Nebraska coaches and players have lamented this week the fact that the Huskers have far too often found themselves in third-and-long through five games.
That’s true, but maybe even more pronounced is NU’s struggle on third-and, well, let’s call it manageable.
The Journal Star compiled third-down data from the Huskers’ first five games and came up with the following tallies:
Third-and-long (9 or more yards to go for a first down): 5-of-18.
Third-and-medium (5-8): 4-of-22.
Third-and-short (4 or less): 11-of-23.
All of that adds up to the Huskers’ current third-down conversion percentage of 31.7 percent, dead-last in the Big Ten and No. 122 out of 129 in the nation.
But here’s the rub: NU’s actually been better than its opponents on third-and-long (5-of-22 combined), both in the number of times it’s found itself in the situation and in conversion percentage. And while 27 percent obviously isn’t pretty, quarterbacks coach Mario Verduzco on Wednesday gave some guidance as to where expectations should fall.
“If you’re in third-and-long and you convert 25 percent of those, that’s not bad,” Verduzco said.
The quarterbacks coach said then you flip the percentage for third-and-short (75 percent), aim for 50-50 on third-and-medium, and if you hit all three marks, you come out with a good overall rate.
It’s not clear if NU’s designations for short, medium and long match the ones used above, but even using Verduzco’s thought as a very general guideline, it makes sense. Hit a third-and-long here or there, win third-and-short convincingly and coin flip the middle ground, and you’re in pretty good shape.
“One of the big problems is we’ve been in way to many third-and-longs,” Frost said Thursday. “Part of that is penalties, part of that is bad decisions. Our offense right now is good enough to look really good on a couple of plays, and then we make a bad play where somebody doesn’t execute or we get a penalty and we put ourselves behind the sticks, and we’re not quite good enough to overcome that yet.
“There’s a lot of things that factor into that and it isn’t like you can just address one of them.”
The Huskers also haven’t been as good as their opponents on third-and-short — NU is at 47.8 percent and opponents 52.6 percent — but the biggest gap is in the mid-range. There, the Huskers are cashing in a paltry 18.2 percent compared to 46.9 for opponents. Foes are at least approaching the coin-flip rate Verduzco mentioned. The Huskers are nowhere close.
So what to do? Frost considers third downs and red zone the most difficult times to execute.
“We had some chances on third down the other day,” Frost said, referencing NU’s 41-24 loss at Wisconsin. “I’ve said this before, but you have to execute precisely to make plays work — even more so in the red zone, even more so on third down.
“We had some things that were there and we didn’t execute them.”
When the going gets tough, the Huskers know they are best-served looking for their best playmakers. Frost used play design to get JD Spielman open for a conversion on a third-and-4, and Adrian Martinez had Spielman again for 20 and a first down on a play negated by a Matt Farniok penalty. Martinez and Spielman also failed to time up a quick route on third-and-6 from the UW 14 early in the second quarter as NU tried to take a 7-6 lead and instead settled for a 6-3 deficit.
But expect more from Spielman on third downs as the season progresses. Offensive coordinator Troy Walters had no problem saying so on Wednesday.
“He’s just a good football player, so any time it’s third down, money down, you want to make sure you’re targeting your top guys — within the system,” Walters said. … “We know where JD’s going to be. The quarterback has confidence in him. On third down, he’s a guy we’re trying to get the ball to — (Stanley Morgan) is another guy — so we can move the chains.”
The Huskers just need to move the chains more often, especially when they’re in manageable range.