Examining the Efficiency of College Football Drives That Included a Sack, Penalty, Turnover & More

In Nebraska’s Monday press conference following the Huskers’ 34-31 overtime loss at Colorado, Nebraska Head Coach Scott Frost’s opening statement touched on his team’s mentality after halftime, how one additional scoring drive by the Huskers’ offense in the third quarter probably would’ve resulted in a victory and his team’s need to improve its efficiency on offense.

“Offensively, I don’t know if I said this, we had 13 or 14 possessions. We only had four without a sack, a penalty, or a tackle for loss. We scored on all four of those,” Frost said. “So we’re just not efficient enough to be as consistent as we want to be.”

(For the record, Nebraska had 13 drives in regulation, ignoring its one-play kneel down with 13 seconds left before halftime. The Huskers had seven drives without a sack, penalty or tackle for loss and they resulted in four scoring drives, two turnovers and one three-and-out, so Nebraska went four-for-four if you don’t include drives that ended with a turnover or three-and-out.)

Frost’s comments inspired us to take a closer look at “clean” drives — those in which the team on offense avoids taking a sack, penalty or tackle for loss — and how that translates to offensive efficiency.

Stadium analyzed every drive from every game involving a Top 25 team in Week 2 — a sample size of more than 500 drives.

Of course, some of the “clean” drives — once again referring to drives without a sack, penalty or tackle for loss — could still be unproductive in the form of a turnover or three-and-out, as stated previously.

If you isolate “clean” drives that also didn’t include a lost fumble, interception or a three-and-out — like Frost did in his press conference — then the average points per drive from last weekend’s games increased by nearly 50 percent.

Penalties on special teams were not counted in this analysis, nor were drives in overtime or drives that ended due to time expiring in the half or due to the winning team running out the clock in the second half.

Here are the results of our research, listed in descending order of the average points per drive based on which combination of events — sacks, tackles for loss and penalties — occurred during the drive.

Event Number of Drives Scoring % on Drives Avg. Points Per Drive
No Sacks, Penalties, TFLs, Fumble, INT or Three-and-Out on Drive 158 73.4% 4.6
No Sacks/Penalties/TFLs on Drive 236 49.2% 3.2
1+ Penalty Committed by Offense on Drive 115 32.2% 1.8
1+ TFL Allowed on Drive 221 28.1% 1.5
1+ Penalty Committed and 1+ TFL on Drive 61 27.9% 1.3
1+ Sack Allowed on Drive 85 18.8% 0.9
1+ Sack Allowed, 1+ Penalty Committed, 1+ TFL 26 15.4% 0.6



Going back to Scott Frost’s comments, we found that almost half the time (46.4% to be exact) among the 508 drives examined, offenses avoided a sack, tackle for loss or penalty. On almost half of those “clean” drives (116 of 236, or 49.2%), the offense scored, leading to an average points per drive of 3.2 points.

Among all 500+ drives examined, the scoring rate was 39 percent, leading to an average points per drive of 2.4 points, so avoiding a sack, penalty and tackle for loss improved scoring rate by roughly 10 percent and led to roughly a 0.8-points increase in average points per drive.

We found that offenses that avoid negative plays or shooting themself in the foot with committing a turnover, penalty or three-and-out scored on 73.4 percent of their drives, leading to an average points per drive of 4.6 points.

It’s obvious, and a lot easier said than done, but simply playing smart, clean football typically leads to a big pay-off on the scoreboard.

Based on our admittedly contained sample size, the second-worst thing that can happen to an offense, besides a turnover, obviously, is to allow a sack.

There were 85 drives in Week 2 in games involving a Top 25 team in which the defense sacked the quarterback. The offense scored on just 16 of those drives.

Of those 85 drives, the offense scored a touchdown on just six of those possessions, or roughly seven percent of the time.

If you’re looking for the quickest way to kill momentum on a drive (once again, other than a turnover), it’s by not protecting your quarterback. The average points per drive in Week 2 games involving a Top 25 team on drives in which there was a sack recorded was roughly 0.9 points.

While sacks are also counted as tackles for loss in college football, among the drives examined, drives in which there was at least one tackle for loss recorded on a drive saw roughly a 67-percent increase in points per drive compared to drives in which the defense recorded a sack — 1.5 points per drive on drives with a TFL compared to 0.9 points per drive on drives with a sack.

It makes sense if you think about it. A tackle for loss could be a wide receiver screen that’s quickly sniffed out by the defense and leads to a one-yard loss, or it could be a run between the tackles in which the running back is tackled just behind the line of scrimmage, while a sack could lead to a loss of 10-plus yards.

Based on a smaller sample size of 61 drives from Week 2, teams were better off committing a penalty on offense and suffering a tackle for loss on the same drive (1.3 points per possession) than allowing a sack (0.9 PPP).

Of the 508 drives examined, there were 26 drives in which the offense had the unfortunate combination of allowing a sack and committing a penalty. The teams involved scored on just four of those possessions, or 15.4 percent of the time.

Texas scored on two such drives against LSU, while Clemson and Iowa each had one.

MORE: A Statistical Deep Dive Into What Plagued Tennessee In Its 0-2 Start