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Nebraska Football: Cracking the Play-calling Code for 2018

Nebraska Cornhuskers head coach Scott Frost

Nebraska Cornhuskers head coach Scott Frost

We’ve already dug into the archives of Scott Frost’s past to figure out what Nebraska’s running backs will be up to this season, so why not take things a step further? With the opener against Akron mere days away, I again enlisted the help of Reddit user IDontBelieveInIsms for a statistical assist. Our goal is simple: to see if we can actually get any semblance of an idea about what Nebraska’s offense will be up to this Saturday and throughout the 2018 season.

We were able to examine how Frost’s UCF Knights attempted to advance the football between their own 20-yard-line and their opposition’s while either leading or trailing by eight points or fewer, thus negating any typical run/pass bias.

That’s right, for the purpose of this exercise, Frost is neither in his opponent’s red zone nor backed up too far. He has complete freedom to do whatever he likes with no predication regarding what he theoretically should or shouldn’t do statistically.

What we found is that Frost operates an extremely well-balanced run-pass option attack, but down and distance has hinted at his calls in the past.

Admittedly, what he can do with his skill players is incredibly imaginative, so using binary terms like “run” and “pass” isn’t really fair due to the nature of these calls having a very real chance of falling into either category on any given play. By the time we’re done, you’ll understand why Frost’s offense will trend towards balance as mentioned.

With our parameters set, let’s have a look at the most recent seasons.

In 2016, UCF only went run-heavy in one scenario: short yardage situations (less than or equal to three yards to go) which resulted in a 73-27 percent run-pass ratio (referred to as RPR from here on out). In medium (four to seven yards) and long (eight or more yards) conditions, the ratios tipped towards the pass (42.5-57.5 and 47-53, respectively.) While there’s almost a dead-even split after examining 505 total plays (49.5-50.5), on 60 short yardage snaps, defenders dealt with a running play of some sort.

Let’s examine tendencies based on down for an even more refined scope:

First Down: 200 plays (54-46 RPR)
Second Down: 169 plays (53-47 RPR)
Third Down: 116 plays (34-66 RPR)
Fourth Down: 20 plays (65-35 RPR)

Last year, the numbers switched up a bit with short yardage situations still being run-oriented (64-36 RPR) while medium yardage challenges flipped towards the run (52-48) and long yardage actually leaned towards the pass (54-46). While being in a short yardage scenario resulted in more running plays than not, Frost was far more unpredictable on both third and fourth downs (both resulting in a 55-45 split.)

Now, let’s have a look at 2017’s individual down statistics:

First Down: 265 plays (54-46 RPR)
Second Down: 179 plays (49-51 RPR)
Third Down: 104 plays (38-62 RPR)
Fourth Down: 11 plays (55-45 RPR)

So, what does all of this mean? Truly, Frost called an extremely well-balanced game (a 49-51 RPR overall on 1,064 total plays studied).

This research suggests that I have good news for you, Run the Ball Guy. The second-most definitive thing I can say about Frost’s play-calling is that the Huskers are probably going to tote the rock in some form or fashion when they don’t have much real estate to cover before moving the sticks. However, if Frost has a fair amount of room to work with, be prepared to see some fireworks thanks to the signal-caller and his receivers more often than not.

The most definitive thing I can say about Frost’s play-calling is that when trying to determine his decisions on anything between the two extremes (we’re talking medium yardage), flipping a coin is about as efficient as anything I can offer. If you’re a number cruncher, consider tracking Frost’s balance a fun side quest this season.

-- Written by Brandon Cavanaugh, FWAA member and part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Be sure to follow him on Twitter (@eightlaces), and keep up with the Quick N Dirty podcasts on his Patreon page.