During my collegiate years a statement by my Head Coach stuck with me, and has remained with me to this day. Ed DeGeorge for my money, the greatest coach I ever saw up close once told me that the most important down in football is first down. At the time, I wasn’t sure that I agreed. If 1st down is so important, why do they keep track of third down conversions? His response was simple and I believe still has value today. DeGeorge argued, when you win on first down you control the rest of the series often allowing the defense to dictate terms.
Do Football Metrics Matter?
Baseball and even ice hockey have now gone to super analysis and super metrics. I’m sure basketball has as well, though I don’t follow it as closely. But what about football with the advent of the spread, no-huddle, RPO’s, and everything else offensively can we gain anything from studying metrics? I believe we can.
Normal Metrics for the Irish and Tigers
Many of the analysts leading up to game day will tout the regular metrics that often define teams in big games. Consider the following:
Notre Dame Clemson
Points For 33.8 45.4
Points Against 17.3 13.7
3rd Down Conversions 44% 44%
4th Down Conversions 65% 53%
RedZone Scoring Rate 86% 91%
Yards Per Play 6.2 7.4
When we examine the basic metrics it would seem that Clemson has some slight advantages heading into the Cotton Bowl. However, what about my first down theory?
Fighting Irish on First Down
For the season the Irish ran 397 plays on first down for 2,665 yards and a sparkling 6.7 yards per play on first down. Now keep in mind, that Brandon Wimbush started four of those games. In those contests the Irish production dropped to around 6.2 yards per play on first down. Incidentally, in the case of Ian Book his first three performances saw the Irish average just 5.1 yards on first down which is contrasted with the 7.6 yards per play he helped produce over his final five starts.
Clemson on First Down
Clemson playing one additional game ran 437 plays on first down for 3,403 yards and a remarkable 7.8 yards per play on first down. The Tigers also endured a quarterback change as Kelly Bryant gave way to current starterTrevor Lawrence after week four. Under Bryant the Tigers averaged 7.6 yards per play on first down. This average improved to 7.9 under Lawrence.
So what does first down tell us anyway?
I have never been a big believer in comparing schedules and common opponents because teams perform differently week to week. However, I will be paying special attention to first downs during the Cotton Bowl. Consider, Clemson forced a total of 20 turnovers and recorded a staggering 121 tackles for losses, 46 sacks and broke up 53 passes. AP First Team All-Americans Clelin Ferrell and Christian Wilkins combined for 30.5 tackles for losses and 15.5 sacks by themselves.
On the other hand, Notre Dame produced 73 tackles for losses, 31 sacks, and they broke up 56 passes. The Fighting Irish also managed to force 20 turnovers during the season. Jerry Tillery who garnered some All-American honors, Khalid Kareem, and Julian Okwara combined for 32 tackles for losses and19.5 sacks along the Notre Dame defensive front.
If Notre Dame or Clemson gets behind the first down marker by way of poor play on first down, expect the big boys up front on either team to turn it loose and wreak havoc on second and third down. Make no mistake, the team that wins consistently on first down in the Cotton Bowl takes a major step towards advancing to the National Championship game.