Striking first
Striking first
2013-02-01 07:30:00

DCTF's Greg Tepper on the run/pass splits for each FBS team in Texas in 2012, and why first down matters.

By Greg Tepper
DCTF Associate Editor

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Football coaches (and, really, all sports coaches) tend to speak in their own language. It usually consists of vague generalities, tired clichés and relatively empty rhetoric. That’s not to demean the coaches; it’s more a statement of fact than an opinion. Coaches do it because it prevents them from saying something they may not want to say, and coaches do it because it works. In the media, we call it “coachspeak.”

One of those clichés – a high tenant of the coachspeak language – is the idea of a balanced offense. You want to run close to as many times as you pass, they’ll tell you, in order to keep the defense on its toes.

This is, like many clichés in the sports world, pretty much totally false. If you catch a coach in a candid moment, they’ll tell you that they want to move the ball as effectively as possible. Whether it’s via run or via pass – and the balance between those two – is largely irrelevant. When you find something that works, coaches who are telling the truth will tell you, stick with it.

That’s not to say that balance isn’t important. Of course it is. If a team passed 99% of the time, the defense would adjust to that strategy. But in general, teams aren’t balanced. They have tendencies.

How those tendencies tend to flesh themselves out are one of the greatest insights we as fans have into the minds of the coaches. By diving into the data, we can figure out how these coaches truly operate, and specifically, how aggressive they are.

We did a study back in August – right before the 2012 season kicked off – about one way in which college coaches’ aggressiveness shows itself: going for it on fourth down. And yes, that is still an excellent measure of seeing how aggressive a coach’s style tends to be. But in the same vein, fourth down conversions are only one measure of a coach’s aggressiveness, and it can be an awfully small sample size. Heck, the most aggressive college coach in Texas on fourth down – Baylor’s Art Briles – only went for it on fourth down 49 times in two seasons. Not exactly an overwhelming sample size.

What does have a substantial sample size is the team’s run/pass split – that is, how many times a team runs the ball vs. how many times a team passes the ball. And most telling on the aggressiveness front: first down playcalling.

Think about it: first down is the only time in which every team has the same situation, because it’s 1st and 10. You can call any play on 1st down, and generally, running the ball is considered more conservative than passing the ball. If you throw the ball on first down, you’re bold; if you run the ball on first down, you’re more or less playing it safe, trying to set up your other downs.

And college football teams have hundreds of first down plays in a season. That provides us with a wide snapshot of teams’ tendencies on the first (and, many coaches will tell you, most important) down.

So, let’s get started looking at the 2012 season in Texas college football from a run/pass tendency standpoint. Before we get going, we have to establish a baseline – a control against which we can compare each team. Think of it like this: Houston throws the ball overall far more often than Rice, so it wouldn’t necessarily be news for Houston to throw the ball more on first down than Rice. We need to look at the overall tendencies of each team before we can compare the first down tendencies of each team.

Here are the run/pass splits for the 12 FBS teams in Texas in 2012, along with the national run/pass split.

School All Rush All Pass Split
Baylor 597 475 55.69% run
Houston 393 591 60.06% pass
North Texas 478 375 56.04% run
Rice 625 401 60.92% run
SMU 400 516 56.33% pass
TCU 512 402 56.02% run
Texas 493 398 55.33% run
Texas A&M 533 492 52.00% run
Texas State 413 361 53.36% run
Texas Tech 399 594 59.82% pass
UTEP 455 376 54.75% run
UTSA 351 329 51.62% run
National 60792 51301 54.23% run

Some things that jump out:

-Not surprisingly, Houston threw the ball at a higher rate than any other team, but the “least balanced” team in the state – the team with the most defined tendency – is Rice, who ran the ball almost 61% of the time.

-Only three teams – Houston, Texas Tech and SMU – threw the ball more than they ran it.

-The “most balanced” team in the state – that is, the team who ran and threw the ball at the closest rate – was UTSA, who ran the ball just 22 more times than it threw the ball on almost 700 plays.

-Half of the teams are within 2 percentage points of the national average of a 54.23% run split.

OK, so now we’ve established a run/pass baseline for each team. Let’s take a look at each team’s first-down playcalling, along with the national numbers.

School 1D Rush 1D Pass Split
Baylor 299 206 59.21% run
Houston 188 246 56.68% pass
North Texas 251 122 67.29% run
Rice 288 160 64.29% run
SMU 192 204 51.52% pass
TCU 247 153 61.75% run
Texas 256 141 64.48% run
Texas A&M 255 220 53.68% run
Texas State 200 140 58.82% run
Texas Tech 183 288 61.15% pass
UTEP 229 135 62.91% run
UTSA 184 112 62.16% run
National 30191 19625 60.60% run

Now, let’s compare the first-down rates to their overall rates, and see what these teams tended to do on first down.

School All Plays 1D Plays 1D Tendency
Baylor 55.69% run 59.21% run Run, 3.52%
Houston 60.06% pass 56.68% pass Run, 3.38%
North Texas 56.04% run 67.29% run Run, 11.25%
Rice 60.92% run 64.29% run Run, 3.37%
SMU 56.33% pass 51.52% pass Run, 4.81%
TCU 56.02% run 61.75% run Run, 5.73%
Texas 55.33% run 64.48% run Run, 9.15%
Texas A&M 52.00% run 53.68% run Run, 1.68%
Texas State 53.36% run 58.82% run Run, 5.46%
Texas Tech 59.82% pass 61.15% pass Pass, 1.33%
UTEP 54.75% run 62.91% run Run, 8.16%
UTSA 51.62% run 62.16% run Run, 10.54%
National 54.23% run 60.60% run Run, 6.37%

Some overall thoughts:

-Plain and simple, coaches tend to be very conservative on first down. Coaches nationwide run the ball 6.37% more on first down than overall, and 11 of the 12 teams in Texas do the same thing.

-The most conservative playcalling in the state of Texas on first down? North Texas. The Mean Green’s offense had relative balance in 2012, running the ball 56% of the time overall. But on first down, Dan McCarney’s bunch was absolutely not taking any chances, running the ball at an 11.25% higher rate on first down than their overall playcalling. In fact, if you were to take away first down, North Texas actually passed more than they ran. In short: North Texas ran the ball on first down, and tended to go to the air on second and third (and, sometimes, fourth) down to make up for it.

-The most aggressive playcalling in the state of Texas on first down? How about Tommy Tuberville’s Texas Tech Red Raiders? We knew Tech threw the ball a lot – they finished third in the nation in passing attempts – but Tech loved to throw the ball on first down. In fact, Tech led the nation in first-down pass attempts with 288.

-Other teams that were more conservative on first down than the national average: Texas, UTEP, UTSA.

-When you look at Texas A&M’s numbers – relatively balanced, a little more running on first down but less conservative than the national average – one has to wonder how many of those running plays came from QB Johnny Manziel. A scrambling quarterback, after all, can skew rushing numbers. Manziel ran the ball 201 times in 2012, and 73 of them came on first down. So, just for the sake of exploration, let’s take out Manziel’s running and see what the Aggies’ tendencies were without Johnny Football.

  Run Pass Split
A&M All Plays 533 492 52.00% run
A&M All Plays w/o Manziel Runs 332 492 59.70% pass
  Run Pass Split
A&M All 1D Plays 255 220 53.68% run
A&M All 1D Plays w/o Manziel Runs 182 220 54.72% pass
  All Plays 1D Plays 1D Tendency
A&M Splits 52.00% run 53.68% run Run, 1.68%
A&M Splits w/o Manziel Runs 59.70% pass 54.72% pass Run, 4.98%

Not surprisingly, when you take out Manziel’s runs (whether designed runs or scrambles), A&M’s offense looks far, far different. They pass the ball more than they run, both on all plays and on first-down plays. But what’s most surprising here is that when you tease out Manziel’s runs, A&M is more conservative on first down, and by a pretty considerable margin. What does this mean? Basically, Johnny Manziel just didn’t scramble a whole lot on first down. When the ball was in his hands on first down, it was to throw the ball; he saved most of his tucking and running for second and third (and fourth) down.

All of this data, of course, requires the question: is it better to run or pass on first down? That’s obviously up for debate, but consider this:

Over at Football Outsiders – my statistical analysis spirit animal – they define “success” on first down in college football as “50% of the needed yards.” So, for the sake of simplicity, let’s say that in order for a first down play to be “successful,” one must pick up at least five yards.

In 2012, nationwide, rushing attempts on first down averaged 4.67 yards. In 2012, nationwide, passing attempts on first down averaged 7.94 yards. In other words, when teams ran the ball on first down, they were, on average, not “successful;” when teams passed the ball on first down, they were, on average, “successful.”

The fear of failure on first down – and subsequently putting the team in a more difficult 2nd-and-10 situation, or worse, throwing an interception – is an obvious deterrent for coaches to pass on first down, and an understandable one. But then again, as Virgil wrote in The Aeneid, “audentes fortuna iuvat” – fortune favors the bold.

But the fact is that for most football coaches, both in Texas and across the nation, first down is not the time to be bold. It is, as the coachspeak would say, time to be balanced, though they rarely are truly that.

Greg Tepper is the associate editor of Dave Campbell's Texas Football and

He can be reached via e-mail, via Twitter (@Tepper) and via the DCTF Facebook page.

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