The Difference Between 5-7 & 9-4 Part 1 - The Offense
While it's never exciting to come to the end of another college football season, I will admit to looking forward a bit to this period between the end of this season and the start of spring practice as it provides valuable time to try and put the 2008 season in context.
We all have our own ideas, culled from hours of watching, listening and reading throughout the fall, regarding what made the 08 Pelini Huskers different from Callahan's 07 squad, but what does the data show? Where were the Huskers better, where were they worse and how, ultimately, did that translate to the won-loss columns?
We'll split this into a series of three posts highlighting the offense, defense and special teams. First up, "The Spread Coast Offense."
Remember towards the end of the 2007 season when Bill Callahan was citing his offense's numbers in hopes of salvaging his job but most couldn't or wouldn't see his point through the smoke rising from the burning heap that was the 07 Blackshirts? Turns out there may have been more merit to those statements then we wanted to admit at the time. As the build-up to the Gator Bowl proved, where Nebraska happily played the role of offensive juggernaut to Clemson's defensive stalwart, winning cures everything. Nebraska had a good offense last year, arguably better, but it was tough to see the forest (Nebraska's points scored) for the trees (Nebraska's points allowed).
Exhibit A: Below are offensive statistics for the past two seasons. For the raw totals keep in mind the extra game in 2008:
At face value, we're not looking at much separation from Callahan to Watson. This year's Huskers averaged two points more per game but two fewer first downs which almost perfectly equals the 17.5 yards total offense per game difference between 2007 and 2008. Both squads turned the ball over 28 times and the overall yards per play were nearly identical at 6.4 YPP against 6.3 YPP. So far, so same.
But perhaps the biggest area of intrigue following the Pelini hire and the retention of Shawn Watson was what would the run/pass split look like in the new system? Pelini and Watson both came in touting a new emphasis on the running game and the 2008 Huskers did average 25.6 more rushing yards per game on 70 more total attempts which, when using a by game average, amounts to less than three more rushing attempts per game. Again using the per game averages, Nebraska ran about seven more passing plays per game in 2007 than in 2008 but the average yards per pass attempt was also almost identical, 8.4 this year to 8.1 last year. Factor in that Nebraska trailed in games, and was thereby forced to pass, much more in 2007 than 2008--58% of NU's plays last year were run while trailing compared to 43% this year--and that nationally teams were averaging about nine fewer plays per game this year to last and I'm willing to call the slight differences in the run/pass split a wash as well.
So, from an offensive perspective, what truly was the difference between 5-7 and 9-4? In my mind it comes down to three key areas:
1) Time of Possession - At this point you've probably heard all you care to hear about what became Nebraska's calling card this season but it was a difference maker, maybe as much defensively as offensively. If the past two editions of the Nebraska offense were almost equally efficient at least you saw a good deal more of this year's squad. Almost five minutes more. On average, Nebraska lost about one set of downs per game with the new clock rules yet the 2008 Huskers were able to hold on to the ball longer thereby maximizing the opponents exposure to their biggest asset and minimizing the opponent's exposure to Nebraska's biggest weakness. It's not rocket science but it was effective.
2) 3rd Downs & Joe Ganz - Prior to the Gator Bowl I touted Nebraska's efficiency on 3rd down as a primary advantage they held over the Tigers. In that game, Nebraska was below their season average, converting 7 of 19 attempts but that still doubled up Clemson who went 3 of 16 on third down including nine straight failures to convert.
Here's where it gets interesting. Last year Nebraska wasn't significantly worse on 3rd down than they were this year, 42.69% against 47.49%, but they were in much better positions to convert overall. In 2007 Nebraska faced 171 third downs on the season. On 56 of those third downs Callahan's Huskers faced three yards or fewer to convert or 32.7% of their attempts. In 2008 only 28% of Nebraska's third down snaps--51 out of 179--were of the "and short" variety. Furthermore, the 2008 Huskers saw 89 third down attempts of 7-yards or more (49.7%) while the 2007 Huskers only had 68 out of 171 (39.7%) third down snaps in the "and long" range. Yet, despite the fact that the Huskers were generally "on schedule" more in 2007, the 2008 team converted at a nearly 5% better clip.
Why? Tough to say for certain but you can probably give a lot of credit to Joe Ganz and a) his mobility which enabled him to make more plays after his initial reads broke down and b) his familiarity and comfort with the offense. Remember instant check-down Keller? Marlon Lucky's 75 receptions last year sure do.
3) Explosive Running Plays - As noted above Nebraska's rushing totals this year to last weren't eye-poppingly different. Per play the Huskers averaged less than four-tenths of a yard more in 2008 than they did in 2007, hardly a major improvement, but there was one aspect of the running game that was slightly but significantly better.
In 2007 Nebraska had 63 rushing plays go for 10 yards or more. In 2008 Nebraska ran 70 more running plays but saw 25 more ground gains of 10 or more yards. At first that might not seem like a huge difference but think back to the Gator Bowl for a good idea of their importance.
For the game, Quentin Castille rushed for 125 yards on 18 carries (6.9 YPC). Two of those runs, a 58- and a 41-yarder, netted him 99 of his total yards and resulted in ten Nebraska points. Take away those two carries and Castille looked like every other Husker ball-carrier--ineffective at 1.6 YPC. Running plays aren't designed or generally expected to be big plays the way certain pass attempts are but if you can get that out of your backfield it takes a lot of pressure of your quarterback, receivers and offensive coordinator. For all that Marlon Lucky was he wasn't much of a big play guy on the ground. Helu and Castille (even the speedy Mendoza in limited spots), at least comparatively, have shown flashes that they could be and the good news for Nebraska is that 57 out of those 88 big gains on the ground came from .guys who will be back in 2009.
Say what you will about Bill Callahan--and we all have said plenty--but the West Coast Offense works. Watson was able to build off the foundation Callahan had left, added some of his own wrinkles and ultimately achieved at much the same rate. While not the perennial Top 5 rushing numbers we all remember from the glory days, Nebraska has been a Top 15 offense overall the past two years.
Last year that wasn't nearly enough to hide the miserable defense. This year it bought a developing defense a lot of time by being more efficient and a touch more explosive overall. Will the offense be able to continue clipping along with its third new starting QB in three years?
That's a question for next year. Next week we'll look at the defense.