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Stat of the Game: KU’s First-Down Woes Against Nicholls State

The Jayhawks weren’t exactly lighting it up on first and 10.

NCAA Football: Nicholls State at Kansas Amy Kontras-USA TODAY Sports

There were plenty of interesting stats to dissect from the first Kansas football game of the year, stats that were telling of the disappointing outcome.

The struggle for Kansas on third down has been well documented. The Jayhawks converted less than 30 percent of their third-down chances last year and went 6-17 (35 percent) against an FCS defense in the first game of 2018 (Nicholls State, meanwhile, went 10-20). So yeah, not good.

I was planning to write something on Kansas’ struggles there, but my curiosity took me to wondering how they got into those unsuccessful third-down positions.

While looking through the play-by-play of the drives from Saturday’s game, something else stuck out to me that has been less talked about: Kansas was pretty inefficient on first down as well. This may end up being a season-long series looking at one important stat from each game—with some being pretty straightforward and others deeper dives—so what better place to start?

The Stat

Kansas ran 29 plays that took place on first down (Note: this is different than the number of first downs the Jayhawks earned, as it counts the first play of the series.), and on those 29 plays, 19 resulted in no more than three yards gained.

The Breakdown

Using the play-by-play breakdown on ESPN, I went through KU’s production on every first-down play. Of those 19 that gained three yards or less, four were for negative yardage, eight were for no yardage, three for one yard, two for two yards (one of those was a false start and then a seven-yard gain, so it only netted two yards from the original spot of the ball), and two for three yards.

For perspective, Kansas had as many first-down plays resulting in negative yardage as it did gaining 10+ yards for a new first down. The Jayhawks had another four plays where they earned four yards. That leaves six of 29 plays where KU gained five or more yards.

All of this is to say: Kansas routinely struggled to come out and hit a FCS defense in the mouth. A lack of production on first down led to a lot of second-and-long situations, which led to plenty of third-down plays with five or more yards to go. It’s no wonder the Jayhawks weren’t converting many third-down plays.

It’ll be interesting to watch if this area of the offense improves at all against Central Michigan or throughout the season. The more the offense, and offensive line specifically, plays together, the more successful it should be. Though it will be against tougher competition, so we’ll cross that bridge if/when we get there.