Sometimes it's very simple: the best offenses are such because they're really good on the opening play of drives. For the 2018 Hail Varsity Yearbook, I looked at possession-and-10 data to see how good Nebraska was in that area and the returns weren’t great.
Possession-and-10 is like “first-and-10,” just the first play of a new possession for a team instead of the first play of a set of downs. In 2014 (one of the 10 years worth of data Hail Varsity looked at for the Yearbook piece), the Oregon Ducks, with offensive coordinator Scott Frost, averaged 8.4 yards per P&10 play. That was 2 yards above the 10-year average and almost 3 yards better than Nebraska’s three-year average under Mike Riley. That Oregon team played for a national championship and boasted that season’s Heisman Trophy winner with one of the nation’s top offenses.
I set out to find if there was a correlation between scoring touchdowns on a drive because you started strong, or being forced to punt because you got stuffed on your first play. Most of the data agreed with that hypothesis. Between three years of Nebraska data, three years of UCF data (two years of Frost, one before) and three years of Oregon data (Frost’s three as OC), Nebraska was the worst-performing team on opening plays.
So now it’s time to update those numbers with a look at how the 2018 Huskers fared on possession-and-10.
Year 1 under Frost was better than any single season under Riley and also better than the Knights’ Year 1 under Frost.
|P&10 Average||P&10 Success Rate||Run/Pass Split|
|‘18 Nebraska||6.06 yards||48%||55/45|
|‘15-17 Nebraska||5.38 yards||41%||65/35|
|‘15-17 UCF||5.81 yards||44%||62/38|
|‘13-15 Oregon||7.51 yards||52%||66/34|
In 2018, Nebraska wasn’t necessarily better across the board, just a little stronger. On scoring drives, Nebraska averaged 8.2 yards per P&10 play, but on touchdown drives, that number dropped to 6.8 yards. During the three years prior, Nebraska averaged 8.7 yards per P&10 play on touchdown drives and 8.3 on just scoring drives in general.
Maybe that speaks to an offense that could go off at any time regardless of where it was on the field or in relation to the chains. Pretty likely considering the Huskers went from seventh in 2017 to second in the Big Ten in 2018 in explosive plays and boasted one of the more aggressive play-callers in football as their coach. The Huskers didn’t have a single one-play scoring drive (they had four in the three years prior) but the number of one-play turnover drives went down so pick your poison.
|Drive result||2018 Nebraska||2015-17 Nebraska|
|Avg. drive distance (<5 yds on P&10)||26.85 yards||25.14 yards|
|Avg. drive distance (>5 yds on P&10)||43.38 yards||43.75 yards|
|% to reach first down (<5 yds)||55%||53%|
|% to reach first down (>5 yds)||92%||87%|
|% to score (<5 yds)||30%||30%|
|% to score (>5 yds)||45%||49%|
|% to punt (<5 yds)||39%||47%|
|% to punt (>5 yds)||32%||30%|
Nebraska was a little more boom or bust in 2018 than in previous years, which is in line with the way UCF played under Frost. The Huskers, if on schedule after the first play, where almost automatic from there on out in terms of flipping field position, but their scoring percentages dropped noticeably.
The strangest number of the set was Nebraska’s touchdown percentage when P&10 gained at least 10 yards. From 2015-17, if the Huskers gained a first down on P&10, that drive resulted in a touchdown nearly 47 percent of the time. UCF’s number was 40 percent, Oregon’s was 57.
The 2018 Huskers only got touchdowns on 30 percent of drives that opened with a 10-yard pickup.
As the season wore on, there became more of an emphasis on finishing drives. It’s why Nebraska twice had almost 600 yards of offense and only 28 points to show against Colorado and Purdue. The Huskers were among some of the poorer teams in college football in terms of points per trip inside an opponent’s 40-yard-line, so the “bad finishers” thing makes sense in that regard.
But just like with every other aspect of Husker football last year, the last half of the season was better than the first half.
Through the first six games, the Huskers had 16 drives that began with a 10-yard pick-up. Only four of those drives ended with seven points. Seven ended with punts, three with turnovers and two with field goals. Over the back half of the season, Nebraska had 18 such drives with seven ending in touchdowns and three more with field goals. Drives also gained about 6 more yards on average.
Not huge differences, but different enough to be notable.
Also, where there was a slight correlation between drives that ended in a turnover and drives that began with less P&10 yardage (a weak one, but still) for the previous teams in the data set, the 2018 Huskers didn’t care if they gained 10 yards on the opening play or zero. The highest percentage of drives ending in turnovers came when the team gained at least 10 (another reason for the lower touchdown percentage).
So, while things looked better generally than UCF’s first year under Frost, there’s still room for improvement. And Nebraska is still a far cry from the upper-level Oregon offenses Frost managed.
When Oregon started a drive with fewer than 2 yards gained on its opening play, it still scored points at a 38-percent rate. When it got 5 or more yards, it produced at least a field goal 62 percent of the time and put six on the scoreboard exactly 50 percent of the time. And it wasn’t like defenses didn’t know what was coming, Oregon’s run/pass splits on opening plays were never less than 63/37 run. (For his play-calling career, Frost runs it on P&10 65 percent of the time.)
Maybe continuity, chemistry and another year of familiarity has the Huskers closer. The last six games of 2018 indicated Nebraska is heading that direction but this offense is probably still a good deal away from reaching its full potential.
The Ducks had at least four consecutive scoring trips 19 times over Frost’s three-year tenure as the OC. Nebraska did that four times in the three years prior to Frost while Frost did it six times in 2017 alone with UCF. The Huskers had none of those stretches last year.
Consistency this offseason will be the name of the game in 2019.
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.