Why BYU’s Hail Mary wasn’t the most important play against Nebraska.

NE vs. IA, 2014. Huskers 3rd Down Conversion Rate: 33.3%
NE vs. IA, 2014. Huskers 3rd Down Conversion Rate: 33.3%

As I watched the fourth quarter of the Nebraska vs. BYU football game, I was thinking like an uber Husker fan. There were thoughts of excitement, as Brandon Reilly caught a pass giving the Huskers some comfort and space. There were also some anxious moments, as no opportunity seemed to be taken advantage of, to put the game away. As a sports fan, when your team allows the opponent to stick around, you can never have peace of mind.

Like many Husker fans (I assume), I saw the BYU Hail Mary 25 to 50 times the following week. Each time I had questions about what happened. Specifically, I was frustrated on how did they could let it happen? I also worried what it meant for the general opinion of new Husker coach, Mike Reilly.

After the short term trauma of the loss was over, I went back and watched the fourth quarter. I had one question that I wanted to pay attention to: What did the Huskers do on third downs. Here were the third down opportunities I recorded:

#1. 3rd and 1, Quarterback (Armstrong) sneak stopped short: 0 for 1
#2. 3rd and 1, Newby stopped behind line: 0 for 2
#3. 3rd and 3, Turner stopped on fly sweep: 0 for 3

My opinion is that if the Huskers make just one of those first downs, they likely win. If they make two of those first downs, I’d guarantee they would have won the game. This opinion and observations, allowed me to ask:

What is the 3rd Down coversion rates for the Huskers on games they win vs. games they lose. To answer this, I went and pulled the data from cfbstats.com and this is a few observations I made:

The average 3rd Down Conversions, since 2008.
Loss: 34%
Wins: 45%

Interestingly, during the BYU game the Huskers averaged 43% on 3rd Down conversions (as noted 0% in the 4th quarter). This had me wondering if it’s an outlier for a Husker team to average 43% and still lose? It’s obviously quite a bit higher than the average conversion rate of a Husker loss. To answer this, I looked at the 99% confidence interval associated with the 3rd Down conversions during a loss, which was: 6.979.

This means that in a Husker loss, you can be 99% confident that the 3rd Down conversion rate will be between 27% and 41%.

When you look at the 29 losses the Huskers have had from 2008 through the BYU game, there have been 9 games where they lost yet had a 3rd Down Conversion Rate above 41%. Those games were the following:

Date, Opponent, Score, 3rd Down Conversion
*indicates opponent was ranked

*11/1/08, lost to Oklahoma: 28 to 62, 41.67%
*10/1/11, lost to Wisconsin: 17 to 48, 41.67%
*11/16/13, lost to Michigan State: 28 to 41, 41.67%
9/5/15, lost to BYU: 28-33, 42.86
11/22/14, lost to Minnesota: 24-28, 46.15%
*1/1/13, lost to Georgia: 31-45, 50%
*10/11/08, lost to Texas Tech: 31-37, 58.33%
11/5/11, lost to Northwestern: 25-28, 58.82%
*10/4/08, lost to Missouri: 17-52, 63.16%

The games that stand out to me include: BYU, Minnesota, Texas Tech and Northwestern. They stand out because the games were close, at least according to the final score. I watched each of these games, but don’t remember the ’08 Texas Tech game to remember if the final score reflected the game. The other games were big losses, where my assumption is that our conversion rates remained higher because the opponent had less urgency or need to generate a “3 and out”.

In many ways, I think I’m a fan trying to analyze a loss in a way that gives me hope. While the ultimate metric to judge a team by in sports is Wins and Losses, this review did give me some ability to believe the season can still be a good year. The deep fear for many Husker fans is that we’ll have to sit through a rocky season as the new coaching staff teaches up the players they have, for an offensive style that many were not recruited for. While 3rd Down Conversions may not be the best statistic to identify offensive efficiency, it’s what I reviewed because of the fourth quarter issues I observed in that game.

My conclusion is this:

1. The game was an outlier in many respects, but the one outlier that it will be remembered for is that it was lost on a Hail Mary. One of the most rare plays in sports.

2. It seems easier to predict a win based on a conversion rate above 41%, compared to predicting a loss below 41%. The Huskers won 26 times since 2008 with a conversion rate on third down at 40% or lower.

Some other random stats:

— Nebraska won with a 7.14% 3rd Down Conversion rate against Oklahoma in 2009, 10 to 3. An argument for good defenses (which included N. Suh that year!)
— 34.78% is Nebraska’s 3rd Down Conversion rate against ranked opponents since 2008. Notice how close that is to our rate in losses.