Wednesday, October 2, 2013


Opinion: Running on first down best bet for KU


Part of the self-study college football coaching staffs do during bye weeks involves statistical research. Second-year Kansas University football coach Charlie Weis shared one trend Tuesday that eats at him.

On third down with less than six yards to go for a first down, Kansas is doing “fine,” Weis said and added the Jayhawks are “crummy” on third-and-6 or more.

Juicing the offense, he continued, will require either becoming more efficient on third-and-long or getting into fewer such down-and-distance situations.

I did a little statistical research to see if there might be a way to help the second part of the equation, getting into fewer third-and-long binds.

First-down play calling always makes for interesting conversation, so I compared how Kansas does when it runs the ball on first down to how it fares when running a pass play. First-and-goal plays were excluded from the statistical study.

Loaded with talented running backs and shy of productive receivers, Kansas has a better running game than passing game, so defenses tend to shade their defensive game plans to stop the run.

Weis said Tuesday the essence of his play calling is to “play to our strengths and hide our weaknesses.”

For the most part, Weis has done so with his first-down play calling. Kansas has run the ball 57 percent of the time on first down.

Generally speaking, running on first down has been a good idea in the area of avoiding third-and-long mountains to climb. Passing on first down has resulted in far more third-and-6-or-more pickles.

Third-and-5 certainly isn’t a good outcome, but for the sake of this argument, we’ll put anything third-and-5 or better in the positive column, third-and-6 or worse in the negative. If there is a first down or touchdown on first or second down, that goes in the positive column, a turnover in the negative.

Running the ball on first down has led to a positive outcome 72 percent of the time, third-and-6 or worse 28 percent of the time. Passing the ball on first down has resulted in a positive outcome just 57 percent of the time, a negative result 43 percent of the time.

The greatest disparity came in the Rice game, in which Kansas called running plays 11 times on first-and-10 and called 12 passing plays. When running on first down, 73 percent went in the positive column outlined above, 27 in the negative. When passing on first down against the Owls, only 25 percent went positive, 75 percent negative.

Against a Louisiana Tech defense, the strength of which was up front, passing on first down actually worked better, with a 76-percent positive rating passing, compared to a 64-percent positive rating running on first down.

No matter the vantage point, Kansas grades out as a run-first offense. But can the line block well enough to support that approach? It can if the blockers improve technique and chemistry each week — always a possibility, never a given.


Doug Cramer 8 years, 7 months ago

Regarding the last paragraph...I disagree that our O-line can effectively block well enough for a heavy run first offense. Last year's O-line was talented enough to facilitate the run game.

What I fear is La Tech exposed something with our run game...that other teams will use. I realize that La Tech has a couple quality D-linemen...but we should have been able to run the ball more effectively.

Historically speaking...I just don't get why the hell we can't recruit the trenches like every other team in the league does. Why would a kid go to Lubbock over Lawrence...or even Aimes ?

Why is it so difficult to get the talented big boys in Lawrence ?

Steve Reigle 8 years, 7 months ago

KU football is, unfortunately, known as bottom feeders. That's what our coaches are trying to change, obviously. Winners don't want to go to teams known for losing. They want to go where they think they'll win. Our hope is that the known quality of our coaches (i.e. their NFL background) will lure enough good talent to turn this team around so it can shed the loser image. Once that happens we'll begin to get higher quality players because we no longer are known as losers. This transformation has already started. The improvement is showing. We have some quality talent on this team. But it takes time. So long as the improvement continues, eventually we'll get there. And then more quality talent will want to come here, just like with the basketball team. My opinion, anyhow.

741hawk 8 years, 7 months ago

Agree with your opinion. Patience is difficult, especially five years after the Orange Bowl.

Note: I replayed the LaTech game (sadistic, I know) and saw our Blind Side Tackle get knocked back flat on his back! I couldn't believe what I saw. On other plays, I noticed linemen quit before the whistle blew. I saw missed assignments. I was very disappointed in the line play. And, of course, that's the foundation for any offense.

Rivethead 8 years, 7 months ago

Regarding La Tech, Army ran them the f*ck over last week. Army only threw 3 passes the entire game. So the question becomes: does Army have better OL athletes than KU? I'd say no. Scheme and want-to go a long way towards success.

texashawk10 8 years, 7 months ago

Army runs the triple option offense which is all about reading the defense to determine who gets the ball. If you don't play sound assignment defense, the triple option will eat an opposing defense alive.

I'd be curious to see how KU's defense would match up against a triple option offense. The last two times were mixed results against GT with the first game in Lawrence surprising everybody that KU's defense was able to hold GT below their average rushing numbers. Of course the next year, GT set all kinds of records against KU.

pizzashuttle 8 years, 7 months ago

Where does TT's defense rank in stopping the run? Is it a strength?

VaJay 8 years, 7 months ago

From an earlier Keegan article:

"The offensive line ranks among KU’s biggest weaknesses; Tech’s defensive line ranks among its greatest strengths. Kerry Hyder, the 6-foot-2, 280-pound senior from Austin, Texas, has a habit of exploding into opposing backfields and making things happen. He throws running backs and quarterbacks for losses, bats passes and generally makes his disruptive presence felt as well as just about any player in the Big 12"

So maybe in theory, the recommendation to throw on first down is best - based on percentages, but with this matchup?? I'm guessing we gained on average 2 to 2.5 yards per play on rushing plays on first down our first three games. Passing on first must've been even worse, but hopefully we can improve on that with more play action (which we have finally started to see) and misdirection plays. I'm thinking 50/50 run - pass on first down to keep them guessing - unless of course, we actually start pancaking people & opening holes worthy of our running backs.

Adam McEwen 8 years, 7 months ago

The bottom line is we won't win in this league if we can't pass, we proved that last year. Unfortunately, we aren't very good at it yet, but you can't develop a passing game by running all the time. Painful as it may be at times, we have to pass, even if it means failure now, for the long term success of the program. Patience.

Dirk Medema 8 years, 7 months ago

We weren't very good passing during the 1st 2 games (WR-oriented), but better in the 3rd game (Pierson/Bourbon-oriented)

Cmill1221 8 years, 7 months ago

We don't need to win the conference this year, we just need to win a conference game!

Rivethead 8 years, 7 months ago

I'd settle for just being competitive against a FBS opponent. We haven't even done that yet.

nuleafjhawk 8 years, 7 months ago

No team that has a sound like " la " in their name should count as a real team.

NebraskaJayhawk 8 years, 7 months ago

I'm curious if you think Kansas was a pass heavy offense during the Orange Bowl season. If you do, you're wrong. Although I agree with you that we have to be able to pass, I think that statement is just a given fact. Every team has to be able to pass and every team has to be able to run. Kansas was fun to watch because of the big play potential with Henry, Briscoe, and Meier. What people forget though, and especially during the Orange Bowl season, is just how successfully that football team ran the ball. McAnderson and Sharp were a one-two punch that I'm not sure many teams in the nation had. I have yet to understand, even under Gill, we have not gone back to the two back set that was so successful during that era. We have strong running backs that can block and we have plenty of them that obviously want to be on the field. Play them for crying out loud! Make the defense wonder who is going to get the ball and what direction the ball is going. The comments about our o-line are spot on...they aren't very good this year. Well, let's do something about it and use some misdirection plays with our linemen...see if they're as athletic as Weis says they are. Use play action when we pass. We don't necessarily need "trick" plays, but let's start making the defenses guess what we're going to do with some sound play calling.

Mike Nicco 8 years, 7 months ago

Did they execute better because the scheme was better?

Dirk Medema 8 years, 7 months ago

Jesse must be rubbing off on TK. Breaking out the stats! Sort of seems inappropriate to call it an opinion article.

Jim Roth 8 years, 7 months ago

Yes, how wonderful to see a guy who has told us to distrust numbers use actual numbers to make a point!

Jesse must have had a positive influence on Keegan since that article.

NebraskaJayhawk 8 years, 7 months ago

Um, running has not been our thing so far against the lousy opponents we've played. Anyone that thinks we've ran the ball well are fooling themselves.

jhox 8 years, 7 months ago

You have to continue to mix it up. Even if your first down passing success isn't great you have to show your opponent you're willing to throw it, to keep them honest. This is not an O line that can force its will on its opponents. One or two yards and a cloud of dust is not a successful first down play.

I'd like to see more play action. With conference season starting, I hope to see more of that. Teams are selling out big time to stop the run. We need to use that aggressiveness against them.

Rivethead 8 years, 7 months ago

I would argue that 1-2 yards and a cloud of dust IS a successful first down play. It keeps the clock running and shortens the game. We are not deep on defense. We have to factor that into the overall gameplan.

An incomplete pass on first down (or any down) stops the clock. That's killer. Especially with how good the offenses are in the Big 12. The less time those offenses have the ball, the better.

NebraskaJayhawk 8 years, 7 months ago

As much as I want to see us shove it down their throat, I think he's right that some play action might help soften up the middle a little. Let's get our tight ends open over the middle. Start making their linebackers defend that area of the field. Should open up some for some bigger running plays.

Micky Baker 8 years, 7 months ago

If you said 3 to 5 yards on first down and a cloud of dust, you'd have a point. But 1-2? Not so much.

Chris Bailey 8 years, 7 months ago

Our pass defense won't rank 2nd after this game. And I think the longer the season goes on the more we drop. We may end up 6th or 7th but I can't see us being much higher I mean think about as bad as we are passing we won't hurt many B12 stats in that category. I think our rush D will be last all year. We aren't very good. I'm a grad and fan and will support the team but I'm also real enough to see the writing on the wall.

Micky Baker 8 years, 7 months ago

We rank 11 spots ahead of Texas Tech in Pass D and 16 spots behind Texas Tech in Rush D. Teams have tried the run option a lot against us, and no where near the success opponents had with that last year.

How about coming back to critique yourself at about 2:30PM Central Time Saturday?

FCCoHawk 8 years, 7 months ago

One other thing to consider is clock management. It keeps the defense off the field a little longer if we are running it more (and hopefully making some first downs). Granted one play not a big deal when running vs passing but we can't afford hurry up offense with a lot of incomplete passes resulting in 3 and outs or our defense will get crushed. Go 'Hawks.

namohcan_99 8 years, 7 months ago

6 and long pickles? Interesting word choice. Anyway...we lack either talent or development in our wideouts. Same as Keegan's last article.

741hawk 8 years, 7 months ago

To be perfectly honest . . . it is simply talent (or lack there of).

Watch SEC games involving their lead teams. The qb is accurate. The receivers get open. The receivers catch the ball. The line blocks. The offenses run smoothly. Those games are things of beauty. KU games are still very painful to watch. Even successful ex-NFL coaches can only do so much with inferior talent.

NebraskaJayhawk 8 years, 7 months ago

So you think that's how it works. Recruit 5 star athletes and you do all the right things? So wrong. Ask Bill Callahan if that's true. It's all about coaching that talent. Period.

741hawk 8 years, 7 months ago

So you are saying the O-line coaching is inferior. Certainly could be.

NebraskaJayhawk 8 years, 7 months ago

I didn't say that. The ticket is still out on Grunhard as a college coach. We'll see in a year or two though.

NebraskaJayhawk 8 years, 7 months ago

Looking forward to being in Memorial Stadium this weekend to cheer on the 'hawks. Might be the only game I catch this season, so I'm hoping for some big improvements and a huge win!

mikehawk 8 years, 7 months ago

OK. Running on first down statistically shows positive results. This, however, can't turn into predictability. We need creative play and play calling on offense. You have to always have a defense guessing as much as possible because we don't have the horses to just line up and beat people. To me, that means calling plays in a sequence which is difficult to predict. You can't have a defense playing run on every KU first down. Meaning, you have to throw some on first down, and throw some on 3rd and one or two. Almost any team at any level does poorly statistically from 3rd and 6 or longer. Sometimes you throw it long on third and six from mid field even if intercepted (sometimes as good as a punt) to just let defenses know you can and will throw long. Shoot...what do I know? I've looked and I don't have one Super Bowl ring on my dresser. But I do know you can't become predictable at this level on 1st down.

HighQ 8 years, 7 months ago

There are short passes

With a three-step drop back that

Equal running plays.

KGphoto 8 years, 7 months ago

This is one reason I get annoyed with stats. They can only take you so far. They don’t really take into account the game situation. So many variables are not included.

-Was the play in the first quarter when defenses are amped, or the fourth when defenses are tired? I’d bet we have a higher success rate in the fourth quarter on running plays. Probably a higher rate on all plays, actually.

-Were we playing from behind or with a lead? You know, are we trying to milk the clock or stop the clock?

-Were they playing prevent defense? Do we have to move that ball all the way down the field in just over a minute? (Our last drive of the game vs. LaTech.)

-Were we bottled up inside our own ten yard line, or were we in the red zone? Are we trying to get into field position for a field goal or do we need a TD?

-How does a QB sack fit into this? Is that a run or a pass? I think it counts as a negative rush, but the idea is to pass.

I could’ve done a much better job with my examples but the point is, you don’t make a call by looking at a bar graph. You make a call you think will work on that particular down, in that particular situation.

Micky Baker 8 years, 7 months ago

You're right. Analyzying the stats is difficult to do. Stats don't tell the whole story. Remember when Tony Sands rushed for 396 yards in one game? I do. It was against Missouri. We didn't win the national championship either.

KGphoto 8 years, 7 months ago

I was at that game! Boy that Misery defense was pathetic. He had open space all day. The stat that I remember more than how many yards he gained, was his 58 carries. LOL! 58 in one game!!

We were laughing all the way through that one. “Anybody wanna guess the play?” “Here he comes.” we would taunt the older Mizzou couple near us. “He’s gonna gitcha. Here he comes.. Ope, there he goes."

Good times.

Joe Ross 8 years, 7 months ago

Keegs, your analysis fails in at least one respect. You simply compare passing on first down to running on first down. In reality, you should break down the passes into screens and short passes versus longer ones of say, 6 or more yards. The numbers I have chosen are arbitrary, but you get the idea. The logic is clear. Longer completed passes lead to fewer 3rd and 6th situations (if that is the distinction being used) than shorter completed passes. I have argued that Kansas needs to go down the field more. The passing game does not get vertical enough. When it did in the last game, great things happened.

Not just a question of passing versus running.

Micky Baker 8 years, 7 months ago

That is true as well. A lot of those high percentage passes were dropped by our receivers. Some of those really sting from the Rice Game. Could have been the difference in that ball game.

One of the things that is a bright spot though, the defense is allowing less than 14 points per game so far.

Kit Duncan 8 years, 7 months ago

Oddly enough, against a run oriented defense, you need to pass first to keep the linebackers from crowding the line of scrimmage. Once they stop filling the gaps, runs on first down can break for long gains.

Then, even better, a play action pass on first down when the LB's/DB's start inching forward after a couple of big gains on first down and, BAM! Down the field for a long gain or better yet, touchdown!

troutsee 8 years, 7 months ago

Unlike many people on this board, I usually like what Keegs writes. However, I could not disagree more with the premise of this article. What makes offenses go (besides having the 5 star Jimmies and Joes) is unpredictability. I sit up in the stands and hear dimwits say over and over again, "Just run the ball." Offenses have to mix it up. Those that don't fail.

I am pessimistic about this O line, however. They seem to be over-matched. That Army team that made mince meat out of La Tech had lost 3 games. Tulane also ran all over La Tech on La Tech's home field. And, neither Tulane or Army are exactly powerhouses this year.

We have an accurate QB this year. Let's use him.

Dirk Medema 8 years, 7 months ago

Tulane ran for 2.9 ypr for 129 yds. That's not running all over anyone.

Army, yes, they got 5.4 ypr for 414 yds. That's what they do (1 comp for 16 yds)

NCState on the other hand got 4.2 ypr for 237 yds, so KU @ 3.5 ypr for 117 yds was slightly worse, but still better than Tulane.

Maybe you need to check your facts before posting.

troutsee 8 years, 7 months ago

Hey, big shot, I watched the Tulane-La Tech game. Did you? Tulane manhandled them. Offense is both passing and running and Tulane moved the ball at will against them.

Maybe you should think before you post insulting remarks.

Micky Baker 8 years, 7 months ago

129 yards per game, however, is not running all over them. That is true. By the way, Army leads the nation in rushing with more than 300 yards per game on average against all of their opponents this season. That is if they've played five games. If they've only played four games, it's more than 400 yards per game.

Army has 1627 Yards Rushing for the season so far.

Jack Jones 8 years, 7 months ago

My head hurts. Between the absurd meaningless numbers {the outcome of any sporting event depends entirely on how well your guy (or woman) plays on a given day versus how well mine play} ~~ and the juvenile back-and-forth playground insults ~ Give me a break, please.

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