Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

08 Sep 2014

OFI: Mediocrity in the Midwest

by Chad Peltier

Even with the big picture in mind, it's hard to dismiss just how poor the Big Ten's performance was on Saturday. The Big Ten went 8-5 overall, but four of those wins were by fewer than ten points and required comebacks against the likes of South Florida, Ball State, Western Kentucky, and McNeese State. That last one is particularly shocking, as some expected Nebraska to win the Western Division, not narrowly avoid an upset bid from a Southland Conference team.

According to F/+ predictions, Big Ten teams should have won those four matchups by a combined 44.9 points. Instead, they won by a total of 26 points altogether. But these are the games that the Big Ten actually won; even more damaging for the conference was Notre Dame's shutout win over Michigan, Oregon's physical victory over Michigan State, and Virginia Tech's upset of the Buckeyes inside the Horseshoe. With those three losses, along with Wisconsin's loss to LSU in Week 1, the primary contenders for the Big Ten title have all endured major out-of-conference losses.

Most analysts expected an Oregon victory, but Spartans faithful argued that the best chance for victory was in eventually wearing out a less-physical Oregon line and slowly winning battles at the line of scrimmage. Oregon's Defensive Rushing S&P+ and Red Zone S&P+ suggested there might be rushing opportunities for the Spartans, but the Spartans rushing offense collapsed in the second half, with more than half of their 15 second-half carries going for no gain. Instead, the Ducks began opening holes, improving their rushing total by 147 yards in the second half. Marcus Mariota was even more effective, throwing intermediate and deep passes with surprising efficiency against a defense that was elite in preventing big passes last season (first in Passing S&P+).

The Wolverines are left with a scoreless end to their long-standing rivalry with Notre Dame. Michigan outgained the Irish in total yards, but effective ball control over the first half from Notre Dame, two missed field goals, and four second-half turnovers stunted any chance Michigan had for the Big Ten to get a single marquee win last weekend. Despite their F/+ overall ranking being only slightly better, Notre Dame was superior in nearly every 2013 and projected statistical category, so maybe we shouldn't be too surprised. While the outcome was fairly expected, few thought Michigan would look so hapless in the loss.

Finally, the Buckeyes ended any last hope the Big Ten had for the day. With little push from the offensive line, a young and risk-acceptant quarterback in J.T. Barrett, and no physical running back presence without the departed Carlos Hyde, the Buckeyes defense was unable to prop up the entire team. We expected Virginia Tech to find some success on offense with a higher S&P+ score, but we expected the Hokies to become one-dimensional as the Buckeyes stuffed an ineffective run game. That part went as expected (the leading Hokies rusher had 38 yards, and two others averaged less than two yards per carry), but it wouldn't matter with Michael Brewer converting critical third-down passes. Especially because of the difference between the Hokie Offensive S&P+ and FEI, it was reasonable to think that the Buckeyes would allow the Hokies to drive, but ultimately stall out. The Hokies were neither efficient (2.5 points per possession and only 23.1 yards gained per possession) nor particularly explosive, but they didn't need to be either -- not when the Buckeyes had three turnovers and four three-and-outs. The Buckeyes' lackluster performance against Navy may turn out to be the rule itself, not the exception.

We knew heading in to the season that at least one Power Five conference would be left out of the College Football Playoff. Right now it's easy to think that the Big Ten is the favorite here. Across the league, only Connor Cook and Christian Hackenberg are even close to household names at quarterback. There isn't as much misguided talk of a speed differential between the Big Ten and other conferences like there was in the late 2000s, but there does appear to be a recruiting differential.

The Big Ten may turn it around between Week 3 and Week 14. Ohio State has a wealth of accumulated talent, Wisconsin hasn't done much to embarrass the Big Ten, and Michigan State fought admirably against what may be the best team in the country. Any of those three teams could conceivably still make the playoff -- much crazier things have happened in the BCS, that's for sure. But it will be an uphill battle.

TOEDRAGS

  • So is USC back? As in championship contender-back? Well, maybe. USC looked like an elite Big Ten team playing textbook bend-but-don't break defense and allowing Stanford an average of 48.9 yards per possession -- every one of their nine drives went inside the USC 35 -- but the Cardinals only came up with ten points. It's harder to separate USC's defensive red-zone efficiency from poor Cardinal offense in the red zone. Before the game we noted that there was a relatively large margin between Stanford's offensive S&P+ (second overall) and FEI (22nd overall) scores, partly because of poor Offensive Red Zone S&P+. The Trojans offense was held largely in check, with Javorius Allen leading the way with 154 yards. However, his Running Back Success Rate was just 44 percent, and he had 4.7 yards per carry after taking out his 50-yard scamper (that's obviously still respectable). I'm buying Trojans stock, but cautiously. While an early October matchup with Arizona State won't be a gimme, the Trojans next big test doesn't come until November 22 at UCLA.
  • Here's Cupcake Saturday for the SEC: 41.3. That's the average margin of victory across six out-of-conference matchups by top 25 SEC teams this week. If we're going to try and take away anything out of those matchups, maybe Missouri-Toledo and USC-East Carolina were somewhat informative. Both Toledo and East Carolina are ranked in the low 50s of the F/+, so it's not unreasonable that they put up a fight. What was surprising was how East Carolina -- which runs an offense similar to Texas A&M -- was able to beat the Gamecocks in passing (321) and total yards (453). The Gamecocks will likely bring a poor Defensive Passing S&P+ score to their matchup with Georgia next weekend along with a relatively low Offensive FEI (the Gamecocks were 63rd in Game Efficiency last week). Georgia and Todd Gurley present a different challenge for Steve Spurrier -- but then again, Georgia's offensive coordinator Mike Bobo called some very efficient packaged plays against Clemson last week in a little bit of a changeup for quarterback Huston Mason's tenure at UGA.
  • Florida doesn't get a mention above because A) they played Eastern Michigan, which projects to go either 3-9 or 2-10, and B) they are deservedly unranked. But after last season's 99th-ranked F/+ offense (117th in Red Zone S&P+!), I didn't think it was possible for the Gators to put up 655 yards on anyone. Jeff Driskel used this glorified scrimmage to throw 45 passes. However, he averaged just 5.5 yards per attempt (8.0 yards per completion) with just two passes longer than 14 yards. Maybe even more encouraging for the Gators were the large holes the offensive line opened up. The Gators offensive line had a 41 percent Running Back Block Success Rate (the percentage of carries that gained at least five yards).
  • Where does Texas go from here? It was always going to be a rebuilding year for Charlie Strong, but with eight booted players, a young quarterback, and a depleted offensive line, Strong needs to find other ways to get an offense going just to develop some recruiting momentum. He already has to be coaching and recruiting with the long run in mind, but a 41-7 performance against BYU at home really hurts. The obvious issue is the offensive line. Without a push from the line, the talented running backs have nowhere to run on standard downs, while sophomore Tyrone Swoopes and the short passing game can't consistently convert third-and-longs. The result is problems sustaining drives, where the Longhorns already had problems last season (78th in Red Zone S&P+).

TOP 25

1. Oregon
2. Florida State
3. Alabama
4. Oklahoma
5. Georgia
6. Texas A&M
7. USC
8. LSU
9. Stanford
10. Baylor
11. Auburn
12. Notre Dame
13. UCLA
14. Louisville
15. Michigan State
16. South Carolina
17. Ole Miss
18. Arizona State
19. Missouri
20. Clemson
21. Virginia Tech
22. Wisconsin
23. Ohio State
24. Oklahoma State
25. Mississippi State
26. Kansas State

Oregon takes the top spot this week because of their impressive performance against Michigan State, a talented team that still has a lot of potential this season. This ranking is more the result of early-season scheduling than a knock to Alabama or Florida State, but it's not worth maintaining preseason ranking momentum at the expense of quality performances. Spots five through 11 are relatively interchangeable for me, and I expect the updated F/+ rankings to reflect that. Slots 15 through 25 are either talented one-loss teams that played tough opponents (South Carolina, Clemson, Wisconsin, Oklahoma State) or teams that have played well, but their numbers haven't quite caught up to their record (Virginia Tech, Kansas State, Missouri).

HONOR ROLL

  • Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon. I'm not so sure Oregon wins this game without Mariota, who threw for 318 yards, and more importantly, didn't turn the ball over against Michigan State. Mariota confirmed his Heisman candidacy with not only his efficiency, but his increased ability to hit explosive plays, including long passes of 24, 37, and 70 yards. Oh, and he was the second-leading rusher for the Ducks.
  • James Conner, RB, Pitt. In vintage Wisconsin style, Pitt running back James Conner ran for 214 yards against Boston College, leaving him second in the country in total yards and fourth in yards per game. 61 percent of his carries were efficient, a testament to both him and his offensive line.
  • Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama. Despite not having a clear starter at quarterback, Alabama's Amari Cooper is starting the year like he's playing backyard football with Peyton Manning. Against admittedly terrible Florida Atlantic, Cooper had 13 receptions for 189 yards with a long gain of 52. It's rare to combine that kind of consistency with big-play ability.
  • Ameer Abdullah, RB, Nebraska. For a while it seemed like lowly McNeese State had completely shut down Abdullah, who ran for 232 yards against Florida Atlantic last week. Abdullah actually finished the game with only 17 carries for 54 yards on the ground, but his three receptions for 96 yards, including his game-winning 58-yard catch-and-run, proved his versatility. Outside of Indiana's Tevin Coleman, there might not be a better running back in the Big Ten. In a moment of wonderful timing, Abdullah had his big game after being the subject of our first Futures column of the season that same morning.

DEMERITS

  • Steve Sarkisian and Pat Haden, USC Head Coach and Athletic Director: Many are making a big deal of the fact that Haden, who ran down to the field to argue with refs at the request of Coach Sarkisian on Saturday, is a member of the Playoff Selection Committee. We already knew that there are a host of group decision-making issues and individual cognitive biases that will provide as much, if not more, controversy than in the BCS era. That shouldn't be news, nor should Haden's actions against Stanford matter too much in terms of selecting the four teams for the Playoff. Instead, these two make the Demerits list because calling your AD to fight your battles for you just reeks of the Lane Kiffin era, which is something you'd think the Trojans would want to move on from. Steve Sarkisian appears to have the trust of his team in a way that Kiffin never had and that's admirable, but this was a weird move to say the least.
  • Ohio State's Offensive Line: Urban Meyer wasn't kidding when he said that the offensive line had the most to work on this offseason. The Buckeyes replaced four starting offensive linemen off of last season's leading group in Adjusted Line Yards, Standard Downs Line Yards per Carry, and Opportunity Rate, but many fans expected only a slight dropoff in production. F/+ was more conservative, dropping the Buckeyes' Projected Offensive F/+ to eighth, from second last season. Early returns are that eighth may be much too high, and mainly due to the play of the offensive line, which allowed ten tackles for loss and six sacks against Virginia Tech.
  • Citadel Cut Blocks: Citadel offensive lineman Victor Hill said after the game that the linemen all tried to go for the Seminoles defensive linemens' knees because they wouldn't "respect us for blocking them." Well, causing three Seminoles to leave the game with lower-leg injuries won't get you any respect, either.

LOWSMAN WATCH

  • Sheldon Day, DL, Notre Dame. Day had five tackles, 0.5 tackles for loss, and four quarterback hurries against Michigan, but the Honor Roll inclusion has more to do with the entire front seven for Notre Dame, which allowed just 55 yards to Michigan's two former four-star running backs.
  • Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, CB, Oregon. This All-American isn't a surprise member of the Lowsman Watch list, but his crucial interception off a tipped Connor Cook pass reversed a promising Spartans drive on a night when the Ducks secondary wasn't its best. Besides his defensive contributions, Ekpre-Olomu also returned a punt for 30 yards despite his left ankle injury.
  • Shaq Thompson, LB, Washington Maybe the lone bright spot on the maligned Huskies defense is Thompson, the Myles Jack clone who led the team with 14 tackles, a sack, a TFL, and then ran the ball three times for 66 yards.
  • Dadi Nicolas, DL, Virginia Tech. The Hokies defense held the Buckeyes offense to 108 yards rushing, while Nicolas led the charge with three tackles for loss and two sacks.

Posted by: Chad Peltier on 08 Sep 2014

6 comments, Last at 09 Sep 2014, 8:55am by Brian Fremeau

Comments

1
by big10freak :: Mon, 09/08/2014 - 3:52pm

Don't overlook Purdue getting manhandled by Central Michigan.

As for Wisconsin, the qb had himself a game once he got past the first quarter. Maybe a glimmer of hope that he can throw enough to keep defenses honest. Not that there is much defense in the Big Ten this season.

That is one thing that I consider promising for the Badgers. Wisconsin's defense has been pretty solid both games. Yes the secondary still has 'Yikes' moments and the d-line is pretty thin thanks to Herring's injury. But given they lost so many seniors it's encouraging that guys are mostly making the plays expected to be made.

Special teams though, ouch. Gotta get better there fellas

2
by zlionsfan :: Mon, 09/08/2014 - 5:11pm

Purdue is worth overlooking. A program that arguably hasn't had a quality win since stunning eventual conference champ Ohio State in 2009 is currently about mid-Sun Belt level with no clear sign of improvement coming ... if anything, the surprise should have been Western Michigan losing, not the Chippewas winning. Purdue may regret scheduling Southern Illinois rather than Eastern Illinois.

In a sense, the slide of the conference as a whole reflects even more poorly on Hazell. If he can't turn the program around now, there aren't going to be any Big Ten conference wins on his resume.

3
by snapcracklepopovich :: Tue, 09/09/2014 - 12:42am

Is there a place I can look at indivudal player stats like you mentioned about Javorius Allen?

-new guy

4
by Tom Gower :: Tue, 09/09/2014 - 2:18am

As someone who roots for Big 10 respectability, Saturday was brutal. Not too surprising in several respects, but brutal nonetheless.

5
by A.A. Cascini :: Tue, 09/09/2014 - 7:18am

I'd like some analysis of the ND/MICH box score. It's totally baffling. 4 turnovers will ordinarily prevent you from winning a game, but - as noted above - Michigan outgained ND in terms of total yardage and controlled TOP. Michigan had 18 first downs to ND's 20.

But even stranger, ND's stats are... pretty bad too. Michigan couldn't run the ball, but Notre Dame ran the ball even more poorly. Everett Golson looked great... until you realize that he averaged 6.6 YPA - only .7 YPA more than Gardner, who perceptibly looked completely terrible. And while the story of the game FELT like Notre Dame converting each and every third down, they were only a respectable 7/15.

Penalties weren't uneven either. Michigan had 5 penalties for 50 yards of loss, but Notre Dame also had 3 for 20. And there wasn't any special team yardage differential - kickoff returning yardage between the teams was identical, and Notre Dame only gained 26 total yards off all of their punt returns combined.

From the box score, this looks like a hard-fought ugly and close game. On the scoreboard, this looks like a laugher. What's the difference?

6
by Brian Fremeau :: Tue, 09/09/2014 - 8:55am

Turnovers didn't play much of a part in the outcome. Michigan had four second half turnovers, but the Irish didn't score after either of the first two and only added a field goal to go up 31-0 after the third one. The game was basically already won before the turnovers started.

In non-garbage time, Michigan's average starting field position was its own 20-yard line, and they had zero drives start closer than 75 yards from the end zone. Notre Dame's average starting field position was its own 39-yard line in non-garbage time, and 7/9 non-garbage possessions started on a field shorter than 75 yards. In total, Notre Dame started its non-garbage possessions 179 yards closer to the end zone than Michigan on its first nine possessions.