Keys to Victory – First Down Efficiency

This piece will continue our analysis of the factors that may ultimately decide the outcome of this week’s game versus USC. Today we will spotlight the concept of first down efficiency. While third down conversion percentage gets all of the publicity, this is likely a more important factor. One reason for this is that first down calls will typically constitute 40-45% of a team’s total calls in a year. In addition, only about 25-35% of a team’s first downs are generated on third down. The remaining 65-75% are generated on first and second down.

The concept of first down efficiency refers to the percentage of plays run on first down that result in gains of 4 yards or more. A team’s first down efficiency has a direct effect on their ability to stay on schedule with their play calling. Ideally teams are looking to maintain a 3rd and medium-to-short ratio as much as possible.

Thus far in 2006, Nebraska has had incredible success on first down. Typically, 1st down efficiency for a team will run between 40-50%. Against Louisiana Tech Nebraska ran 38 first down plays. Of those, 27 gained four yards or more. That works out to a first down efficiency of 71% in the season opener. Last week versus Nicholls State, the Huskers ran 34 first down plays. Of those, 22 gained four yards or more for a first down efficiency of 64.7%. Overall, the 2006 Huskers have an impressive first down efficiency percentage of 68%.

Another key to first down efficiency is maintaining an equal balance on first down between running and passing. This is important, as first down is one of the few situations in which the defense has to guess somewhat regarding what your run/pass ratio might be. Against Louisiana Tech the Huskers ran the ball 22 times and passed the ball 16 times on first down. This represents a 58/42 run/pass percentage split. In the Nicholls State game Nebraska ran the ball 19 times and passed the ball 15 times on first down plays. This represents a 55/45 run/pass percentage split. So far Nebraska has been close to the desired 50/50 split and the playcalling is representative of Callahan’s efforts at establishing the run early in the 2006 season.

A quarterback’s completion percentage on first down is also important to attend to. Ideally you would like your QB to complete a high percentage of passes, perhaps better than 60% on first down. The reason for this is that incompletions on first down put your team far behind on their down and distance schedule. So far, Zac Taylor and Joe Ganz have been amazing on first down. Against La Tech they completed 14 of 16 passes (88%) on first down. Additionally, the Nicholls State game saw the two QBs connect on 12 of 15 first down passes (80%). These completions allow the offense to stay on schedule and also loosen up the defense on later downs.

All of this first down success has important consequences come third down. The average third down conversion percentage in college football is around 40%. Keep in mind though that the percentage of success on third down situations increases substantially as the distance decreases. Usually you can count on the following success ratio:

3rd and Long (7+ yards) 20-25%
3rd and Medium (4-6 yards) 45-50%
3rd and Short (1-3 yards) 75-85%

Thus far Nebraska’s success on first down has allowed us to convert 18/28 or 64% of our third down opportunities in 2006. This represents a vast improvement over 2005 in which we converted just 33% of our third down opportunities. Continuing this type of success against USC and beyond could lead to an extremely successful 2006 campaign for the Huskers. Unfortunately the road gets tougher come Saturday night. In 2005 USC held teams to a third conversion percentage of just 36.5%. In addition, in their season opener, Arkansas converted only 2/10 third down opportunities against the Trojans’ defense.

So if you’re looking at where the USC game will be won or lost, pay close attention to first down. This down will dictate how well we can control the ball and maintain the integrity of our game plan. Our ability to move the chains will be dependent upon how well we move the ball come first down.

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