Northwestern included an interesting note under the “Storylines” section on this very brief post setting the table for Saturday’s matchup with Nebraska: “All of the Wildcats’ touchdowns (3) against Iowa were scored on third down. Northwestern is 18-35 (51.4%) on third down and a perfect 5-5 on fourth down through two games this season.”
Forget that second sentence for a second—though it’s certainly of note for the game—and focus on the first. “Is that a good thing?” I said to myself after reading it.
I mean, of course, scoring touchdowns is better than not scoring touchdowns. Who cares what down it is?
But if your interest here as a football team, after having scored touchdowns that you can tout in game notes, is to continue scoring touchdowns in the games ahead, doing all this work on third down seems risky.
Offenses are converting 41% of third downs this year in college football. Theoretically, based on that broadest of views, the odds of an average offense converting three third downs on three attempts are less than 7%. Even if you use Northwestern’s current conversion rate of 51.4%, 12th-best nationally, you can double the chances of success but still be sitting at less than 14%.
These weren’t ordinary third downs, however. All three of the Wildcats’ third-down touchdowns came on third-and-goal plays from the 3-, 1- and 2-yard lines. That’s a little bit less impressive, retrospectively, and a little bit less alarming for Northwestern’s offense, predictively. The average team in 2020 is converting a third down of 3 yards or fewer 61.7% of the time. Still, an average defense facing an average offense should get at least one stop in that series of three plays more than 75% of the time.
Iowa got zero. Northwestern got 21 points—expected value of those three plays: 13.3 points—and a one-point win.
There’s no question that the Wildcats’ offense, under new offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian, is improved over last year’s totally toothless group, but the question for Nebraska on Saturday might be “how much better?”
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While that “all touchdowns on third down” note may have been more likely than it first appeared, it did, through some additional research, point me to what should be a key factor this weekend in Evanston. Northwestern has scored 64 points through two games this season, 56% of the total points it scored against Big Ten opponents all of last year, but the Wildcats are generating most of their value on third downs.
That’s probably not an offensive rhythm that’s viable in the long run. It’s definitely a trait Nebraska has to exploit on Saturday.
Most third downs are do-or-die scenarios; the drive either continues or it ends. For that reason, you will always see the highest Predicted Points Added values on third down. That’s natural, but Northwestern is slightly behind the national average on first and second down, but vaults way ahead (sixth nationally) on third down.
You can credit quarterback Peyton Ramsey, a graduate transfer from Indiana who led the Hoosiers to a win against Nebraska in Lincoln last season, with some of that. He’s completing 70.8% of his passes this season, but 75% on third down with a 56.3% conversion rate.
The sample sizes are small with all of these numbers, and even smaller for Nebraska with just one game in the books, but with what Northwestern has shown so far this season the Blackshirts will almost certainly have to take advantage of the advantageous situations it has on Saturday.
That was a struggle for the Huskers in the opener.
“At times I thought the defense played well and battled but we’ve got to get more stops than that,” Scott Frost said after the 52-17 loss to the Buckeyes.
Nebraska had its chances early in that game. Ohio State got 11 yards on a third-and-16 then converted the fourth-and-5 on its opening touchdown drive, punching it in on a third-and-4 from the Huskers’ 9. A third-and-7 conversion led to a touchdown just before the half to make it 24-14. Nebraska had a shot to get a vital three-and-out to start the second half, but the Buckeyes picked up 16 yards on third-and-5. That drive also ended in a touchdown and the game was effectively over at that point.
As the chart above shows, Nebraska wasn’t great defensively on first down against the Buckeyes either, though that one is a little easier to chalk up to the general talent advantage Ohio State has over every team in the conference. If the Huskers aren’t better than that this week, it will be game over, but Nebraska should be better against the Wildcats. Northwestern’s offense isn’t Ohio State’s offense. Not many are at this point.
That should leave the Huskers’ defense with plenty of make-or-break situations downs this week. What happens from there is up to the Blackshirts.
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.