Hot Reads: Finishing with a Flourish
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Hot Reads: Finishing with a Flourish

June 27, 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 and Day 3 beating the blitz. Today, let's talk about scoring.

We all know that Nebraska football's 2018 was a tale of two seasons. There was the first half and the second half, the bad times and the pretty good times. Too simple to view it that way?

Most things are too simple, but when you look at it from a points perspective the two halves of Nebraska's 12-game season were nearly reciprocal.

First Six Games 143 230
Second Six Games 223 145

Add in the plays factor––to get to the number I now look at before any other, points per play––and you get almost the same look.

First Six Games .323 .505
Second Six Games .520 .330

Nebraska's points-per-play differential (.190) over the last six games of the season would've ranked 15th nationally and second in the Big Ten if the Huskers had done it over the course of the entire season. Its differential over the first half would've ranked 118th. That's quite the in-season flip.

Why did it happen? There's no simple-but-comprehensive way to look at that, but here's a piece of it: The Huskers got better at finishing off drives with touchdowns.

Red-zone stats are fine but somewhat limiting. Inside the 20 a field goal should be almost a given (and something of a loss for the offense). Play-calling has to change to deal with the shortened field. Red-zone scoring is something of a specialized skill and it's possible for at team to be good at it without being that good overall. Akron, 4-8 in 2018, ranked second nationally by scoring on 95.24% of its red-zone trips. Maryland, 5-7, led the Big Ten at 93.55%. Those two teams also ranked in the bottom seven nationally in terms of how many red-zone trips they had.

Start counting scoring opportunities as drives that cross the opponents' 40, an idea pioneered by Bill Connelly, and things start to smooth out a bit. To be good in that category is generally to be efficient overall.

Taken as a whole, Nebraska's wasn't bad in 2018. The Huskers' season-long average of 4.73 points per scoring opportunity on offense ranked 54th and the 4.41 points allowed on defense ranked 53rd. Pretty good for a Year 1 team that went 4-8, or at least another indication that the Huskers were really a 6-6 team in a 4-8 body.

Over the second half of 2018, however, Nebraska widened the gap between what it was producing and allowing on scoring opportunities. The offense jumped to 5.12 points per opportunity, a top-20 level, and the defense improved slightly to 4.26 (top-45). Unlike some of the other categories we've looked at on this makeshift offseason punch list, this category isn't one marked for improvement but one to maintain.

If the Huskers can remain an offense that's averaging more than five points per trip inside the 40, it will probably remain an offense that's averaging 37 points a game. And it's possible that's just a starting point for 2019.

The Grab Bag

  • Isaiah Roby is ready for anything with the Mavericks.
  • Better chance Nebraska wins 10 games in 2019 or Husker fans overtake Boulder despite Colorado’s best efforts? We tackle that question and more in the new Mailbag.
  • Nebraska and Iowa continue to intersect on the recruiting trail.

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