Short-yardage passing had a good year, except at the end of the Super Bowl. We look at the return of quarterback runs, the rise in pass-happy strategy, and 2014 success rates for offense and defense.
27 Dec 2013
by Matt Hinton
Once upon a time, Teddy Bridgewater was a Miami kid with offers from all over the country and no intention of leaving home. Why would he? By all accounts, Bridgewater was the gem of Miami's 2011 recruiting class. As a Hurricane, he would be welcomed as the heir apparent to his former Northwestern High teammate, Jacory Harris, and reap the adulation that came with restoring The U to its rightful place in BCS bowls. The pipeline. The hometown hero. A textbook story right out of Recruiting 101.
Of course, outside of Miami, it's largely a forgotten story now, buried beneath three years of accolades for Bridgewater's ascension into a program-defining star at Louisville -– Louisville, of all places, the off-brand upstart that swooped in after Miami coach Randy Shannon was fired at the end of the 2010 season. As everyone in South Florida had hoped, Bridgewater did in fact forge a trail for local talent: Three years later, nearly two dozen players on Louisville's current roster hail from the greater Miami area, including Bridgewater, three of his top four receivers and three of the top four tacklers on defense. The roots of Louisville's rise under coach Charlie Strong are planted firmly in swampy Florida soil.
In that sense, Saturday's game between the Cardinals and Hurricanes in Orlando is both a homecoming -– Louisville is playing in the state of Florida for just the fourth time in the past four years –- and a fitting farewell, as Bridgewater is almost certainly closing out his college career before taking his highly coveted act to the NFL Draft. Only the bowl season could close a circle this cleanly: Short of another BCS game, what better way to go than giving the hometown crowd one last reminder of just how right they were?
As far as Notre Dame is concerned, any bowl that's not a BCS bowl is intrinsically beneath its station, which makes this matchup doubly deflating. Not only is Rutgers not the elite counterpart the Irish expect, the Scarlet Knights also went 0–5 against teams that finished with a winning record, dropping the last four in that category by an average of 27 points per game. Offensively, the Knights committed 26 turnovers, had no running game to speak of and felt compelled to bench the starting quarterback, Gary Nova, in favor of uninspiring backup Chas Dodd for the last two games of the regular season. Defensively, they were torched on a regular basis, yielding 300-plus passing yards in eight different games, including all six losses; just hours after accepting the bowl bid, defensive coordinator Dave Cohen was fired along with a pair of position coaches on offense, leaving the defensive calls on Saturday in the hands of the special teams coordinator, Joe Rossi. (A few weeks before, a former player accused Cohen of bullying for calling him a "pussy" and a "bitch" in front of teammates and requested disciplinary action from the university.) As far as Vegas is concerned, Rutgers is the biggest underdog of the entire bowl season.
Just about the only area in which the Knights held their own was run defense, where they ranked No. 1 nationally in opportunity rate (explained here) and held ten of twelve opponents below their season average for total rushing yards. Theoretically, that puts them in good position to exploit Notre Dame's most glaring weakness on offense, its inability to convert on obvious passing downs: On third-and-7 and longer, the Irish converted just 26 percent, barely half their rate on third-and-6 or less. But again, as the tale of the tape shows, Rutgers' secondary on passing downs didn't do much to inspire confidence even when the front seven did.
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Notre Dame 37, Rutgers 16
After 12 games, what did we learn about Cincinnati? Not much! On one hand, yes, the Bearcats won nine games, putting them in position to win ten for the sixth time in seven years, under three different head coaches. (Prior to that run, they'd never won more than eight.) On the other hand, only one of those victories came at the expense of a winning team, and two of Cincy's three losses were embarrassing flops against Illinois (No. 70 in the final F/+ ratings) and South Florida (No. 98); the schedule as a whole ranked 108th in degree of difficulty according to Brian Fremeau and 119th according to Jeff Sagarin, softer than a handful of FCS schedules. In that context, a down-to-the-wire, 31–24 loss to Louisville in the season finale was arguably the Bearcats' best performance of the year, because it was the only one against an opponent that spent any time in the polls.
Meanwhile, North Carolina is equally difficult to peg, albeit for very different reasons: Where Cincinnati waited virtually all season to prove its mettle against bowl-worthy competition, UNC was in over its head immediately, dropping the season opener at South Carolina en route to a 1–5 start –- all five losses coming at the hands of teams that closed the regular season in the F/+ top forty. From there, the Tar Heels rallied to win five in a row, including victories over bowl-bound Boston College and Pittsburgh, and made a successful transition in the process from senior quarterback Bryn Renner to sophomore Marquise Williams after Renner went down with a season-ending shoulder injury. By that point, Williams was already seeing increased time in the Wildcat role, and comes into the bowl as the team's leading rusher even after subtracting sacks. As a passer, he's less reliable -– outside of a prolific throwaway game against Old Dominion, Williams completed just 55.4 percent of his passes -– but has more than enough arm to challenge the Bearcats downfield with the help of his leading receivers, Eric Ebron and Quinshad Davis, who combined for 16 catches covering at least 25 yards.
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North Carolina 31, Cincinnati 24
While Teddy Bridgewater's place at the top of the pecking order next April is all but assured, the same can hardly be said of his doppelgänger on Saturday, Stephen Morris, whose rare combination of arm strength and inconsistency has scattered his draft projections to the wind. On paper, Miami was Louisville's equal in terms of yards and points per game, and fared better in every major advanced category. But the Hurricanes' success was largely of the boom-or-bust variety: Although Morris' receivers ranked fourth nationally in yards per reception (trailing only Baylor, LSU and Florida State), he was nowhere near Bridgewater in terms of completion percentage and interceptions, serving up a dozen picks to Bridgewater's four in fewer attempts.
Then again, Bridgewater was rarely faced with picking up the slack for one of the most generous defenses in the nation –- quite the opposite, in fact –- a burden Morris knows all too well. In conference play, Miami finished dead last in the ACC by yielding 482 yards per game, including 500-yard outings by Virginia Tech and Pittsburgh, two of the most anemic attacks in the league. In advanced terms, the Canes were worst in the conference in almost every capacity, bringing up the bottom in both Defensive F/+ and Defensive S&P+, against the run and the pass, on Standard Downs and Passing Downs, in Adjusted Line Yards and Stuff Rate. They were also last in third-down rate, for good measure. The only thing the defense did relatively well was force turnovers, taking the ball away more times (27) than any other ACC defense except Florida State's. But even on that front, Miami was hit-or-miss, finishing in the red in turnover margin in five different games. Meanwhile, Louisville finished in the red only once en route to posting the second-best turnover margin in the nation.
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Louisville 32, Miami 24
For Michigan, November was the month from Hell: In a season-defining, four-game stretch against division rivals Michigan State, Nebraska, Northwestern and Iowa, the offense averaged 32.5 yards rushing –- that's per game –- and managed a grand total of three touchdowns in regulation, two of them on drives that began in opposing territory. (The patchwork offensive line was so hopeless in this stretch, Michigan ended the season ranked 114th out of 126 teams in Adjusted Line Yards, and 126th on Standard Downs.) When the offense came out of hibernation against Ohio State, racking up 41 points on 603 total yards, the defense slumbered in its place, yielding 42 points on 526 yards. After a 6–1 start, only a miracle field goal to force overtime at Northwestern kept the Wolverines from finishing 0–5. And just to add the cherry on top, we learned earlier this week that quarterback Devin Gardner delivered the best performance of his career against OSU while playing the entire fourth quarter on a broken foot, nullifying any chance of an encore to carry into 2014. Instead, the offense against K-State is in the hands of a true freshman, Shane Morris, who made two regular-season appearances in garbage time.
Kansas State's season took the opposite turn: After a dismal, 0–3 start in Big 12 play, the Wildcats took six of their last seven behind an offense that embraced tag-team quarterbacks Jake Waters and Daniel Sams. Ostensibly, the division of labor calls for Waters to handle the passing duties while Sams serves as a glorified tailback. In practice, it's not nearly as clear-cut, as Waters averaged nearly nine carries per game (including sacks) and Sams has proved to be a surprisingly efficient passer against defenses that overplay the run. (A base play for the Wildcats this season is a run-pass option that allows either quarterback, operating from the shotgun, to execute a short jump pass as he moves toward the line of scrimmage on an apparent QB power, as seen on this touchdown pass against Oklahoma State.) As long as Bill Snyder is in charge the first priority at K-State will always be establishing the run, but when all else fails, All-Big 12 wide out Tyler Lockett is an ever-present threat. In five games in which a) Lockett was in the lineup, and b) The Wildcats were held below 200 yards rushing, Lockett came down with at least seven catches for well over 100 yards in all five.
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Kansas State 29, Michigan 23
Admittedly, it's never easy to generate much enthusiasm for a pair of unranked, 7–5 also-rans who were hoping for a more attractive time slot than Nashville on a Monday afternoon. But at least the Rebels and Yellow Jackets came by those records honestly: Of the ten losses between them, nine came at the hands of teams ranked in the F/+ top 30, five of those by a touchdown or less. (The tenth was Ole Miss' overtime loss at Mississippi State to close the regular season, two days before Georgia Tech lost in overtime to its in-state rival, Georgia.) Between Ole Miss' upsets of Texas and LSU and Georgia Tech's lopsided win over the eventual ACC Coastal champ, Duke, both sides deserve some credit for holding their own against a pair of daunting schedules.
As always with Georgia Tech, of course, the prevailing question is whether the opposing defense can hold its own against the Yellow Jackets' unique triple-option scheme, which doesn't necessarily bear any relationship to how well it fared against the rest of its schedule. That's good news for Ole Miss, which was repeatedly gashed on the ground by top-shelf spread-option attacks from Auburn (282 yards on 5.9 per carry), Texas A&M (241 on 5.4 per carry) and Missouri (260 on 5.1 per carry), all Rebel losses. For its part, Georgia Tech balanced the ledger a bit by attempting 15.5 passes per game, easily the most pass-happy ratio of coach Paul Johnson's tenure, without sacrificing anything in terms of rushing yards per game or per carry. At the same time, quarterback Vad Lee was far less reliable as a passer than his predecessor, Tevin Washington, finishing at or near the bottom of the ACC in both completion percentage (47.2) and pass efficiency (106.0 in conference games), leaving it open for debate just how much Johnson's offense gains from increased "balance."
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Ole Miss 30, Georgia Tech 21
Inevitably in a game like this, presumed assessments veer into the lowest form of "analysis," armchair psychology. For two teams that began the season with much higher aspirations, and still carried those aspirations well into November, the matchup itself pales in comparison to the big, over-arching narratives that accompany it. Mack Brown is coaching his last game at Texas: A rallying point for the Longhorns, or an excuse to move on mentally to 2014? Oregon failed to earn a BCS bid after deflating November losses at Stanford and Arizona: A wake-up call for a complacent powerhouse, or the opening stages of post-Chip Kelly decline? Both programs have much bigger questions in front of them, and bigger stakes, than a consolation win in the Alamo Bowl.
When you get right down to it, though, the pressing on-field question is this: How far has Texas come defensively against spread-to-run offenses? In September, the Longhorns were a well-documented disaster, yielding 550 yards rushing to BYU in a nationally televised humiliation that cost defensive coordinator Manny Diaz his job the following morning; one week later, Ole Miss rode the same read-option blueprint to 272 yards on 6.0 per carry, literally running away from UT in the second half of a 44–23 rout. In the meantime, Big 12 offenses have not come close to replicating that success – in conference play, Texas finished fourth in rushing defense and third in yards per carry allowed, better than BCS-bound Baylor and Oklahoma on both counts, and allowed just three runs longer than 30 yards. But no Big 12 offense was as productive on the ground as Oregon's, and no Big 12 quarterback presented as potent a run/pass threat as Marcus Mariota. At full speed, the Ducks are either the ultimate nightmare for a banged-up Texas front seven, or the ultimate vindication for its transformation under Diaz's replacement, Greg Robinson.
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Oregon 41, Texas 20
Even if you haven't seen this particular team play under this particular head coach, if you've followed Texas Tech at all over the last three years the sour turn in the middle of the 2013 season will look all too familiar. In 2011, the Raiders started 5–2 and rose to 19th in the polls following a mid-October upset over No. 3 Oklahoma; from there, they lost their last five by 31 points per game. In 2012, the Raiders started 6–1 and rose to 18th following a mid-October upset over No. 5 West Virginia; from there, they dropped four of their last five -– the lone victory coming against the worst team in the Big 12, Kansas, in overtime –- and watched coach Tommy Tuberville skip town for Cincinnati before the bowl game. This year, the Raiders basked in a 7–0 start under former Tech quarterback/burgeoning matinee idol Kliff Kingsbury, climbing all the way to No. 10 in the polls after a come-from-behind win at West Virginia; from there, they dropped their last five by an average of 20.6 points per game, dropping their November record in the current decade to 1–11.
So it is not with great fanfare or optimism that Tech finds itself across from F/+ favorite Arizona State, arguably (as far as advanced stats are concerned) the best team not playing in a BCS bowl. Of course, that argument was much easier to make before the Sun Devils were blown out by Stanford, 38–14, on their own field in the Pac-12 championship game, snapping an eight-game winning streak in the conference. The X-factor offensively is all-purpose tailback Marion Grice, who missed the loss to Stanford and said earlier this month he would only play in the bowl game if he felt his injured leg was back to 100 percent. With or without Grice, though, quarterback Taylor Kelly has reliable targets in Jaelen Strong, D.J. Foster and Chris Coyle, and Texas Tech's defense is a far cry from Stanford's – down the stretch, the Raiders allowed at least 38 points in all five losses.
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Arizona State 45, Texas Tech 27
First of all, yes, officially the name of this game has been changed from the "Independence Bowl," the perfectly respectable title it held for the first 37 years of its existence, to the "AdvoCare V100 Bowl," in keeping with the crass corporate drift of the season and the culture at large. (Don't get me started on Louisville basketball's move from Freedom Hall to an edifice known as the KFC Yum! Center.)
Secondly, yes, you should make every effort to watch this game, strictly for the collision of two prolific, old-school workhorses, Arizona's Ka'Deem Carey and Boston College's Andre Williams, who ranked first and second nationally in both carries and yards per game and claimed first-team All-America nods from virtually every outlet that bestows them. Going a little deeper, Williams also led all FBS backs in highlight yards, averaging a whopping 8.3 yards per highlight opportunity, while Carey was the only FBS back to break 100 yards on the ground in every game. Barring an inexplicable decision by Carey to return for his senior season –- he's widely projected as the best available tailback in April's draft -– Tuesday is the last chance to see either of them in a college uniform.
Arizona is also interesting for recording one of the most bizarre, outlying upsets of the season, a 42–16 stunner over Oregon on November 23 that cost the Ducks a shot at the Pac-12 title. Prior to that game, Oregon had won 35 straight against unranked opponents, the last 25 of those by at least 17 points; the final margin, 26 points, marked the Ducks' most lopsided loss since 2007. Aside from that game, the Wildcats ended the season in a tailspin, having dropped back-to-back decisions against UCLA and Washington State prior to the upset, and were subsequently blown out by Arizona State the following week. Of their previous six victories, only one (a September 7 win over UNLV) came at the expense of a fellow bowl team. Which Wildcats show up in Shreveport is anybody's guess.
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Arizona 31, Boston College 28
If defense really won championships, as the old saw goes, Virginia Tech would be prepping for the BCS championship game with the No. 1 defense in the nation. Obviously, whoever released that stubborn cliché into the water supply was not accounting for the Virginia Tech offense, or for a quarterback as maddening as senior Logan Thomas. Once hailed as a future first-rounder, a hulking, athletic prototype in the Ben Roethlisberger mold, Thomas' stock has plummeted to the point that he may have to concede to a position switch to be drafted at all. Not that he has much help: His share of the Hokies' total offense this season exceeded 73 percent, the largest burden in the nation for the second year in a row. (In some games, that number exceeded 90 percent; against Georgia Tech, due to negative rushing yards by the rest of the team, Thomas' share was actually 101 percent.) But he also served up crippling, effectively game-ending interceptions in losses to Alabama, Duke and Boston College –- games the defense largely dominated -– and will end his career with the school record for turnovers as well as total yards.
On a more optimistic note, this game will feature three of the nation's truly outstanding freshmen: UCLA's Myles Jack, who started every game at linebacker, led the Bruins in rushing in the month of November and was voted Pac-12 Freshman of the Year on both offense and defense; and Virginia Tech cornerbacks Kendall Fuller and Brandon Facyson, who combined for 11 interceptions and 17 passes broken up. Despite injuries to seniors/future pros Antone Exum and Kyle Fuller (Kendall's older brother), the Hokies finished third nationally in pass efficiency defense, with Facyson and the younger Fuller holding down full-time starting roles from opening day forward.
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UCLA 24, Virginia Tech 14
If this is Johnny Manziel's last college game, as pretty much everyone expects, he's hardly arriving at the peak of his powers. Although A&M remains ranked in both major polls, the Aggies sputtered to the finish line in November looking like a team out of gas: After putting up at least 40 points in each of the first ten games -– including 42 in a shootout loss to Alabama –- the offense managed a grand total of 31 points in losses to LSU and Missouri, and finished 0–4 against ranked opponents. Coming off the worst performance of his career in Baton Rouge, JFM struggled again in the season finale, accounting for a career-low in total offense (216 yards) for a full start and a single touchdown at Mizzou. While his overall passing numbers improved relative to his Heisman-winning turn in 2012, Manziel wasn't the same threat as a runner, and A&M wasn't able to fulfill its promise as a national contender. (Instead, Auburn wound up having the season the Aggies thought they would have.)
That said, Duke gave no indication in the ACC championship game that it's up to defending a Heisman-caliber quarterback or a top-five offense, in general, yielding 569 yards to Florida State in a grisly, 45–7 blowout that wasn't nearly as competitive as the final score suggests. If anything, the Blue Devils have a better chance of matching Manziel blow for blow against A&M's shootout-friendly defense, which will be without its leading tackler, true freshman Darian Claiborne, due to an arrest for drug possession on December 22. Then again, the Devils will be without a key piece of their own after leading rusher Jela Duncan was suspended through 2014 for an academic violation. Short of every other weapon at their disposal going off simultaneously, the firepower just isn't there.
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Texas A&M 43, Duke 26
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