If Justin Fields, But Only On First Down were a quarterback, he would rank 2nd in the nation in completion percentage and tenth in yards per attempt. JFBOOFD would also have the 14th-best yards per rushing attempt in the Big Ten, despite the NCAA’s ludicrous statistical approach to sacks. (The rest of this piece won’t be including sacks in rushing totals. Revolution!)
Fields has run or thrown the ball on 105 first downs this year for the Buckeyes, and he’s averaging 8.4 yards per play on those downs. And while plenty of those snaps have gone for big gains, the most impressive aspect of JFBOOFD is his consistent ability to keep Ohio State out of second-and-long.
If Ohio State’s going to upset Alabama in the National Championship, they’ll likely need Fields to stick as close as he can to that distribution on first down.
The four teams who’ve come nearest to handing the Tide a loss – look, we’re using that term somewhat generously, it’s Alabama – all took different approaches to first down. Let’s start with the most recently dispatched opponent, Notre Dame.
In the first three quarters of their semifinal loss last Friday (the game was mostly in hand after that), the Irish ran 13 times on first down while attempting only four passes. That strategy helped Notre Dame control the clock, but it didn’t yield much yardage. Those first down plays averaged a gain of 1.8 yards, and the distribution’s about as bleak as that number would suggest.
Florida tried the opposite strategy in the SEC Championship game, with seven first-down runs against 25 passes. Overall, that was a more successful approach (the Gators more than tripled Notre Dame’s average, with 5.9 yards gained per first down play), but those numbers largely rest on three big passes Florida had on first down. Those plays gathered 25, 39, and 50 yards, and the other 29 plays averaged 2.5 yards.
While the overall distribution for Florida looks a lot better than Notre Dame’s, the Gators still had a lot of sequences that started slowly, and Florida needed to go 8 of 11 on third down to hang with the Tide.
Georgia and Ole Miss each took a more balanced approach. The Bulldogs had an 18/13 split of throws to runs on first down, and the Rebels called 15 passes to 21 rushing plays. Both were solid running the ball – 4.8 yards per run for Georgia, 4.6 for Mississippi – but Georgia’s passing game left a bit to be desired. Stetson Bennett went 7/17 throwing on first down, averaging just 4.4 yards. That’s why, despite having a much more successful ground attack against Bama than Florida mustered, Georgia’s distribution chart doesn’t look that different.
Ole Miss, on the other hand, had a pretty good first-down airborne night against Alabama, completing 11 of 14 pass attempts for an average of 12.9 yards per throw. Like Florida, they hit three big plays (two passes, one run), but even if you take the 154 yards they gained away from the Rebels, Ole Miss still averaged 3.2 yards on their remaining 33 first-down plays. Not amazing (again, it’s Alabama), but productive enough to keep options open for the offense.
Lane Kiffin’s offense also avoided zero- and negative-yard plays on first down more effectively than their SEC East counterparts.
And had Ole Miss allowed less than the 723 yards of offense they gave up to Alabama (600, while still a lot, would have been a massive improvement), that performance on first down might have been enough for the upset.
Which brings us all the way back to JFBOOFD. Fields was masterful on first down against Clemson, completing 10 of his 12 passes for 133 yards and adding 29 more on two runs. (There’s a pick in there too, though it came on a tipped ball at the line.) That’s an average gain of 11.6 yards, and a big reason why Ohio State had more touchdown drives (7) than third downs faced on those drives (6).
Against Northwestern, on the other hand, Fields struggled mightily. His final first-down line: 4/11, 43 yards, one interception, and five rushes for 18 yards. Ohio State only finished with two touchdown drives against the Wildcats, and neither required the Buckeyes to convert a third down. Trey Sermon, fortunately, completely dominated on first down, picking up 218 yards on 15 carries.
Ohio State could lean on Sermon for its early downs against Alabama – Ezekiel Elliott’s 85-yard touchdown run in the 2014 semifinal came on first and ten, as it turns out. But JFBOOFD playing well would make Sermon’s job, and Ohio State’s task, a hell of a lot easier.