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Should Boston College throw more on first down? A look at the stats

The stats say that Patrick Towles is most successful when throwing on first down.

Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports

Steve Addaizo often talks about "cracking the rock" and the need for his team to "crank up the running game". Addazio’s offensive philosophy is obviously a run-first approach and that’s something that is never going to change. At the same time, Addazio admits that his team needs to get more balanced going forward. On Monday, Addazio was asked how he was going to balance the rushing and passing game.

"The simple answer is you can’t afford to do too much of anything. Going back and saying to me, being fundamental, more simplistic, is an opportunity to be … we wanted to establish the run game. We felt like we had to do that. That was something that had to happen. And it still has to happen, so that mindset is not going to change. But this week, we know we need to be more balanced. We know that. And for us, we were pretty balanced playing Georgia Tech. We’d like to go back and get more balanced," said Addazio.

While talking about being balanced sounds good the truth of the matter is that  Addazio’s BC teams have never been balanced on run/pass ratio, especially on first downs. So far this season the Eagles have 27 passing attempts on first down compared to 78 rushing attempts on first down for a terribly lopsided 74.2%/25.8 run to pass percentage. Surprisingly, that split is actually on pace for the closest to a 50/50 run-to-pass split that we have seen since Addazio came to BC. For the prior three years, BC’s run-to-pass splits on first down were:

2013: 263 rushes/80 passes 76.6%/23.4%

2014: 309 rushes/71 passes 81.3%/18.7%

2015: 240 rushes/75 passes 76.1%/23.9%

A case could be made that BC is missing out on the potential for success on first down by not passing enough. Quarterback Patrick Towles actually has had his best success passing on first down compared to any other down. Below is the breakdown of how Towles has performed on each down:

1st down- 14-of-27, 308 yards, 3 touchdowns, 2 interceptions, 169.53 passer rating

2nd down- 12-of-20, 101 yards, 1 touchdown, 0 interceptions, 118.92 passer rating

3rd down-15-of-36, 163 yards, 0 touchdowns, 1 interception, 74.15 passer rating

Clearly Towles has his highest yards per play average when passing on first down. You can take that a step forward and see that compared to the running game, BC has much better success on first down when passing. Towles is averaging 11.4 yards per play on first down, which is not just simply adding up the yards on completions. That yards per play statistic accounts for all of the no gains when a pass falls incomplete, so 11.4 yards per play when including incomplete passes is damn good. Conversely, when the offense rushes on first down the average yards per play drops to 4.03 yards per play.

A good case could be made that the Eagles would be a lot better off attempting more passes on first down. There obviously is a small element of surprise when throwing on first down especially with BC’s long history of running overwhelmingly more on first down than throwing the ball. If Towles continues to have success on first down there would be a great opportunity for the passing game to set up the running game that Addazio wants to badly to be successful.

Is Addazio going to change though? History would tell us no, especially since he has talked many, many time publically through the years about how an incompletion on first down sets the team up to "fall behind schedule".  It’s pretty easy to counter that point though by bringing up that if you take out Jon Hilliman’s 73-yard touchdown against Georgia Tech that the team is running on a pretty slow "schedule" by averaging 3.08 yards per carry on first down. It will be interesting to see going forward if BC attempts for first down throws as the competition gets more difficult. Again, history tells us that probably won’t happen though.