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Analyzing UNC's Offense: 1st and 2nd Down

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

The second year of the Larry Fedora era has been a struggle. The defense has been bad and the offense has not lived up to the expectations set by the head coach. The start-and-stop of the Tar Heel offense this season can be seen very clearly when you take a look at the stats on first and second down.

Situation Plays Yards Average Comp % 1st downs TDs 1st/TD Conv
1st down rushing 82 233 2.84 N/A 3 1 4.9%
1st down passing 72 456 6.33 58% 24 4 38.9%
1st down total 154 689 4.47 - 27 5 20.8%
2nd down rushing 59 239 4.05 N/A 12 2 23.7%
2nd down passing 58 399 6.88 62% 20 2 37.9%
2nd down total 117 638 5.45 - 32 4 30.8%

In actuality this chart is probably not that instructive since it lacks context. Are these numbers good or bad? More on that in a minute. It is clear that UNC has no business running the ball on first down. The yardage is simply not there and the passing produces something. 28 of UNC's 32 first downs/touchdowns on first down have come via the pass yet 53% of first down plays have been runs. Besides that, the yards per play numbers look decent all things considered. Picking up four or five yards per play means you are often facing third and short which should be plenty manageable right? Also, it stands to reason the first down/touchdown conversion rates on first and second down aren't going to be through the roof given the distance faced. That is until you compare those numbers to what UNC did in 2012.

2013 2012
Situations Plays 1st/TDs Conversion Plays 1st/TDs Conversion
1st down rushing 82 4 4.9% 253 59 23.3%
1st down passing 72 28 38.9% 166 69 41.6%
1st down total 154 32 20.8% 419 128 30.5%
1st down per game 30.8 5.6 - 34.9 10.7 -
2nd down rushing 59 14 23.7% 123 44 35.8%
2nd down passing 58 22 37.9% 164 79 48.2%
2nd down total 117 36 30.8% 287 123 42.9%
2nd down per game 23.4 4.4 - 23.9 10.3 -
1st/2nd Total Rushing 141 18 12.8% 376 103 27.4%
1st/2nd Total Passing 130 50 38.5% 330 148 44.8%
1st/2nd Total 271 68 25.1% 706 251 35.6%
1st/2nd Per Game 54.2 13.6 - 58.8 20.9 -

In five games this season, North Carolina has run the ball 82 times on first down producing three first downs and one touchdown or a 4.9% conversion rate. Last season that rate was 23.3%. Why is this? As noted above UNC is only getting 2.84 yards on per carry on first down but in 2012 that average was 5.49 yards per rushing attempt. In 2012, UNC had 45 10+ yard rushing plays or 3.75 per game on first down. Nine plays went for over 20 yards.  In five games this season UNC has three rushing plays for 10+ yards on first down and none over 20. This might be the most definitive evidence as to how much the Tar Heel miss Gio Bernard and the offensive line. The running game gets better on second down at 4.04 yards per carry but still below the 5.3 rushing yards per play on second down a year ago. The "big play" numbers are a little closer with seven 10+ yard plays and two 20+ yard plays on second down. Last season UNC had 16 10+ yard plays on second down and nine over 20 yards.

When UNC passes the ball on first down, the numbers are closer but there is still a gap. Through five games UNC gets a first down or touchdown on 28 out of 72 first down plays or 38.9%. Last season the conversion rate was 41%. On second down it skews even wider with 48.2% second down plays in 2012 resulting in either a first down or touchdown. This season that rate is 37.2%. As with the rushing numbers, the "big play" stats are revealing UNC has twenty five 15+ yard pass plays on first and second down or five per game. That average was 4.9 a year ago. However the 25+ yard pass plays tell a different story. UNC has five of those on first/second down and nine total through five games. In 2012, UNC had 26 first/second down pass plays over 25 yards and 33 total or 2.7 per game. That points to UNC's downfield passing game being more prolific last season than it is now. The lack of protection is a problem there as is the lack of a running game which allows teams to focus more on pass coverage. Basically the quarterback has no time to throw and/or the receivers are well covered.

One more set of numbers to consider. In 2012, UNC had a 35% conversion rate on first or second down but only 41% on third down. This season UNC is 25% on first and second down but 45% on third. So UNC is making up for some of the early down inefficiency on third down but clearly not all of it. Accounting for the first three downs, the conversion rate this season is 29% a drop from 36% a year ago. The further explanation of this can be found in the raw yardage numbers.

2013 2012
Situation Plays Yards Average Plays Yards Average
1st down rushing 82 233 2.84 253 1389 5.49
1st down passing 72 456 6.33 166 1556 9.37
1st down total 154 689 4.47 419 2945 7.03
2nd down rushing 59 239 4.05 123 652 5.30
2nd down passing 58 399 6.88 164 1171 7.14
2nd down total 117 638 5.45 287 1823 6.35
1st/2nd Total Rushing 141 472 3.35 376 2041 5.43
1st/2nd Total Passing 130 855 6.58 330 2727 8.26
1st/2nd Total 271 1327 4.90 706 4768 6.75

The difference in both running and passing the ball on first down is stark. A team that aevrages seven yards per play on first down and then six yards on second won't see as many third downs. That offense will also move down the field in a crisp and efficient fashion. When the first and second down averages combined to come in a tad below ten that means third down is coming up more often. So far this season, UNC has run 75% of its plays on first and second down with an average of 15.8 plays per game coming on third down. A year ago those numbers were 78.6% and 14.1 respectively. In 2012, 74% of UNC's first downs or touchdowns came on first/second down, that number is 59% this season.

Racking up first downs or touchdowns on the first two plays of every four down sequence is a clear sign the ball is moving. UNC also ran four more plays on first down per game over this season and had seven more first downs or touchdowns(20.9) per game on first/second down than this season. Moving the chains on first/second down gives the offense the flexibility on play calling. The psychological impact of gashing a defense on 1st and 2nd down repeatedly, especially at the pace UNC plays, is not trivial.

The flip side(as seen this season) is putting the offensive unit in third down situations where the pressure ramps up. To their credit, the Tar Heels have done well dealing with third down, something we will look at tomorrow. However the value of getting production on first and second down cannot be overstated when it comes to the overall offensive efficiency. The quickest path to improving this area will be an upgrade to the running game.  It will also be interesting to see what impact, if any, T.J. Logan might have elevating the rushing numbers.  I think he will help in part due to his speed but the bottom line is Jonathan Cooper, Travis Bond and Brennan Williams aren't walking through that door. Since that is the case, the Heels might need to put the ball in the air more since the numbers say those plays work better.

Stats source: CFB Stats