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Stats O’ War Season Preview: Second Down Offenses

The Stats O’ War preview is back, and this week’s installment breaks down team tendencies and performance on second downs across the Big 12.

Author’s note: This is the second in a three-part offensive scouting exercise in preparation for the 2019 season, and the second entry in Stats O’ War’s inaugural College Football Season Preview. You can find the First Down Scouting Preview here.

The first part of this post focuses on TCU’s Big 12 opponents. If you’re just here for info on the Frogs, you can skip down to the “What About TCU?” section at the bottom.

Whereas first down is a chance for an offense to establish itself, to set up its preferred play sequence, or put an opponent on his heels, second down is more boom and bust; if an offense takes care of business on first down, then second down can be a chance to shoot your shot, a free play. If an offense fails to set itself up for success on first down, second down becomes a mad scramble for yardage.

In the high-speed spread world of the Big 12, second down is where teams can twist the knife, make up ground, or catch teams off guard. Last time, I looked at tendencies of offenses on first downs in different situations, specifically focusing on the first play of a possession. I found some shocking behavioral differences among teams depending on their field position and on the first down of a series. This week, I’m diving into second downs to continue my stats-based Big 12 Offense Scouting Preview. Below, after a quick word on methodology, I’ll lay out and comment on some descriptive statistics of second downs, examine rushing and passing tendencies for each team, and then discuss the context for big plays.

A Word About Methodology

If you’ll remember, loyal reader, in my first downs preview I mentioned I had done something a little weird in preparation for the 2019 season. There’s been a lot of turnover in the Big 12, and so to most consistently align expectations with what we will see on the field, I threw out data of three actual 2018 Big 12 teams, and replaced it with proxies for their new coaches. So, below, when you read “Kansas”, “Texas Tech”, or “West Virginia”, that really means “the offenses most recently associated with the coaching staffs headed to those three schools. As for the non-FBS coaches (Kansas State, Oklahoma State’s OC), I left those alone as I figured their style wouldn’t change too dramatically this year, but also because I don’t have the D1 data. Now, on to the fun stuff.

Second Downs: Descriptives

Yards Per Play on 2nd Down:

  1. Oklahoma 8.52
  2. Texas Tech 7.76
  3. Baylor 6.17
  4. Oklahoma State 6.07
  5. TCU 5.83
  6. Iowa State 5.81
  7. Kansas 5.54
  8. Kansas State 5.51
  9. West Virginia 5.45
  10. Texas 5.41

No surprises here - OU was the most dominant offense in the Big 12; if the Sooners didn’t get a first down on first down, they definitely made up for it on second down. The field flattens out after an explosive Texas Tech - Matt Wells’ offense was a pain in the neck of most Mountain West Defenses last year. Coming into his first season in the Big 12, that shouldn’t be too much the case - Wells’s offense was driven by his developed upperclassmen roster, and it’ll take some time before Lubbock gets that pointsy. The Kansases, along with Iowa State, West Virginia and Texas round out the bottom of the list - Iowa State and Texas committed to their chunk-of-yards consistency, WVU featuring a spread option, and and the Kansases, well, they do what one does in Kansas.

For all but two teams, (the Kansases), yards per play on a pass were much higher than yards per play on a rush. That’s to be expected, generally, but also indicates another pattern - teams in the Big 12 are rushing to make up yardage on second down, passing to take a shot downfield. (Now, I don’t have data on passing attempts, but we can infer this situationally.) OU, Baylor, TCU, and West Virginia seem to have the biggest splits, and we’ll dive into that deeper below.

Most teams are fairly balanced, with a few outliers, in terms of relative success of rushing and passing. West Virginia (Neal Brown’s “not an air raid” offense) was much more successful on the pass, as was Texas Tech (Matt Wells’s “not an air raid” offense). One could argue that Kansas and Baylor were more successful on the run than the pass on second down, but just barely. If we were to discuss this in terms of optimization, then, perhaps we may presume that most teams found a proper mix as to equalize the comparative advantage of rushing and passing. In theory, a team who is drastically more successful at one over the other should strictly benefit from producing where they have the comparative advantage. The only consideration is that of strategy - if WVU is only good at passing on second down, and they rush very few times, then their passing game will be diminished by a defense who has an idea of what to expect. So, we’ve seen these raw numbers on success and yards per play, but let’s look at strategy to see who’s doing what:

Second Down Rush Rates:

  1. Kansas 61%
  2. Kansas State 60%
  3. Texas 59.3%
  4. West Virginia 57.1%
  5. TCU 56.9 %
  6. Iowa State 55.3%
  7. Baylor 50.9%
  8. OU 50.6%
  9. Texas Tech 49.8%
  10. Oklahoma State 48.5%

Kansas, Kansas State, Baylor, and Oklahoma State are spread across the range of rush rates, all with similar comparative success - (run vs pass). This seems to bolster the argument that coaches are optimizing to try and equalize their comparative advantage. Kansas and Kansas State had bad passing games, so they rush more in order to compensate for quality. On the other hand, Oklahoma State committed to the pass, rushing just enough on second down to keep opponents honest. WVU actually runs more often than most, which brings up a stark contrast with Texas Tech - both teams have a drastic comparative advantage in passing, and Texas Tech steers into it, while WVU sat on the run. Something to look for this season will be how Matt Wells and Neal Brown adjust their play-calling relative to comparative advantage.

The top of the list features the four lowest yards per play second down offenses, highlighting perhaps how some teams run on second down out of principle. For instance, multiple times last year we lamented how TCU would often run up to the line on second down and run a throwaway dive play, effectively wasting a successful play. That commitment to the run seems to have inherently limited the ceiling of those top six, who as we will see below, tend to have fewer big plays.

Contextual Second Down Statistics

The raw numbers help us paint a picture of which teams succeed where on second down, but second down has a lot of contextual factors. Rather than focus on short, medium, and long, I want to condition plays based on the play before. What I’ve done is categorized plays as occurring after a run, after a pass, after a success, and after a failure. That should capture much of the variation in distance, while providing more information about team tendencies overall.

Most Resilient 2nd Down Teams (Success Rate after Failure):

I’ll start with a stat I’m calling resilience: Which teams were able to find success on second down after a first down failure?

  1. Baylor 34.6%
  2. Oklahoma 34.1%
  3. Texas Tech 32.8%
  4. Kansas 31.6%

These four top the list (the rest of the data is in the table below), and tell a couple distinct stories. Oklahoma, of course, has an incredible offense, and just didn’t fail twice that often, so we’d expect them to be up there in terms of bouncing back. Texas Tech, under Matt Wells, featured an experienced and talented roster, so the same argument applies. Baylor, though, was the inverse: a younger team, struggling to find some identity, had its positive moments. This stat might indicate, coupled with returning production numbers, that Baylor’s offense should look much better this coming season - they are resilient and experienced, a dangerous combination.

Most Consistent 2nd Down Teams (Success Rate after Success):

  1. Oklahoma 17.5%
  2. Texas 15.3%
  3. Iowa State 13.8%
  4. Texas Tech 11.5%

Here again, we see Oklahoma’s dominance, quantified. Iowa State and Texas, with their low YPP on second down, both sit at the top of this list. This is in line with their consistent approach; although neither team ranks near the top in yards per play on any given down, they are consistently gaining, playing three down ball to get first downs most of the time. It appears that under Matt Wells, Texas Tech will fall into more of that “slow and steady” approach - consistent low ceiling success, resilient when you fail.

Big 12 Offenses Conditional Second Down Success

Team Success-Success Fail-Success Success-Fail Fail-Fail
Team Success-Success Fail-Success Success-Fail Fail-Fail
OU 17.5% 34.1% 13.1% 35.4%
TEX 15.3% 28.2% 8.7% 47.8%
ISU 13.8% 24.0% 12.2% 50.0%
TTU 11.5% 32.8% 10.1% 45.6%
OKST 11.2% 31.2% 11.5% 46.1%
KAN 11.1% 31.7% 13.4% 43.9%
BAY 10.8% 34.6% 12.7% 41.9%
KSU 10.7% 31.3% 9.5% 48.6%
WVU 10.2% 24.5% 9.0% 56.3%
TCU 8.6% 30.7% 8.6% 52.1%

Second Down Strategy

The next question, after success and failure analysis, is one of strategic considerations. We’ve seen above that some teams have a comparative advantage, and some teams are balanced in run and pass - how did they get there? Most teams favored a pretty equitable spread in tendencies, ranging in the mid-to low twenties for each of the four possible combinations. Discussing the outliers will empirically confirm some tendency assumptions we already have.

Kansas and Kansas State, due to talent or due to style preference, have the highest rates of rush plays after a run. Texas and TCU both have abnormally high run rates after a run - Texas more so to keep the momentum of the QB going, setting up for the big play. Oklahoma State, on the other hand, keeps up their reputation with the second lowest rush-rush percentage. The Pokes bring in a creative an unorthodox offensive coordinator. It’ll be of note to see how he handles OSU’s commitment to passing early and often in a set of downs.

Baylor leads the league in the “At Least One Pass” category, meaning that the Bears were going to pass on either first or second down most of the time (78%). Some work on conditional probability tells us that if Baylor didn’t pass on first down, that 50% rush rate from above would actually increase to the 75% range - that’s a key tendency to exploit, and seems like one of the few obvious notable habits in this data set.

Kansas State and Texas lead the league in the “At Least One Rush” category; Kansas State’s devout commitment to the run explains their tendency there, nothing new. Texas, as we saw above, really prefers to chip away at yards on first and second down, setting up a manageable third down, and so their tendency isn’t exactly an astounding revelation. The “At Least One” categories become another fixed point for us to watch with the new coaches coming into the Big 12 this year.

Big 12 Offenses: Second Down Tendencies

Team Rush-Rush Pass-Pass Pass-Rush Rush-Pass At least one rush At least one pass
Team Rush-Rush Pass-Pass Pass-Rush Rush-Pass At least one rush At least one pass
BAY 21.4% 25.6% 29.5% 23.5% 74.4% 78.6%
ISU 26.8% 22.0% 28.5% 22.8% 78.0% 73.2%
KAN 37.0% 20.6% 24.0% 18.3% 79.4% 63.0%
KSU 36.6% 15.6% 23.5% 24.3% 84.4% 63.4%
OKST 25.9% 29.3% 22.7% 22.1% 70.7% 74.1%
OU 26.8% 22.0% 23.9% 27.4% 78.0% 73.2%
TCU 33.5% 22.7% 23.3% 20.4% 77.3% 66.5%
TEX 34.0% 20.8% 25.3% 19.8% 79.2% 66.0%
TTU 28.2% 32.4% 21.6% 17.8% 67.6% 71.8%
WVU 29.0% 21.2% 28.2% 21.6% 78.8% 71.0%
AVERAGE 29.9% 23.2% 25.1% 21.8% 76.8% 70.1%

Second Down Big Plays

Above, I’ve noted that second down can be a chance for an offense to “take a shot” after a successful first down, to try and capitalize on your talent with the safety net of a manageable third down in tow. How successful were offenses at taking shots on second down? Who did the most damage? To find that out, we’ll look at big plays. Big plays, according to my arbitrary definition, are any rushes > 10 yards and any passes > 15 yards. These aren’t just your big-breakaway touchdowns; these are meaningful chunks of yards gained.

The more pass heavy offenses lead the league in big play percent, but I want to focus on two specific oddities. Iowa State and Texas. Both teams are of the “consistent low ceiling high floor” style when you look at yards per play and success rate. Big Play rates give us a different story. Iowa State comes in third in Big Play rate, behind the dominant Oklahoma and the pass-happy Oklahoma State, but leads the league by 4 percentage points in “Big Plays after Success.” That is to say, Iowa State gets more of their big plays after successful first downs than anyone else in the Big 12.

What a credit to Matt Campbell! The Cyclones don’t just stick their head in the mud and commit to gaining chunks of yards - when they see an opening, they take it, and they take advantage. This is also a huge credit to having a high caliber running back (most of their big plays were rushes) who can sift through a defense looking to stop something on second-and-manageable.

Texas, on the other hand, confirms their commitment to playing three down ball with the lowest second down big play rate in the league. The Longhorns aren’t going to come after you with gambles, they’re going to make you defend nose-to-nose over the course of three downs, hoping to wear you out. That subtle shift in play-calling can counter-balance some of the write-offs of Texas, that they were “lucky” to win close games, that they got a lot of “help” to win those games. Those write-offs are true, but are somewhat mitigated by an intentional preference to wear down an opponent and then take advantage of them. With the lowest returning production among Power Five schools next year, Texas will definitely see a set-back, but expect Tom Herman to take every advantage of his talent with his “make-you-defend” style.

Big 12 Offenses: 2nd Down Big Plays

team Big Play Pct Big Play Rushes Big Play Passes Big Play After Success PCT Big Play After Rush Big Play After Pass
team Big Play Pct Big Play Rushes Big Play Passes Big Play After Success PCT Big Play After Rush Big Play After Pass
BAY 15.4% 26 25 15 29.4% 18 33
ISU 17.9% 23 21 15 34.1% 24 20
KAN 13.7% 24 12 9 25.0% 20 16
KSU 14.0% 23 11 9 26.5% 22 12
OKST 18.1% 29 29 13 22.4% 32 26
OU 21.7% 33 35 21 30.9% 45 23
TCU 13.4% 20 22 8 19.0% 21 21
TEX 12.1% 25 21 11 23.9% 23 23
TTU 17.8% 25 26 11 21.6% 24 27
WVU 12.2% 16 14 4 13.3% 13 17

What about TCU?

TCU is in the top half of resilience, succeeding after a failure 30.1% of the time. Some of that we can attribute to game plan - first down screens aren’t often successes, and a strong run game can push second down into a manageable third down (which is the goal, according to our definitions of success). The trouble for TCU is that more than 23 of the time, if they failed on first down, they failed on second down. In fact, TCU followed up a successful play with a successful play only 8% of the time last season. That does not bode well for mounting long, successful, scoring drives. TCU more than half of their possessions (52%) failed on both first and second downs. That effectively puts TCU “in-the-hole” on third down 92% of the time! (You’ll recall, TCU faced one of the longest average 3rd down distances last year.)

Offensive line play should improve (see Grant’s preview of the Big Guys here), and the playmakers are there (Melissa’s WR preview here), but the quarterback is a question mark. The relative instability of TCU’s success, plus the absolute instability of the quarterback situation gives us an easy barometer to watch. How will TCU approach second down going forward, knowing that in the past, they’ve struggled to string together multiple successes?

The Frogs find themselves towards the top of the rush-rush percentage, and I believe that is even biased downward - recall, the Frogs’ offense of 2018 was horizontal, and screens to the flats on first down are effectively rush plays, categorized as passes. Additionally, TCU ranked fourth in pass-pass rate; that, I believe, is due again to their swing/screen pass focus last season.

As for mixing their plays, the Frogs sit slightly above average on the “At Least One Rush” category, and of course, slightly below on the “At Least One Pass” category. I can’t help but mention the downward bias in the rush rate, and so you’ll see that last year, TCU actually preferred to run pretty heavily. TCU is going to run on first or second down almost 80% of the time, so that 56% second down rush rate from above actually becomes much higher when TCU doesn’t rush on first down.

The Frogs ranked near the bottom in Second Down Big Play percent, at 13.4%, characteristic of a stagnant offense. They found more explosiveness with the pass than the run (thank you, Mr. Reagor), as more than half of their Second Down Big Plays came from passes. The Frogs, as indicated above, struggled to string successes together, so of course they had the fewest big plays after successes of anyone in the league. Neither did the Frogs show any tendency to follow up a rush or a pass with a big play - TCU was evenly split on big plays after rushes or passes.

There have been rumors that TCU is going “vertical” this offseason - will that result in fewer rush-rush combinations and more big plays as the coordinators focus on the run as a device to set up the long ball? The talent is there for TCU to have a 2014-style offense, on paper, but the Frogs will have to adjust their play-calling tendencies and execute in order to reach their ceiling.