Hot Reads: Focusing on First Down Efficiency
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Hot Reads: Focusing on First Down Efficiency

June 24, 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 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. First up, first downs.

There's no "fixing" first down efficiency. There's no "fixing" anything that specific in football, really. A team can set out to be better on, say, third down or in the red zone or with avoiding turnovers, but any real, sustainable improvement in any such facet of the game is usually just a team getting better at playing football overall.

That's always important to remember when breaking out the football microscope. Being a bad field-position team, for example, usually isn't the disease but a symptom of being not very good at football. That said, if your doctor told you to "be healthier" that would be an admirable and important aim, but not very precise. So we focus on the symptoms as a way to hopefully set about improving overall health.

Winning on first down was a symptom for Nebraska, at least on one side of the ball. The offense fared pretty well for a first-year outfit. The Huskers ranked 30th in yards per play on first down and 21.87% of their first down plays resulted in a first down, 20th nationally. Nebraska was also average to a little above average in rushing and passing yards per play and explosive-play rates in both categories on first down.

Defense? That was another story. Here are the corresponding numbers and ratings in those same categories:

Yards Per Play 6.42 (30) 6.39 (101)
Rush YPP 4.88 (53) 5.63 (114)
Pass YPP 8.32 (48) 7.55 (61)
Exp. Run Pct. 14.67 (45) 12.92 (63)
Ex Pass Pct. 18.68 (64) 20.13 (101)
1D Pct. 21.87 (20) 17.79 (52)

There are some interesting things happening there. The most glaring "symptom" of 4-8 apparent on first down last year was Nebraska's struggle to stop to the run. The Huskers' 5.63 yards per attempt allowed was 13th in the Big Ten, better only than Rutgers. That's a  pretty big weakness when you consider that, in 2018, teams ran the ball on first down 61.4% of the time. Defenses are always going to face a bunch of runs then and if that defense isn't good at stopping them, it's going to have a hard time being good overall. If anything, opponents probably should have run it more often against the Huskers on first down in 2018. Nebraska's opponents were a little below the national average in run rate (60.2%) despite the fact that the Huskers were struggling to stop those first-down runs.

Nebraska was better agains the pass overall, but more susceptible to big plays on first down through the air. In combination, that's a multi-front battle and the odds of success aren't great. The problem against the run was efficiency and the problem against the pass was explosiveness. From a statistical perspective, efficiency and explosiveness are the base elements of football. If a team struggles with one it might, with a little luck, be able to survive by being good at the other. To struggle (or succeed) with both at various points is usually a sign of a football team still finding its way.

That was Nebraska in 2018, but in 2019 it is expected to be further along. Is it reasonable to expect that to happen?

I think so. That the offense put up pretty good numbers last year says good things, at least to me, about the offense conceptually. First down is really the chess matchiest down there is. It's the opening gambit, the best chance for the play caller to dictate what's happening. Even though the Huskers have questions to answer on offense, last year's moderate success in a Year 1 scenario is the best available evidence for continued gains. You're banking on the play-calling options to be more plentiful for Scott Frost and staff in Year 2 and the results were already solid with a limited menu.

Defense is a little tougher to parse. First-down efficiency left something to be desired in a year in which you could've expected there to be some struggles. But where does that leave you for Year 2? If you apply the same gradual-progress principle here, Nebraska maybe only gets back to average in terms of first-down defense. 

And maybe that would be enough for some overall gains in 2019. Depends on how high the offense can go. It's always about how big of a gap you can create in any one individual area. Care to guess the two best teams in yards-per-play differential on first down last year? Alabama, which gained 3.3 yards per play more than it allowed, and Clemson, which was 2.7 yards per play better than its opponent.

Those two, the two best at both, are very healthy football programs. No surprise there.

The Grab Bag

  • Nebraska picked up its fourth commitment for the 2020 class with the verbal pledge of cornerback Tamon Lynum. Greg Smith caught up with him here. (Premium)
  • Plenty more from Smith during a busy recruiting weekend for the Huskers, including handful of interviews with prospects.
  • Derek Peterson has seven ideas for changes that would improve college football.
  • Isaiah Roby recounts what his draft night was like in an interview with Jacob Padilla.

Today’s Song of Today

  • Never miss the latest news from Hail Varsity!

    Join our free email list by signing up below.