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Friday, September 15, 2006

Keys to Victory - Explosive Plays

The final measurable that my week of analysis will focus on is explosive plays. Explosive plays are defined as runs of 12 yards or more and passes of 16 yards or more. Like the other variables, explosive plays have been found to be a key factor in a team’s success. For instance, during the 1994 and 1995 NFL seasons a team with a +2 or greater advantage in explosive plays won the game 80-85% of the time.

The significant thing about explosives is that they do not necessarily need to lead to a score to be productive. Huge changes in field position can also positively change the profile of a game. This measurement like turnovers is an interactive measurable because a team’s effectiveness in this area can be diminished if their defense is giving up explosives at the same rate that the offense is gaining them.

In 2005, Nebraska had 61 explosive plays. 18 of those were runs, and 43 were passes. The number of explosive plays per game ranged from a low of 1 in a 40-15 loss to Kansas to 11 in a 30-3 blowout victory over Colorado. Overall, the Huskers averaged 5.08 explosive plays per game in 2005.

Nebraska is ahead of that pace in 2006. Over the first two games of the season the Huskers have already generated 22 explosive plays (10 runs and 12 passes). The level of opponent may have a lot to do with this, but the offense does seem to have more of a rhythm. Zac Taylor has had more time to throw and has demonstrated an improved ability to work through his progressions and find the open receiver. The running game has also benefited from improved offensive line play and a stable of backs capable of picking up yards after contact.

As previously indicated explosive plays involve an interaction between a team’s offense and defense. The success of the 2005 could have been tempered by the rate at which its defense gave up explosive plays. The 2005 Blackshirts gave up 79 explosive plays (37 runs and 42 passes). This works out to an average of 6.5 explosive plays per game. These ranged from a low of 2 by the Maine offense to a high of 10 by the Kansas State and Michigan offenses.

The number of explosive plays given up by the Huskers in 2005 seems to be indicative of Coach Cosgrove’s “bend but not break” defensive philosophy. In this way the team has survived giving up a higher number of big plays than they create offensively. In 2005 Nebraska won give games in which they lost this measurable, giving up more explosive plays than they produced. They got were able to get away with this for several reasons. First, the Huskers led the nation in sacks with 50 and also had 140 tackles for loss. In addition, the 2005 defense was able to clamp down in the Red Zone, and prevent teams from scoring from this area of the field. Lastly, they benefited from strong special teams play. Nebraska blocked several field goals, including two potential game winners versus Pitt. Moreover, the Huskers relied on punter Sam Koch to flip the field and bury opponents in negative field position situations.

My fear is that this type of success cannot be replicated over time. In 2006 against sub par competition our offense has generated explosive plays while our defense has given up 6. The question then becomes how well will the Blackshirts prevent big plays as they face more talented teams. If they revert back to their 2005 form and give up their average of 6.5 explosive plays to USC, then I don’t like our chances for victory. Nor do I see our offense (despite obvious improvements) being capable of generating more than 7 explosive plays against the Trojan defense. Overall this does not appear to be a game in which can give up explosive plays and still come away with a victory.