Keeping It Clean: How Well Teams Do on Clean Drives

Perhaps the quickest way to make fans angry are drive killing plays. These are negative plays that make it extremely hard for the offense to recover and get points on a drive. Avoiding these plays allows an offense to keep its entire playbook available on each down. To wrap up the 2020 regular season, I wanted to look how often teams across the Big Ten do at scoring on drives with these bad plays and drives with no major mistakes.

For this analysis, I focused on all offensive plays. A “bad play” is defined as a play with an EPA of -1 or lower. Why -1? First, it is a good round number that makes for an easy definition. Second, it is around the lowest 17% of all offensive plays in the Big Ten this season. This is approximately all plays at least one standard deviation below the mean EPA. These two factors make this a nice, albeit still arbitrary, definition of a bad play. From there, I focused on the percent of drives that score points with and without bad plays.

Mistakes or not, Justin Fields and the Ohio State offense can put up points. The Buckeyes scoring rate is top in the league on both types of drives. The Buckeyes score on nearly 80% of drives without a major mistake and still score on 36% of drives when they do make a mistake. Nebraska is an interesting team on this ranking 10th in scoring rate on clean drives while second on drives with a bad play.

One tool we can use to analyze a scoring rate is the odds ratio. An odds ratio can tell us the change in likelihood of success of being in one group versus another. In this case, the odds of scoring on a clean drive versus the odds of scoring on a bad drive.

In the Big Ten, Wisconsin is the most heavily dependent on putting together a clean drive. The Badgers are 14.8 times as likely to score on a clean drive versus one where they make a mistake. The next closest team, Maryland, is below 10 at 9.8 times as likely to score on a clean drive. Nebraska, as mentioned above, is on the bottom of the list. The Cornhuskers are only 2.2 as likely to score on clean drives than bad drives.

Bad plays, obviously, impact an offense’s ability to score. However, an elite offense, like Ohio State can recover from these types of drives and still find ways to put points on the board. Finding a way to disrupt an offense like Wisconsin could end a Badger drive with its dependence on clean drives.

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