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:

NU Offense 08-07.jpg

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.

Read the rest of this series:
Part 1: Offense
Part 2: Defense
Part 3:: Special Teams

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Comments 13 comments so far

Fantastic analysis, Brandon. I appreciate the way you sifted through the piles of stats and pulled out what was significant.

The idea of “explosive plays” in the run game is something that is easy to overlook. It is a real difference maker as the Gator Bowl illustrated.

It is also something that NU fans can especially appreciate. The vaunted 1995 team scored in bunches, primarily on the ground.

Can’t wait for part 2!

Spot on analysis.

The hating on Calli/his offense was pretty much a direct result of losses.  When you lose, it doesn’t matter what a coach says, even if it the exact same stuff the next coach says.

It was all about the lack of defense last year anyway.  The coaches in general seemed better at making adjustments sooner and the team just seems more fundamentally sound.

“....The coaches in general seemed better at making adjustments sooner and the team just seems more fundamentally sound.”

This year’s coaches I mean…

Reinforces what I have lamented all along.  I’m glad someone is giving BC his due.  He ran an effective offense, and recruited good talent.  BC didn’t leave Bo in the same position he inherited from Frank.  In retrospect, and even had he canned Coz for an effective DC, BC didn’t fit the culture of college football at NU.  The dark days are behind us, and I for one will only look towards the future.  GBR!

Great Post! (We are getting spoiled by staff at BRN)

The 3rd down conversion numbers jumped off of my screen. They “why” and the “how” questions may be debated but the “what” is clear. Keeping our offense on the field avoided the “snowball” scenarios from recurring.

GBR

Bob

I never had a problem with Cali’s offense and it’s effectiveness.  However, Watson’s twist to our offense, incorporating elements from the spread is a scary improvement.  I mean, I know Ohio didn’t beat Texas yesterday, but they came close.  T. Prior gave Texas a lot of problems.  I can only hope Cody Green can do the same in the near future.

 

Brandon,

What is the predominant factor for the Husker offense having so many “3rd down and long” situations?  I am assuming a lack of a power running game. What is the Husker offense run/pass ratio for 3rd and short? If the ratio is low would this indicate a real lack of a power running game?

Thanks for your insight. 

Dywane,

Without really digging deep it’s tough to say why NU found themselves in more 3rd and longs this season. In terms of the running game the 08 Huskers averaged 5.18 YPC on 1st down against 4.29 LY. They were better this year running the ball on second down as well, 4.62 to 4.16 YPC.

When NU passed on 1st down they were better this year as well, 9.5 YPA against 7.7 LY. On 2nd down passes the 07 Huskers were about a yard better on average. So without any glaring difference between 1st/2nd down yardage either way that, in my opinion, points to penalties. NU had 17 more penalties for 211 more yards this season to last. I wouldn’t claim that was THE reason without looking at the numbers a little more but it at least seems like a contributing factor.

(cont.)

(cont. from above)

As for the 3rd and short breakdown, in 2008 NU ran the ball 33 times on 3&S and passed 18 times so it was about 65/35 run to pass.

Last year we had 30 runs on 3&S to 26 passes or about 55/45.

It may not have seemed like NU was able to exert their will on the ground (it didn’t to me) as much as many of us would’ve liked to see but it was their preferred method of pick-up this year judging by attempts alone.

A quick look back at the last three years 3&S data shows that Callahan’s teams were more efficient through the air than on the ground, but you probably could’ve surmised as much.

Don’t know if I answered your questions or not but once you get started digging it’s hard to stop.

Brandon,

Thank you for the above analysis.

If I recall correctly, DXP had done an analysis on the 07 Husker offense 3rd and short success rate.  I believe the conversion rate was very low when the Huskers attempted to run for the first down and significanly high when the Huskers attempted to pass for the first down.  Probably not much of a surpise as the West Coast offense is designed for such short yardage passing gains. 

Thanks Again.

So much information. Fantastic work!

TOP and rushing attempts, stands out the most.

Offensively, we were fine last year, other than the overseeing by BC.  SW and BO know that ball control is more important in college, than the pros. 

Defensive was the biggest factor from last year.  180 degree difference.  BO on defense was worth 3 to 4 wins this year alone.  With the same talent!

Any analysis on the OU/UF game?

Great info!  I love looking at stats and calculating different ways to analyze a team. It just takes a long time! 

Comparing last year’s offense to this year’s, I thought this year’s was much more effective.  I don’t know,  last year it just seemed like our offense stalled a lot.  I never had confidence that they could score when they needed to.  This year, it’s completly different… our offense responded in clutch situations all the time. Only once did it fail against TxTech in OT, but even then I was almost certain we were going to win after Tech missed that XP.  Against Baylor, we were down, but I had confidence we would score… same against Clemson and a close game with San Jose St.  I think that clutch play starts from the attitude the new coaches instilled this year. 

I think your right, 3rd conversions and big plays are two of the most significant areas in explaining the success of the offense this year.

I think the increased use of the spread formation played the biggest role.  Remember Keller and Ganz were basically graded the same last year by coaches (in camp).  The difference being that Keller lined up in WC/ pro forms, while Ganz got to see more spread formations.  I don’t think our offense was that great last year before the KU, KSU, and CU games.  In those games we got more spread and Ganz came in.  Remember early this year when we went back to I-form and tight formations?  Ganz didn’t have big numbers at all. 

I think if you compare the first 9 games of last year and the last 9 of this year it will show the difference between NU using a tightly packed pro/WC formation vs. a spread out formation. 

I am posting this without reading the other comments first.  Please forgive any redundacy.

I just want to say even though the offensive production was on par with Callahan’s, there was much better play calling, better adjustments, and simplification.

Some of the play calling may have been improved with Ganz recognizing defensive formation and making a change at the line.  But I can remember myself wondering about a certain play and it’s effectivness, less. 

Man, the offense was able to adjust a lot more I thought this year.  How many times last year did we hear the words “game plan”?  It seems that Bill would go into a game with a “game plan” and no matter how the game was playing out, he didn’t change from that “game plan”.

I think just simplifying the offense was key this year.  Even Slauson said on the Big Red Wrap Up, that he was taught to focus on getting the job done, and less on which foot to put forward first. 

All this proves to me…the differnce this year, offensively, was not in the stats….but the intagibles.  Better QB, better O-line production, better coaching.  Obviously the non-quantifiable aspects to our offense.  The right call was made to change the head coach. 

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