There were 35 seconds remaining in the third quarter of the Huskers’ final game of the 2018 season when Nebraska picked up its first fourth-and-1 of the year. Down 28-13 to Iowa, Adrian Martinez, alone in the backfield, took a shotgun snap and plunged straight ahead for a gain of 3 to the Hawkeyes' 47.
That drive had already included Luke Gifford's 5-yard run on fourth-and-3 from Nebraska's 9-yard line on a fake punt. That drive would include, four plays after Martinez's plunge, an 11-yard pass on fourth-and-2 to Stanley Morgan Jr. That drive ended in a touchdown and made it a one-score game. (That this drive started because Iowa went for the kill shot, faking a field goal––and failing––rather than kicking a chip-shot field goal to make it 31-13, only made it stranger.)
By going 3-for-3 on fourth downs on that drive, and 4-for-4 against Iowa overall, Nebraska finished the season 9-of-20 on fourth down (45%, 102nd nationally). That's not great. Nebraska's number of fourth-down attempts (1.67 per game) was right at the national average, but the average offense converted 53.4% of the time.
Martinez's fateful fourth-and-1 conversion made the Huskers 1-of-4 on fourth-and-1 in 2018. The national average in 2018 on the shortest fourth down a team can have was 69.9%. Offenses converted 63.5% of the time on fourth-and-4 or shorter last season. Nebraska converted 58.3%.
Now, the sample sizes here are pretty small (and always will be on fourth down), but Nebraska's struggles in 2018 interest me in at least two key areas.
But before we get to that, a brief aside on the shotgun. Staunch football traditionalists will always hate when the quarterback is 5 yards behind the center on fourth-and-1. It drives people crazy, and I get it. There's no way for me to easily track this but if an average offense converts 70% of fourth-and-1s, I'm guessing at least a slight majority of those attempts are simple quarterback sneaks right over center. It's a low-risk, high-reward play. But what do you do when your offense is never under center? I only recall one non-shotgun snap for Nebraska in 2018. If the Huskers go under center on a fourth-and-1 they're screaming to the defense that the sneak is coming. And it still might work. It's a simple play. But because Nebraska is never under center it likely boosts its risk and decreases its reward just by going under center. The odds of the Huskers picking up 1 yard on a QB sneak are still probably good, but not as good as what most teams are getting. And I don't know what the answer is here. Just wanted to note it's not as simple as "get under center and sneak it."
That relates somewhat to one piece of the Huskers' fourth-down struggles. A Nebraska running back did not convert a fourth down in 2018 on a rush. The Huskers were 4-of-8 on fourth-down rush attempts on the year but the conversions came from Martinez (3) and Gifford (1). That doesn't give you a great feeling about the offensive line, but things did get better as the season progressed. Nebraska was 0-for-4 on those attempts over the first half of the season and 4-for-4 over the second half. We'll see where they pick up in 2019 while replacing 2.33 starters up front (that's giving Boe Wilson credit for his eight starts a year ago).
The other key piece to this is how improvement in 2019 could have a big impact despite the relatively small numbers. Nebraska decided it wasn't ready to give up possession of the ball on fourth down 20 times last year. Eleven of those attempts were unsuccessful. That's 11 drives, with a maximum point potential of 77 total points (88 technically, but who goes for two all the time?), that just ended. That makes a pretty big difference at the end of the year.
This is an unrealistic example, but say all of those failed fourth-down attempts were successful and those drives ended in touchdowns. Getting 77 points would've taken the Huskers from an offense that averaged 30 points per game to one that averaged 36.4. Nebraska would've needed all of 55 yards to convert those failed fourth downs and stay in the running for those 77 potential points. The Huskers would've had to gain more than the 55 yards needed just to keep those drives alive of course, but the point here is pretty simple: The goal in this game is to score and to score an offense has to keep the ball.
Being below-average on fourth down, while it's easy to miss or just not think about, decreases that potential to score. The more I look at the 2019 season from an offensive the perspective, the more I look for small ways Nebraska can increase its point total. That's what I think it'll be about. While it's possible Nebraska could drastically increase its yardage total, I don't know if it's probable. It's tough to put up 500 yards a game in the Big Ten. Four teams have done it in the last five seasons and three of them were an Ohio State. (The other was Kevin Wilson-era Indiana.)
Maybe Nebraska's offense can get to that point. At some point, I think it probably will. But for this year I'll be focused on the points more than the yards. There are some easy ways the Huskers can be more efficient on that front.
Fourth down is one of those.
The Grab Bag
- Jacob Padilla caught up with Lincoln Pius X guard Charlie Easley who will join Nebraska as a preferred walk-on.
- Kyle Kardell offers three takeaways from Nebraska baseball’s series with Northwestern.
- Greg Smith identifies some 2021 quarterback prospects to watch as the Huskers continue their in-person evaluations of potential signal callers. (Premium)
- Future Husker football players are having success on the track this spring.
Today’s Song of Today