Hot Reads: Should the Huskers Be Afraid the Big Plays Will Go Away?
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Hot Reads: Should the Huskers Be Afraid the Big Plays Will Go Away?

September 20, 2019

“I think we might be looking into stuff a little too much if we’re worried about having big plays," Scott Frost said at Monday's press conference. "We want those to happen.”

I would probably say the same if I were a coach. At least publicly. It's a little like asking a basketball coach how he feels about his team shooting 45% from 3 so far. Well, shooting 45% from 3 is great. Win a bunch of games that way.

But privately I wouldn't be planning on my team continuing to shoot 45% from 3. You can strive for that, build the offense in hopes of doing that, but it can be hard to sustain. Your NCAA Tournament bracket has probably been foiled by a hot-shooting team that suddenly went cold. Big plays are like that in football––everyone wants them, everyone knows they're game-changers, but they're hard to engineer. And if you have those big plays for a stretch there's always the view that some day you won't.

I don't know, however, that Nebraska is facing a big big-play-sustainability issue after three games. You know which team is? Oklahoma. The Sooners are hitting an explosive play (runs of 10+ yards, passes of 15+) on 31.96% of all offensive plays. The Sooners might (probably will) lead the country in explosive-plays percentage this season, but it won't be at nearly 32%. That's double the national average (15.5%). Oklahoma led the nation last year, but "only" at 25%. Barring something we've never seen before in college football, this is a small-sample-size/strength-of-schedule number right now. It will come down a little bit and will still be plenty good enough for that Sooner offense to keep on rolling.

And good for Oklahoma for managing it. Even over three games, that's an impressive number.

Nebraska's explosive-plays percentage isn't like that. The Huskers are at 16.75% right now, 44th nationally and a little off of last year's pace of 17.4%. But at this same point a year ago the Huskers were at 12.6%. Nebraska got better in Big Ten play (18.6%) to land at 17.4%. That's impressive, too, given the defensive strength of this conference.

It doesn't mean it will happen again, but it could and there's one key reason why––Nebraska is more efficient, based on success rate, than it was through three games a year ago, 45.8% to 40.8% in 2018. That's a number that's more likely to be sustainable and it's not unrelated to explosive plays.

If you haven't read this story from Bill Connelly about the interplay between efficiency and explosiveness before, you should. I consider it one of the foundational texts on modern football. What Connelly's analysis found was that teams that were among the most efficient over the first half of conference play regressed to the mean a little, but tended to remain efficient over the second half. (You use conference play here to eliminate the vastly varying strength of schedule present in nonconference play.) Teams that were explosive over the first half, however, regressed to the mean more dramatically and weren't necessarily explosive over the second half.

To put it more directly:

Efficiency is everything in college football. Explosiveness is too random to rely on without efficiency.

Now, back to Nebraska. The Huskers have had 14 drives that included at least one gain of 20-plus yards. I've upped the threshold here to 20 yards, which I don't do anymore, because that's what I used in 2017 when I did this analysis of drive outcomes with big plays. I found then that drives with a gain of 20-plus yards resulted in a score 74.1% of the time across college football. Nebraska was a little better than that over that stretch, scoring on 77.7% of drives with at least one 20-plus-yard gain. This is what chunk plays do––dramatically increase the likelihood of scoring.

So far in 2019 the Huskers have scored on 85.7% of their drives with a play of 20-plus yards. That's a little higher than you'd expect, but, like Frost said, it's far from a bad thing. Will that rate come down? Possibly. Big plays can be volatile.

But it's less likely that Nebraska's efficiency falls off a cliff in Big Ten play. And if that stays above the national average, the Huskers should continue to swing away. You can't count on throwing a swing pass to Maurice Washington that turns into a 75-yard touchdown all the time. When an offense is efficient and exerting pressure in other ways, however, the big plays often follow.

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