Weekly Analysis: Winning First Down

Anybody who watched Texas's dismantling of Nebraska's vaunted rushing attack had to be impressed. Not only were the Cornhuskers held significantly under their average, but they failed to score an offensive touchdown just one week after demolishing a Kansas State squad thought to be among the North's best.

On no one's stat sheet was that domination more apparent than on Taylor Martinez's. The redshirt freshmen entered the contest rushing for nearly 150 yards per game, while averaging 10.8 yards per carry. The Longhorns held him to 21 yards on 13 carries, or 28 yards on 12 totes if you remove a seven-yard sack by Alex Okafor to only figure in actual rushing plays.

But twice on third down, Martinez ran for a 14 yard gain (and once, it wasn't enough to convert a first down). That means that on his other 10 carries, Martinez rushed for a total of zero yards.

Here's a look at Nebraska's 43 running plays, broken down by down. When facing a rushing team, rule No. 1 is to win first down. Win that down, and the rest typically follows. That theory is well-represented below.

First Down: 17 carries, 46 yards (2.7 yards per carry)

Second Down: 17 carries, 39 yards (2.3 yards per carry)

Third Down: 8 carries, 46 yards, (5.8 yards per carry, 3 conversions)

Fourth Down: 1 carry, 1 yard (1 yard per carry, 1 conversion)

The first down stats were even more amazing when split out by quarterback. On first downs with Taylor Martinez in the game, the Cornhuskers ran the ball 11 times, making only 13 yards. Out of those 11 plays, only three were "positive", meaning that the offense gained four or more yards. The other eight were all carries of two yards or less.

The 'Huskers were significantly more successful with Zac Lee in the ballgame, actually generating a decent yards-per-carry number and making more positive plays in nearly half the attempts. With Lee in, Nebraska ran the ball on six first downs, making 33 yards (5.5 per carry). Five of those six runs were positive for the offense, with just one rush of two yards or less.

The offense was also more successful on second downs under Lee, averaging 3.6 yards per second-down carry (8-29), as opposed to 1.1 yards per carry under Martinez (9-10).

That impact really came into play on third down, which we'll touch on in a minute. First, the overall rushing average on third downs is somewhat skewed by Martinez's two carries for 28 yards, when the Longhorns were dropping back into coverage. Other than that, Nebraska rushed six times for 18 yards.

But you can also see a correlation between Nebraska's first-down success (or lack of it), and the 'Huskers' success rate on third downs.

With Martinez at quarterback, Nebraska faced 11 third downs. The Cornhuskers converted just three (27.3 percent). Those numbers spiked nearly 13 percent with Lee in. He converted on two of five attempts (40 percent), and probably could have bumped that up to 60 percent if the Cornhuskers didn't fumble a snap on third-and-1. Nebraska converted the following fourth-and-1.

Looking for a reason for the differences in success? While Lee's sample size is obviously smaller, his average third down distance needed was 3.8 yards. Martinez's average third-down situation was a third-and-9.5. Only once did Lee face a third down longer than four yards. And only once did Martinez face a third down shorter than five.

In addition, Lee's longest third down, eight yards, was shorter than Martinez's average third down situation. Martinez faced seven third downs of eight or more yards, including five of 10 or more.

So when facing a rushing attack, win first down. The rest will probably follow.

Horns Digest Top Stories