all the reasons Nebraska's offense has to succeed this season––a second-year starter at quarterback, second year in the system, a less daunting schedule––it would be sort of amazing if it took a step back. But the areas of improvement are going to be smaller, things you might not even notice right away.

Things like winning a little more often on blitz downs.

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