Following Nebraska’s win over Rutgers last Saturday, I wrote about the Huskers’ possession-and-10 data so far this season and how it indicated just how much this offense needed a momentum-building play to open drives. Today I’m going to look quickly at what happens after those plays. How good are the Huskers at maintaining momentum once they have it?
To measure that, we’ll use a stat tracked at BCftoys.com, one of my favorite sites. The number I’m interested in is Touchdown Rate After first First Down, which is just the “percentage of touchdowns scored on offensive drives that earn at least one first down.” To put it a different way, once a team gets a first down, how often is it keeping those drives going and finding the end zone? BCftoys.com doesn’t release its 2017 numbers until after Week 7, but based on my game charts it’s easy to calculate for Nebraska to this point.
So far this season the Huskers are scoring a touchdown on 37.9 percent of their drives that gain at least one first down. That should be about average based on previous seasons. Last year the Huskers were at 39.6 percent and ranked 55th in the country. (Willie Taggart’s South Florida led the nation in 2016 at 59.0 percent, so maybe it shouldn’t have come as a shock when Oregon scored touchdowns on 6-of-7 first-half drives with a first down.) Considering what Nebraska lost from that 2016 offense, particularly at receiver, and some of the injuries that have befallen the Huskers so far this season, this year’s rate seems encouraging. Over Nebraska’s first two games the Huskers were scoring touchdowns on 47.1 percent of their drives with a first down. It was a good momentum offense, but things fell off a cliff against Northern Illinois (1-of-7, 14.3 percent) before rebounding a bit against Rutgers.
This shouldn’t be a surprise. Nebraska’s offense under Mike Riley and Danny Langsdorf is sort of built to go on drives rather than hit a bunch of big plays. In 2015, which was a pretty strong offense, Nebraska scored touchdowns on 42.6 percent of its drives with a first down (33rd nationally). If Nebraska could get healthy, not to mention some more consistent wide receiver play, numbers similar to 2015 could definitely be in reach.
And if you’re wondering about the defense, the Blackshirts are giving up a touchdown 34.4 percent of the time after allowing a first down. That would’ve ranked about 40th nationally last year, and is already ahead of last year’s team (38.3) and 2015’s squad (37.2). (LSU was best in the country in 2016 at 16.9 percent.) Considering how much emphasis Bob Diaco puts on making teams go on long drives to score, this number probably needs to be even better, and, minus Oregon, it has been. In Nebraska’s three other game, admittedly not against the strongest slate, the Blackshirts are yielding a touchdown on just 22.7 percent of drives with a first down. Disco’s first defense has been solid at resetting following a first down, particularly against teams (NIU, Rutgers) that didn’t use a ton of tempo, which could bode well for the remainder of Big Ten play.
I know nobody really watches football this way, but I won’t be the one to dissuade you from starting. That opening series of every drive is telling you a lot. For the best offenses in the country, getting that first first down can instantly make it a 50-50 shot as to whether the offense will score a touchdown – not a field goal – on that drive. The margin for Nebraska right now between offense and defense is a little too close to be comfortable – hence a 2-2 record – but I do think the Huskers have a chance to improve on both sides of the ball.
If they’re to rally from a rough start, they’ll have to.
The Grab Bag
- Cody Nagel has uncovered the secret to Nebraska's slow start this season: What color is Mike Riley's hat? (Premium) Also, here's Riley's post-practice update from Wednesday, and some volleyball notes as the Huskers prepare for a big weekend.
- Another great post from Husker Chalk Talk look at Nebraska's draw plays.
- If you're not interested in reading the sometimes impenetrable FBI complainst, ESPN has basically taken those documents and put them in thriller form.
- Nine Florida football players are facing felony charges stemming from a credit card fraud scheme.
Today's Song of Today
Brandon is the Managing Editor for Hail Varsity and has covered Nebraska athletics for the magazine and web since 2012, Hail Varsity’s first season on the scene. His sports writing has also been featured by Fox Sports, The Guardian and CBS Sports.