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Situational Play Calling: Comparing Oregon State and Nebraska

Flushing out the fine differences between the Oregon State and Nebraska offenses from 2012 to 2014 and trying to understand what that might mean for Nebraska under Mike Riley.

Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

It doesn't take a stats wizard to recognize the differences in the offenses favored by Mike Riley and Bo Pelini.  At the most basic level, Riley favors a pro-style pass based offense and Pelini favors a run first offense.  There is a lot to be learned from digging deep into the situational play calling for each team.  For instance, what were the differences between OSU and NU when each team faced 2nd and 4-6 yards to go?  Did field position impact play calling more in one case than the other?

This is the first in a series of deep dive comparisons of the offenses under Riley and Pelini, comparing and contrasting their preferences in different situations. Subsequent articles will look at play calls when winning/losing and how field position impacted play calling.

Run-Pass Ratio


At the most basic level, play calling differences come down to the ratio of run to pass calls.  Oregon State favored the pass over the last three seasons more than any other team in either conference other than Mike Leach's Washington State Cougars.  The horizontal lines indicate the conference averages, but the Washington State effect skews the results.  If we take Washington State out of the average, the conference average ratio is nearly identical at about 56% run to 46% pass.

Riley has a reputation as a flexible coach willing to adapt his play calling to capitalize on the resources he has available on the field.  Riley will have more resources at his command at Nebraska, so it's tough to tell whether this reliance on the pass will continue in Lincoln.  My hunch is no, not to the degree that we see at Oregon State, but without a question that the Nebraska run-pass ratio will shift towards the pass.

Run-Pass Ratio by Down


In every down situation Nebraska favored the run to a significantly greater degree than Oregon State did.

Run-Pass Ratio by Down and Distance


Looking specifically at 1st down play calling, Nebraska was virtually allergic to the pass.  Surprisingly, when facing 1st and > 15 yards Nebraska passed less than 17% (2 of 12) of the time.  In the same situations Oregon State passed more than 80% of the time (16 of 19).  When facing the most common 1-10, Nebraska passed 30% of the time and Oregon State passed 50% of the time.


Not surprisingly, the ratios look similar for each team on 2nd down for both teams with a slight shift towards passing.  Nebraska's play choice in all 2-long situations is more understandable.  Nebraska still favored the run much more than Oregon State in every situation.


On third down and short Nebraska still favored the run, but favored the pass in every other yardage situation.  Oregon State slightly favored the pass in 3rd and short situations and overwhelming favored the pass in every other yardage situation.


On 4th down conversion attempts, Nebraska curiously split 50-50 on long yardage attempts whereas Oregon State almost exclusively passed on 4th down. (note:  I'm not sure why Nebraska's >16 and OSU's 13-15 columns are red.  There are zero plays in those bins.)

There's not a lot of unknowns here.  There's a number of reasons that Mike Riley favored the pass at Oregon State.  As a coach Mike Riley focused on offense personally as opposed to Bo Pelini who was more defensively minded.  It's possible that Riley's personal comfort level with the offense plays out in what might be considered a more aggressive offensive style.  It's also possible that his offensive decision making was an attempt to compensate for certain resource deficiencies at Oregon State.  This is a dangerous strategy, for while it can pay off in knocking off far superior teams, it can also end catastrophically.  This might account for the rather hard to understand yearly win-loss record he compiled at OSU.

Stay tuned for the next article.  I'll look at how winning or losing by small or large margins (the 'catch up' effect) impacted Nebraska and Oregon State play calling.