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Second downs are hurting Northwestern's offense

Coaches love to talk about first and third downs, but the oft-neglected second down is hurting Northwestern.

David Banks

Last week, commenter GoCatsGo2003 made one of the more insightful comments I've seen when discussing the intricacies of Northwestern's offensive woes. Specifically, he thought that NU's play-calling on second down and short — focused clearly on just getting a first down — might not be the best strategy.

Second and short - most teams use this down and distance to take a shot, but we seem to almost always "cash in" the first down to move the sticks when a little more aggressiveness might help.

We don't have access to stats specifically for second and short, but when it comes to all second down pass plays, Northwestern's offense is particularly abysmal, even when you compare it to NU's already poor 120th ranking in yards per pass attempt.

Down Yards Per Attempt Yards Per Completion
First 5.82 10.32
Second 4.51 7.40
Third 7.23 13.10
All 5.85 10.24

It's evident looking at the situational stats of NU's top three receivers, as well.

Down Dan Vitale YPC Kyle Prater YPC Miles Shuler YPC
First 11.30 9.00 9.50
Second 5.60 8.75 5.38
Third 12.82 12.38 11.25
All 10.85 10.15 8.26

While the yards per attempt numbers are bad, the yards per completion numbers are really of interest here. They show that even when Northwestern's receivers are catching the ball, the passes are incredibly short. The second quarter yards per completion number is worse than any school's overall average, and it's worse than 52 schools' overall yards per attempt! That's truly incredible! And it's safe to assume this means that NU is running far shorter routes on second down than it is on first and third down.

Moreover the running — outside of Justin Jackson — has been similarly awful on second down (you'll notice how bad it was on third down too. More on third and "manageable" coming Wednesday.)

Down Team Rushing YPC Justin Jackson YPC
First 4.22 5.15
Second 2.89 4.67
Third 1.75 2.64
All 3.36 4.70

When you consider that a successful play means getting 70 percent of the necessary yardage on second down, Northwestern is probably hardly ever running successful second down plays. And that's a really good way to end up with a success rate that ranks 99th in the nation.

So how can this be fixed? Well, there's no sure fix, but calling longer second down routes and running with Justin Jackson if you're going to run it seem like solid places to start.