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Why Red-Zone Play Calling May Decide Nebraska vs. Northwestern

Northwestern's offense seems to change and become more conservative in the red zone. The Wildcats can't play not to lose if they want to beat Nebraska.

Justin K. Aller

If you haven't been to Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Nebraska for a Cornhuskers football game, then you've been lucky enough not to have your eyes singed by the shear intensity of red worn by over 100,000 people. Not to mention, the chants of "Go Big Red!" that constantly remind you that red is the school's preferred color just in case you may have closed your eyes.

You may be wondering if there's a theme brewing here and there most definitely is. It's red. And what better way to use red than to write about how the red zone will impact Northwestern's game against Nebraska.

Evaluating red-zone stats can be tricky, especially when trying to determine which are useful and which are not. Efficiency stats such as red-zone yards per carry and yards per pass attempt can be especially misguiding because the maximum passes and runs are 20 yards.

In many ways, the red zone should reflect the other 80% of the field and the only difference is that the threat to score is greater.

With this greater threat comes a discussion of red-zone efficiency. Many groups, including the NCAA, consider the most efficient red-zone offenses to be the ones that score either a field goal or touchdown most often and the most efficient red-zone defenses to be the ones that give up either a field goal or touchdown least often.

That, really, doesn't make much sense.

Often times, giving up a field goal in the red zone could be considered a "win" for the defense and being held to a field goal could be a failure on the offense's part, yet it will still count against the offense and for the defense in those more traditional metrics.

An easy fix is to just divide the number of total points scored or given up in the red zone and divide that by the number of red-zone drives to get red-zone points per possession.

When looking at these metrics, here are how Northwestern's and Nebraska's red-zone offense and defense numbers stack up.

OFFENSE Northwestern 4.86 47
Nebraska 5.69 16
DEFENSE Northwestern 4.32 28
Nebraska 4.18 23

The biggest difference between the two teams is in the offensive red-zone points per possession.

Now one reason for that difference is Nebraska running back Ameer Abdullah, one of the top backs in the nation. He'd, obviously, make any team better.

But, taking a deeper look at the stats, the difference between Northwestern and Nebraska's play calling may have something to do with this too.


The chart compares Northwestern's and Nebraska's play types at various points on the field: inside the team's own 20, from the team's own 20 to 39, from the team's own 40 to the opponent's 40, from the opponent's 39 to 20 and inside the opponent's 20 or the red zone.

The graphic makes it pretty clear which team has more of a consistent offensive identity. While Nebraska always prefers to run the football (as they should), Northwestern drastically changes its play calling tendencies depending on where the team is on the field.

Because Northwestern's red-zone defense is relatively comparable to Nebraska's red-zone offense, it puts even more pressure on the Wildcats' red-zone offense to hold serve.

When Northwestern's offense gets out into midfield, it becomes more aggressive through the air. This helps both in the passing game and the run game. Northwestern is most effective throwing (over 11.5 yards per attempt) and running (8.17 yards per carry between the 40-yard lines) near midfield.

As the team moves farther down the field, it's clear that the play calling becomes more conservative and is geared more toward the run. When that happens, the offense's yards-per-carry average drops to just 3.09 in the red zone.

Northwestern will need to take more chances through the air to capitalize on any red-zone opportunity it may get. Field goals will not get it done. The Wildcats will have to score touchdowns to beat Nebraska and their best opportunity may be to be a little more aggressive.