Another Look at Nebraska’s Third Downs in 2006

To piggy-back on yesterday’s work, I thought I would take another look at Nebraska’s third down conversions last season. In 2006 the Huskers converted 45.2% of their third down chances. This was a vast improvement over 2005 when Nebraska’s third down conversion percentage was just 33%.

Yesterday we compared Nebraska to the rest of the NCAA with regards to 3rd down conversions. Another useful comparison is that of the expected percentages in the NFL. I have posted this before, but this is the expected success ratio that has been identified by Brian Billick in Developing an Offensive Gameplan:

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

Again that just provides us with some more context and is important given Coach Callahan’s coaching background.

Today, I thought we would look more at the third down playcalling of the 2006 Huskers. Let’s start with third and short situations (1-3 yards to go). Last season Nebraska faced this situation around 4.5 times/game. Given that I would expect that Callahan has eight to ten plays in his offensive game plan for this situation.

According to Brian Billick there are two schools of thought regarding third and short situations: get the first down (duh!), or take a shot at a big play. A “big play” in this situation is one with definite touchdown potential or at least a large, meaningful gain. Running a play to get a first down, on the other hand, would look more like Callahan’s three-tight-end, smash-mouth formation or a simple QB sneak. With that said, let’s look at Nebraska’s third and short play-calling breakdown.


Here we see 35 run/29 pass split. This is a pretty even split given the short yardage involved. Most would probably expect a heavier dose of runs. This is also an area in which Callahan seems to really work hard to go against common tendencies. Or he just doesn’t have faith in our running game to pick up the yardage on the ground. What you’ll see, however, is a slightly higher success rate on third and short when we run rather than when we pass. This is unfortunately, pretty good support for all those who bashed Callahan’s decision to pass on 3rd and 1 late in the Texas game.

The second important third down situation is third and medium (4-6 yards to go). This breakdown is covered in the same chart. Third and medium success is important to a coach’s overall game plan. If he feels that his team can convert in this situation, his first and second down calls take on an additional dimension. This may allow more deep throws on first down, or more aggressive “big play” type calls on second and medium when you are confident in your third and medium chances. You’ll notice that Nebraska enjoyed amazing success in 2006 when facing this situation. I would attribute much of this success to the success of Nebraska’s play-action passing game and to the development of the middle screen to Brandon Jackson and Marlon Lucky that was successful several times on third and medium. Another reason Callahan seems to have success in this situation is his use of shifts and motion and running plays that have not been used earlier in the game. Both of these help keep the defense off-balance.

The next area is third down and long which refers to any situation where the team faces 3rd and 7+ yards to go. You can see Nebraska’s 2006 breakdown below:


Obviously you’ll notice we don’t run a lot on third and long for obvious reasons. While it is worth a shot occasionally, it is generally not in the team’s best interest. In the NFL, teams average just 11 runs per year when faced with 3rd and long, and they typically convert just two of these rushing attempts per season.

Yesterday’s graphs indicated that Nebraska converted at a higher percentage than the national average when facing situations between 3rd and 7, and 3rd and 13 yards to go. Much of this again can likely be attributed to Callahan’s scripted plays for facing this type of situation. These plays should be designed to meet at least one of the following three objectives:

1. Given the right rotation by the secondary, presents you with an opportunity for a deep throw down the field for a substantial gain.

2. If given the right one-on-one match up, allows your receiver to run a good route whereby the catch should, at a minimum gain the yards needed for the first down.

3. Provides the quarterback, by way of a dump-off to a primary receiver, with a receiver who has a chance to make an easy catch, allowing him to try to make a move that will enable him to gain the distance needed after the catch.

By scripting plays with these objectives in mind, and having the players in place to make the plays, Callahan has helped the team to improve immensely on third and long. This has also gone a long ways toward improving the team’s overall success on third down. Next up will be spending time working on improving the team’s overall success on third and short. Knowing that, fans should not be surprised that another big back like Quentin Castille was signed this February.

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