On a Lost Spring Game
Photo Credit: Ryan Loco

The Opening Acts: The Dozen or So Plays Deciding Football Games

August 26, 2018

With a week to go before Husker football begins again, Hail Varsity is sharing stories that originally appeared in our 2018 Football Yearbook. If you enjoy this story and want to read more like it, subscribe to the magazine today.

The end-game seems simple, if not slightly common-sense, but the question is one worth asking. Is there a connection between drive success — and, by extension, game-to-game success — and success on a drive’s first play? Coaches speak in clichés the way writers use metaphors; it’s a bad habit. One cliché that will never die as long as there is football to be played is the line, “We have to start strong.” Well, that doesn’t just mean intensity, preparedness and what have you, it also applies to drives.

Every single one of them.

Coaches refer to this as the “P&10” stat, short for possession-and-10, code for the opening act. In 2014 (one of the 10 years worth of data Hail Varsity looked at for this story), the Oregon Ducks, led by head coach Mark Helfrich and offensive coordinator Scott Frost, averaged 8.4 yards per P&10 play. That was 2 yards above the 10-year average. That team played for a national championship and boasted that season’s Heisman Trophy winner and one of the nation’s top offenses. Did the chicken come before the egg or. . .?

Punch a defense in the mouth the second the bell sounds and you pretty much control things from then on out. Oregon proved that much. But what does the rest of the data say? What if your initial play gains fewer than 2 yards, what are the odds of scoring points on that possession? Do run-pass splits on the opening plays of drives have any impact on overall offensive success? Is there actually a way to predict one of the game’s truly random variables, the turnover?

Let’s look at the last three years of Nebraska numbers; the last three years of Central Florida, two under Frost and one B.F.; and three years of Oregon under Frost, the offensive coordinator. In that group, there’s a national runner-up, a perfect season, a bag-over-the-head kind of season and a couple of average teams. Makes for a pretty good range.

Nebraska (2015-17)

The Sept. 16, 2017, game against Northern Illinois will probably live on for a bit as a black mark on the Huskers’ ledger. Your athletic director getting fired following a 21-17 loss in a pay-for-play game will do that. That game was shocking for a handful of reasons — the 40-point offense of the first two weeks collapsing, the run game disappearing (2.4 yards per carry), the defense not being able to hold in the fourth quarter once the Huskers had finally wrestled the lead back — but the inconsistency stood out most.

“We could do nothing repeatedly,” Coach Mike Riley said afterward. “It didn’t feel like we could do anything that was consistent for us in the game that we could do again and again and make a go.”

To be fair, there was one constant from the day: possession-and-10. Nebraska was awful in that category on offense and even worse on defense. It opened its 14 drives that day with an average of 3.86 yards per play. Northern Illinois was at 11.64. That’s pretty much the story of the spreadsheet for most of Riley’s tenure in Lincoln.

John S. Peterson

The Huskers were a yard below the 10-year average on first plays and below their overall yards-per-play average each year over the three-year period. Running on 64.6 percent of those plays (surprising?), Big Red was at or below 2 yards a play 44.8 percent of the time. In other words, while playing to what should have been the strength of the team, Nebraska failed on its opening play almost half the time. Former offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf diagnosed the issue, but could never resolve it.

“It takes the pressure off of having to make a lot of completions on second-and-10, third-and-10,” he said about running successfully on first down, but it directly applies here as well. “That kind of production is when we’ve been able to sustain drives and continue to grind out some yards. When we get 1-yard gains, 0 yards, we just put ourselves in such big holes and bad spots.”

The numbers back up what he’s saying. Plays that gained 2 or fewer yards resulted in drives that gained the fewest yards on average, gained at least one first down the lowest percentage of the time (62 percent), ended in points only 38 percent of the time (also the lowest) and ended in punts 43 percent of the time (the highest mark). Early success very much equates to late success.

“If you can get some of those wins on the early downs, you don’t allow them to go third-and-10 and pin their ears back and rush the quarterback,” Langsdorf said. “I think that’s a really important part of the game, is being able to put together some drives that both chip away at them, and then we’ve got to be able to hit some plays.”

Statistically speaking, initial plays that gained at least 5 yards — a successful first-down play — averaged just a shade over 40 yards per possession and resulted in touchdowns 39 percent of the time. The Huskers’ touchdown rate on total drives hasn’t been above 30 percent overall since 2014 but it should be significantly higher when you start a drive with a bang. Average is in the 40s. That’s the issue. In total, Nebraska scored touchdowns on 27 percent of its drives (yikes). Central Florida under Frost scored at a 36-percent clip and Oregon at 42 percent. On successful opening plays the Knights’ number bumped up to 41 percent and Oregon moved up to 50 percent.

Success didn’t come often on P&10 — 59 percent of the time the Huskers gained fewer than 5 yards — and when it did, there wasn’t enough capitalizing to keep pace with what the opponent was doing. One-quarter of possessions that began with a 10-yard-or-longer play ended in a punt. Twenty-five percent.

So, the Huskers were mostly predictable on opening plays and very stoppable. Sports Source Analytics, the “official analytics platform of the CFB Playoff,” had a tweet in July 2015 that read: “Becoming more and more convinced that your offense is only as good as it is on P&10. Best offenses are great P&10 offenses.” Of the three teams that were looked at, Nebraska had the worst yards-per-play average, the least-productive offense on average and the lowest win percentage. Seems about right.

Another thing it had was a statistical quirk that showed up in the other two data sets but not to the extreme it did for the Huskers. Of all the drives that ended in points, there was an 8.31 yards-per-play average to open them, well above the 5.38 yards they averaged overall on P&10. That number dropped to 4.07 on drives that ended in turnovers. For each of the three teams looked at, drives that ended in turnovers had a lower yards-per-play average than the overall.

There are outliers, sure, but the difference in averages is interesting if you break it down. From a defensive perspective, if the offense “loses” its first play — or, at the very least, is behind where it normally tracks — coordinators could dial things up more aggressively or players could get a little more confidence flowing. On the other side, maybe guys start to press a little more. Quarterbacks might deem extra yardage in exchange for a riskier throw a more necessary gamble. Backs might want to fight for another blade of grass instead of going down.

No matter how you slice it, Nebraska was below average on opening plays. So it should come as no surprise to hear the Huskers were a below-average offense over the same three-year time period and in the market for a new coach following it. Enter Frost.

Central Florida (2015-17)

Derik Hamilton – USA TODAY Sports

With Riley at the helm, Nebraska had four opening-play touchdowns. One was a 1-yard run, another was a 4-yard run. In two seasons under Frost, Central Florida had eight such touchdowns. Only one of them gained fewer than 15 yards. Frost brought speed with him to Central Florida, but speed breeds explosiveness. The Knights had plenty of that once the young gun took over.

It’s probably a good idea to break the three years of Knights’ data into two groups: before and after Frost’s arrival. Yes, the numbers were bad before Frost, and yes, the numbers improved after Frost got to town, but it’s more about how fast things changed.

In 2015, the Knights popped off for 5 yards or more on roughly 40 percent of opening plays. On those drives, they capped things off with at least three points 32 percent of the time and punted the ball away at a 34-percent clip. For a team that struggled to score as much as any in the FBS (13.9 points a game), that might be as damning a stat as there is. Once Frost got to town, the success rate on P&10 bumped up to 45 percent and the scoring rate skyrocketed up to 48 percent.

The per-play average went from 5.62 yards in 2015 to 4.59 in 2016 (the lowest mark of the 10-year data set) and then all the way up to 7.37 in 2017 (the third-best mark). The overall per-play average for the Knights improved on each season once Frost took over so the dip from 2015 to 2016 can probably be looked at a few ways. Perhaps the team was just adjusting to life in a new, faster-paced system and needed to work the kinks out (likely; the play-selection was also much closer to even before Frost and about a 62/38 split favoring the run with Frost).

Regardless, the ascension to elite levels in terms of P&10 output probably has as much to do with the offensive explosion as anything else. Second-and-3 is a nightmare to defend and heaven for an offensive coordinator. Take a deep shot? Sure, you can miss and still have third-and-short. And the teams that were really good on possession-and-10 were just as good on the second play, UCF included.

Husker fans hoping for glimpses into the immediate future of the program under Frost can find some insight here. Frost did nothing to shy away from the two-year rebuild expectation during his first spring in Lincoln, and if the next two follow the same pattern of his first two in Orlando, the years after might look like those in Eugene.

Oregon (2013-15)

Aaron Babcock

Frost spent four years at Oregon as an assistant coach before earning a promotion to offensive coordinator. During those four years, 2009 to 2012, the Ducks averaged 11.5 wins a season powered by the offense that would directly mold future attacks in Florida and Nebraska. It was a machine before Chip Kelly left for the NFL, but even after he departed and Frost slid up a coaching position, the offense still hummed along.

Oregon’s three-year average with Frost calling the plays (7.5 yards per P&10 play) was better than any one season for Central Florida or Nebraska since 2014. Scoring drives averaged 10 yards a play out of the gates. Even non-scoring drives still averaged 5 yards a pop.

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.)

Defenses couldn’t stop Oregon with any kind of consistency because they couldn’t keep the Ducks off-schedule. If Oregon had a successful opening play, it gained at least one first down 94 percent of the time. And if things got rolling, the Ducks morphed into the tempo equivalent of what Tom Osborne-led Nebraska teams did to opponents. Where the Huskers used to grind teams down over quarters, Oregon did it in drives that hit first and then never let up. The Ducks strung together at least four consecutive scoring trips 19 times over Frost’s three-year tenure as the OC. Nebraska has done that four times in the last three years. Frost did it six times in 2017 alone with the Knights.

Even when Oregon went to the air on opening plays and defenses were able to force an incomplete pass, the Ducks still covered 34 yards on average and scored touchdowns 33 percent of the time. With field goals added into the equation, the number climbs to 50 percent, which is just not fair. Essentially throwing away the opening play of a drive should free up the defense to dictate things more and yet there were the Ducks, pounding away like nothing happened. That’s probably where having a Heisman-caliber quarterback helps things along.

Incidentally, when Marcus Mariota graduated after the 2014 campaign and the keys were handed over to Vernon Adams Jr., things still ran smoothly (for the most part). Oregon hit for 7 yards on opening plays, ran it 69 percent of the time and had a success rate of 50 percent. The Ducks were still a top-five offense.

Essentially this boils down to what Sports Source Analytics tweeted almost three years ago: if you want to be really good, you need to be really good on P&10. The five best P&10 season averages were also the five best season-win totals, in order: ’14 Oregon (8.4 ypp, 13 wins), ’17 UCF (7.4 ypp, 13 wins), ’13 Oregon (7.3 ypp, 11 wins), ’15 Oregon  (6.9 ypp, 9 wins) and ’16 Nebraska (5.6 ypp, 9 wins).

That’s no coincidence. If the same trends follow Frost to Memorial Stadium, it might not be a good idea to look away from the field after possession changes, lest you miss the fireworks.

  • Never miss the latest news from Hail Varsity!

    Join our free email list by signing up below.