Monday Analysis: First-Down Defense

Win first down. That's the cliché that every defensive coach talks about when facing a rushing attack. Allow a team to get four or more, and it puts the offense in a strong position for the next two downs.

Texas is no different in that regard. Longhorn defensive coordinator Will Muschamp said this past week that he considers a defensive win on first down to be any play of three yards or less, setting the offense up in a second-and-seven or worse. An offensive win, then, would qualify as any play of four or more yards.

We charted 24 first-down plays from Saturday's loss to UCLA, noting the defensive wins (three yards or fewer) and the offensive wins (four yards or more). We went on to write down how many times UCLA went on to generate a first down following those plays to note the first-down's effect on a team's conversion rate.

Note that "immediate" first downs are plays where a team generates another first down on the first down play, i.e. when UCLA running back Jonathan Franklin ran for 19 yards on a first-and-10 in the second quarter.

Here are the numbers:

Texas defensive wins: 14

Texas defensive wins that resulted in stops: 10

UCLA conversion rate: 4-14 (28.6 percent)

UCLA offensive wins: 10

UCLA offensive wins that resulted in first-downs: 10 (two immediate)

UCLA conversion rate: 10-10 (100 percent)

Just how important is winning first down? Well, against UCLA, it was absolutely vital. The Longhorns won 14 times, and generated 10 stops from those plays. When UCLA won, it was pretty much an automatic Bruin first down. Whenever the Bruins gained four yards or more on a first-down play, they generated a first down. It was a 100-percent correlation.

It's also worth going over how those numbers affected the Bruins' production. In the first half, Texas won 8-of-11 first downs, with the Bruins' only real offense-generated points coming on a 37-yard drive that resulted in a field goal. UCLA scored 10 of its points by driving six yards because of Longhorn turnovers.

In the second half, UCLA won 7-of-13 first downs. Not surprisingly, the offense sprung to life. The Bruins scored seven points on an 80-yard drive, then traveled 50 yards and 37 yards to score two more touchdowns. Overall, UCLA gained 214 yards in the second half, as compared to 77 yards in the first half, scoring 21 offensive points to 3 first-half points (seven generated by special teams, and another three from the defense).

There were two first down plays that I didn't include in the above list. First, I didn't include UCLA's final first down play, as the Bruins were kneeling in victory formation. Second, I didn't include the first-and-goal from the two that the Bruins had in the second quarter, as nearly any sort of play, even a four-yard loss, would have put the Bruins in a winning situation. On that play, the Bruins rushed for one yard, then punched it in from a yard out on second down.

I should also note that on one Texas win, I counted a stop where the Bruins eventually made a first down. In the fourth quarter, Texas forced a fourth-and-three, and a punt, only to be penalized for illegal substitution on that fourth down play, giving UCLA a first down. Texas won the first down play and forced the punt, only to have it ruined by the special teams. So I counted that as a defensive stop.

The UCLA game marked the first of several this year where Texas will take on a run-first team. The next time the Longhorns host a running team, they'll need to win first down to win the game.

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