Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
31 Oct 2008
by Bill Connelly
Minnesota was possibly the worst team in the BCS last year. They were 2007's Washington State (OK, not that bad). They gave up fewer than 30 points only twice (though one of those was against North Dakota State, and they lost anyway). They went 1-11, losing to Bowling Green, Florida Atlantic, and the aforementioned Bison of North Dakota State in the process. But there were some silver linings. First of all, six of the losses were by a touchdown or less. Second, Tim Brewster was quickly moving to supplement his program with a strong recruiting class, and while newcomers may not have been ready to help him in 2008, the future looked at least somewhat promising.
Not even the most optimistic of Gopher fans, however, could have legitimately predicted that Minnesota would be sitting at 7-1 and No. 17 in the country. Really, how did we get here? Michigan is 2-6 and Minnesota is threatening for a New Year's Day bowl? What in the name of Bob Stein is going on around here?
There are three main reasons for Minnesota's sudden resurgence.
1. Lightweight Opponents. Other than a 27-20 win over Illinois in Champaign, the Gophers have yet to beat anybody with a pulse. Then again, they didn't face a murderer's row last year either (again, they lost to Bowling Green and North Dakota State), so the improvement is still measurable and outstanding.
2. Turnover margin. As my friend Matt "Doc Saturday" Hinton pointed out recently, Minnesota is No. 1 in the country in turnover margin (the only category in which they reach the Top 15). Illinois basically handed the game to them on a platter. When your turnover margin goes from -15 to +15 in one season, the wins are going to start flowing, especially when you lose six games by a touchdown or less in Year One. Of course, sudden good fortune can disappear at any time.
3. A downright competent defense. In 2007, Minnesota gave up a ridiculously bad 0.44 EqPts Per Play (PPP), 115th in the country. Their success rate (46.5%, 98th) was not much better. Overall, their Defensive S&P+ was the worst of any BCS team, better than only Navy's and San Diego State's at the FBS level.
So far in 2008, they are allowing a very respectable 0.30 PPP (a 32% improvement) and 41.1% success rate (a 12% improvement). And more importantly, they are better in almost every single down-and-distance combination.
Granted, they have regressed for whatever reason on second downs as a whole, but the overall improvement is marked, in both success rate and PPP. Meanwhile, their performance in the red zone and in pressure situations (close in the fourth quarter) have both improved to a ridiculous degree.
So while Minnesota's overall defense has improved beyond a doubt, it has improved significantly in key situations, and the results in those close games are flipping in the Gophers' favor.
That's a good thing, because their offense really hasn't shown much improvement. Their passing PPP has improved, thanks mostly to Eric Decker (833 receiving yards, 5 touchdowns), but their running game, led by freshman DeLeon Eskridge and a relatively inexperienced offensive line, has yet to take off.
How will the rest of the season play out for Tim Brewster's Gophers? Well, the schedule is about to get a lot tougher. Home bouts with Northwestern, Michigan, and Iowa, sandwiched around a trip to Madison, could leave Minnesota anywhere between 7-5 and 10-2, depending on when their fortunes turn in the turnover battle. But while people should be wary of Minnesota's success in terms of the good luck they have experienced this year, the defensive success appears to be widespread and sustainable. And their red zone and pressure performance suggests that this is a tough team that could have the upper hand the longer a game stays tight.
The games against Iowa and Wisconsin will likely be low-scoring and physical -- Minnesota probably won't win both games, but they could certainly split them. A split and a win over Michigan for the Little Brown Jug (God bless college football) would give Minnesota a 9-3 record, an eight-game improvement over 2007, a possible bid in the Outback or Alamo Bowl, and a further boost in recruiting. Not bad at all, especially considering just how disastrous this program appeared to outsiders just a few months ago.
Texas survived another stout test last Saturday. A week after demolishing a good Missouri team, the Longhorns didn't quite play to that same level, but they played well enough to take out an Oklahoma State team that did not at all back down from the challenge (unlike Missouri).
Okla State (24)
|Field Position %||51.4%||48.6%|
|Points Per Play (PPP)||0.38||0.41|
|S&P (Success + PPP)||0.906||0.954|
|1st Down S&P||0.952||0.909|
|2nd Down S&P||0.850||0.890|
|3rd Down S&P||0.914||1.261|
|Total T/O Pts||4.47||8.68|
|Turnover Pts Margin||+2.21||-2.21|
The most surprising aspect of this game had to be the simply hellacious rushing numbers put up by Kendall Hunter and Oklahoma State. With the standard Texas has set stopping the run, I would not have thought that was possible. Honestly, he should have probably gotten more than 18 carries. However, despite the re-emergence of tight end Brandon Pettigrew (8 catches, 83 yards), Oklahoma State's passing game was simply too ineffective (both in efficiency and explosiveness) to keep up. Texas' secondary has slowly become a strength as the year has progressed, and their ability to prevent the big play has improved.
The play of Texas' secondary will be obviously be a huge aspect in this week's matchup with Texas Tech in Lubbock. Texas' pass rush, led by Brian "O-Sack-Po" Orakpo, has been outstanding, but if Chykie Brown and company can slow down Michael Crabtree (and the underrated Eric Morris and Detron Lewis) and tackle well, Tech will be limited. Texas Tech's running game is drastically improved (and let's be honest, they could run 19 straight times, and opponents would still be expecting them to pass on play No. 20), but they will not be able to gash the Longhorn front seven like Oklahoma State did. Texas' ability to keep the play in front of them and tackle well could decide the big game in West Texas.
Meanwhile, if Colt McCoy wins the Heisman this year, you can thank the constantly successful tightrope act of thriving on passing downs. Yet again, Texas was better on passing downs than non-passing downs, and while you have to worry that the magic could suddenly, violently disappear (it did for Chase Daniel for about 6 quarters, long enough to kill his Heisman chances and his team's title chances), who knows, it might not. In that regard, the Texas Tech game is the biggest challenge remaining on the regular season schedule. Every time Texas faces a third-and-8 or third-and-10, Jones AT&T Stadium will be three shades of crazy, and that, combined with the fact that the Red Raider pass rush really is not too shabby, could spell trouble.
Then again, it hasn't yet this year. Colt McCoy is on an unbelievable roll right now. This game will be all sorts of fun.
Responses to comments from last week's column.
A program that's always in the Top 25 -- even for as short a stretch as 5 years -- is an elite program. Obviously Penn State's not entirely back to being in the Top 25 every year, but over the past 4 years it definitely looks like it's close. Assuming they don't fall off a cliff next year (or this year), they'll only be very marginally off that mark. Note that it's not like Penn State was a perennial Top 25 team "forever" before 2000, either -- it was only back to 1993.
My only point in referencing Penn State is that, while Penn State won 10 or more games five times between 1980 and 1986, and four times between 1991 and 1996, they've only done it twice since then, and after that it just comes down to us having a different definition of what constitutes an "elite" team. Joe Paterno obviously has his team back into that second tier with teams like Virginia Tech or Oregon (teams that win 8 to 10 games every year but aren't regarded as annual title threats), but they're not in that top tier with the USCs or Oklahomas of the world, which was the only thing I was initially suggesting.
"Close %" complements the final score by signifying the percentage of the game's plays that were run under "close game" circumstances, i.e. with a scoring margin of 16 points (two possessions) or less.
I would suggest tweaking this. ALL first-half plays should be "close," and any second-half plays within 16 points, in my opinion. Or maybe something like first-half plays within 32 and second-half plays within 16.
I have thought about doing exactly this -- adjusting the "close" level depending on the quarter -- and I still might, but for now I like keeping it as direct as possible. It sends a very simple message, and until I know for sure what adjustments to make, I like the simplicity.
1 comment, Last at 23 Jul 2009, 8:02am by James