Hot Reads: The Big Ten's First-Down Battle
Photo Credit: Aaron Babcock

Hot Reads: The Big Ten’s First-Down Battle

January 26, 2018

No wonder Nebraska struggled so much on defense in 2017. Might seem like a silly time to say that given the time that has passed and all of the evidence to consider, but it finally clicked into place for me on Thursday. The Blackshirts approached, met or obliterated some all-time lows because they couldn’t keep teams off schedule on first down.

Well, it wasn’t just that of course, but if you had to boil down last year’s defensive struggles to one number, I’d choose this one.

According to, Nebraska ranked dead last in percentage of first down plays (59.5%) that gained at least 4 yards. Seem a little esoteric or oddly specific? That’s not a random threshold.

The success rate measure in football turns every play into a pass (success)/fail proposition based on down and distance. Within that there are “standard” and “passing” downs, which are also based on down and distance, the idea being that standard downs are better for an offense (national average: 46.5% success in 2017), passing downs better for a defense (30.7% success last season). Every first down, no matter the distance, is a standard down. With the standard first-and-10, an offense needs, drumroll please, 4 yards to have a standard down on second down. All you really need to know about success rate is that it’s basically a measure of how often a team is or isn’t “on schedule.”

And Nebraska’s defense was the worst in the country at keeping teams off schedule on second down. It’s a fatal flaw. While the Huskers did keep the big plays down – a key to Bob Diaco’s entire approach – it didn’t “keep the points down” because there weren’t putting much strain on the offense overall.

Football is a complicated game statistically. There’s no one number that can tell you how a team is doing, but you could have done a pretty good job of determining the strength of each Big Ten team by just looking at this first-down percentage offensively and defensively.

While the Huskers were terrible in this category on defense, they were also below-average offensively. Nebraska gained 4-plus yards on first down 46.6 percent of the time, 84th nationally and ninth in the Big Ten. Together, that’s not a good combo. Here’s how each Big Ten team ranked in the conference in both categories.

Ohio State 1 1 1
Wisconsin 2 3 2
Penn State 3 4 3
Purdue 5 4 4
Northwestern 4 7 5
Michigan 13 2 6
Michigan State 11 5 7
Iowa 8 10 T8
Indiana 10 8 T8
Rutgers 6 12 T8
Illinois 7 13 11
Maryland 12 9 12
Nebraska 9 14 13
Minnesota 14 11 14

While there’s not a one-to-one correlation here between whatever power rankings you prefer and combined first down efficiency, the top three look about like you’d think based on the actual standings. If there’s a surprise in the top half, it’s Purdue. Or maybe it’s not. You have to explain how the Boilermakers went from perhaps the worst Power 5 team over the previous three or four seasons to a legitimately solid team in one year. Being on schedule offensively and keeping opponents off schedule defensively goes a long way. It also helps explain why Rutgers, after a debacle in 2016, didn’t look totally terrible all the time in 2017. The Scarlet Knights did beat Purdue. That’s a good win.

Back to Nebraska, there are a lot of things the Huskers struggled to do last season. They all contributed to the 4-8 season, but if I had to weight all of those factors the lack of first-down efficiency would be pretty heavy. It’s the most common down in football by definition, so failing there is something of a foundational failure. It’s tough to build anything when staying on schedule is one of the building blocks for first downs, first downs are the building blocks for drives, drives are the building blocks for points and points, of course, are how we settle things in this sport.

And just in case you’re wondering, UCF’s offense gained 4-plus yards on first down 53.8 percent of the time, 13th nationally. And that defense that gave some people pause with some big point totals allowed? It only 4-plus yards 44 percent of the time, 29th nationally. As we saw in 2017, that’s something you can build upon.

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