First Look: Nebraska on 3rd Down in 2007

This little breakdown will have to suffice until Brian at MGoBlog breaks out his yearly examination of third down for every team in the country. The data for this effort, by the way, comes to me via “The Boy” a contributor at Missouri Blog Rock M Nation and an even bigger stat geek than myself (I mean that as the sincerest of compliments). “The Boy” was kind enough to send me the play-by-play data for every Nebraska game for 2007, which saves me the anguish of charting that disastrous season while still allowing me to compare his data to that which I gathered in 2006.

Anyway, the origins of this post arose months ago when I read now former offensive line coach Dennis Wagner’s comments at the November 30th Big Red Breakfast.

Wagner stated:

“Nebraska ran the football just four times all season — twice after the season-opening blowout of Nevada — on third down and 3.

On third and 2, the Huskers called only 11 rushing plays.

Dennis Wagner knows the numbers. The NU offensive line coach said today at the Big Red Breakfast he would have preferred a different approach.

“I am going to defend my guys on that end and tell you that I think they can push people off the ball,” said Wagner, who continues to recruit one week after the firing of coach Bill Callahan. “But they have to be asked to push people off the ball.”

His response drew applause at the Holiday Convention Centre.”

The applause, I assume, stemmed from the belief that Nebraska should have been running the ball far more often in these short yardage situations. I certainly agree on the surface, but I wondered whether these numbers might be a bit misleading. Having gathered all of the data from a year ago, I was struck by how infrequently Nebraska would face a given down and distance situation during a particular season.

For instance, if I were to tell you that Nebraska ran 899 offensive plays in 2007 and 965 plays in 2006, how many 3rd down and 3 yard situations would you guess the Huskers might face in a given season? 60? 80?

The truth is Nebraska faced 3rd and 3, just 16 times in 2007.

Does that put Wagner’s comments into bit more perspective? Remember he noted that Nebraska ran the ball on 3rd and 3, just four times all season. But that’s 4 rushes out of 16 total 3rd and 3 plays in 2007. Still not a run/pass split to be proud of, but not as eye-opening as he (and OWH writer Mitch Sherman) probably intended. After all, the comments came shortly after Bill Callahan was fired and everyone was looking at him as the ultimate scapegoat.

The second part of Wagner’s comments centered on 3rd down and 2 situations where the Huskers supposedly ran the ball just 11 times.

I’m not implying that Wagner intentionally misled the crowd, but my data has the Huskers actually totaling 14 rushing attempts on 3rd and 2 in 2007. And incidentally my numbers coincide with those listed under the situational stats at CFBstats.com. But I digress. Anyway, those 14 rushing attempts actually accounted for over half of the 26 total 3rd and 2 plays Nebraska ran in 2007. So, again, you don’t have to agree with the run/pass split just yet, but perspective, I think, is important.

For those interested in a closer look, the following table highlights Nebraska’s overall play selection on 3rd down for 2007.

Play Selection By Down and Distance
.nobr br { display: none }

Down Distance Runs Pct. Yds. Passes Pct. Yds.
3rd & 1-2 25 62.5% 110 15 37.5% 186
& 3-6 10 15.9% 29 53 84.1% 297
& 7+ 6 9% 20 61 91% 486

Wagner’s comments then became a bit more critical of Callahan:

“He is the head coach,” Wagner said. “If he says this is what you do, this is what you do. If you don’t, then you have problems within your group. It isn’t always that you want to do it that way, but it’s the way you’re supposed to do it. That’s just part of doing the things you’re asked to do by the person who hired you.”

In particular, Callahan’s short-yardage play-calling didn’t always sit well with Wagner.

“I want to hit somebody in the mouth before I sit off and protect with my hands,” he said.

So Wagner wants his linemen to be run-blocking on 3rd and short rather than protecting the QB. But take a look at Nebraska’s play-calling again on 3rd and 1-2 yards-to-go. In 2007 we had a 63%/37% run/pass split when facing that particular down and distance. Wagner makes it sound as though he would prefer a 100%/0% run/pass split. Is there anyway to decipher what an appropriate run/pass split would be on 3rd and short?

If we again turn our attention to the NFL (remember that’s Callahan’s pedigree) we can gain some information on what works on 3rd and short. Football Outsiders, the kings of NFL statistics, have developed a concept over the years that directly address this scenario.

They argue that running on third-and-short is more likely to convert than passing on third-and-short.

On average, passing will always gain more yardage than running, with one very important exception: when a team is just one or two yards away from a new set of downs or the goal line. On third-and-1, a run will convert for a new set of downs 36 percent more often than a pass. Expand that to all third or fourth downs with 1-2 yards to go, and the run is successful 40 percent more often. With these percentages, the possibility of a long gain with a pass is not worth the tradeoff of an incomplete that kills a drive.

This is one reason why teams have to be able to both run and pass. The offense also has to keep some semblance of balance so they can use their play-action fakes, and so the defense doesn’t just run their nickel and dime packages all game. Balance also means that teams do need to pass occasionally in short-yardage situations; they just need to do it less than they do now. Teams pass roughly 60 percent of the time on third-and-2 even though runs in that situation convert 20 percent more often than passes. They pass 68 percent of the time on fourth-and-2 even though runs in that situation convert twice as often as passes.

So overall on 3rd and short, you want to maintain some balance, while still running more than you pass. Isn’t that what Callahan’s run/pass split accomplished?

That, therefore, brings us to a final and important question. Were Callahan’s playcalling tendencies on 3rd and short successful in 2007? The following table should give us some idea.

3rd Down Conversion Pct. by Run/Pass Split
.nobr br { display: none }

Down Distance Runs 1st Downs Conversion % Passes 1st Downs Conversion %
3rd & 1 11 5 45.4% 3 3 100%
& 2 14 5 35.7% 12 5 41.6%
& 1-2 Total 25 10 40% 15 8 53.3%

First, we notice that we converted just 18/40 3rd and short situations in 2007. That is not good. Not good at all. When Brian releases his data we’ll be able to compare our figure to the national average, but it is a pretty safe bet that we’ll fall below that line.

But now take another look. Check out our success rates passing the ball versus running the ball on third and short. Notice anything? We actually converted more often on third and short when we passed rather than we ran the ball. This flies in the face of conventional wisdom and is a pretty sorry statistic, but doesn’t it account for at least some of the high number of passes we threw on 3rd and short? Isn’t it the coach’s job to call what seems to be working? Shouldn’t we actually be upset with Callahan for not throwing more in this situation in 2007?

So why then does Dennis Wagner draw applause when arguing in favor of running the ball more on 3rd and short? Why are all of us as Husker fans (and I include myself in this category) hung up on this notion? Who amongst us didn’t get frustrated when another 3rd and short arose and Sam Keller was busy rolling out of the pocket? Were we wrong? Are we wrong? In our hunt to be “old school,” neo-traditionalists, focused on anti-style points and “smash-mouth” football did we ignore what was actually transpiring?

What the hell? I mean seriously. What. The. Hell? I swore I was done defending Callahan and then I had to go and look again at the numbers.

No wonder Wagner continued his comments by noting:

“The man [Bill Callahan] is very smart as a football coach. No one can take that away from him.”

I’d substitute coach for “a very smart football mind.” Callahan knows what works and isn’t afraid to go against prevailing trends. A coach, however, couples that knowledge with the ability to motivate, inspire and get the best out of his players. So yeah, Bill Callahan is a very smart football MIND.

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