Are the best defenses against play action the best against regular passes too? How much impact does play action really have in an NFL game, and does it correlate from year to year?
23 Nov 2010
by Bill Connelly
If nothing else, last Saturday was intense. Houston Nutt and Les Miles faced off in a battle as crazy as you would have hoped. Terrelle Pryor led an improbable Ohio State comeback in Iowa City. Michigan State held on by the skin of their teeth against a schizophrenic Purdue squad. Bitter rivalries from Stanford-Cal to Lehigh-Lafayette played out throughout the country. But in terms of intensity, one specific game produced the most, and only partially because of the defensive slugfest taking place on the field.
I'm not going to lie: By the end of Saturday night's Nebraska-Texas A&M game in College Station, I was a little exhausted and uncomfortable. The game itself was tough and physical, but the antics coming from the Nebraska sideline grew more and more distracting as the game progressed. Nebraska coach Bo Pelini (and his brother/defensive-coordinator Carl) had crossed from "working the refs" territory straight into "assault via spittle" by the end of the first half. As the penalty total grew (Pelini should be very happy they don't give technical fouls in football), things just got more awkward.
To be sure, there were some extremely odd calls in this game. As a whole, a defense that toes the line between intimidating and illegal as much as Nebraska will almost certainly end up committing more penalties than its opponents. (Then again, only one team was doing this.) However, a few of their personal fouls were borderline at best, including a particularly egregious roughing the passer penalty that set up the game-winning field goal. That doesn't excuse the series of tantrums that Pelini unleashed on the sideline. Working the refs is part of the game, and if you're not upset after a bad call, then you are probably in the wrong business. But this was a new level.
The tantrums also overshadowed the simple fact that Nebraska was outplayed most of the night and actually ended up lucky to be as close as they were.
No. 19 Texas A&M 9, No. 8 Nebraska 6
|Close %||100.0%||STANDARD DOWNS|
|Field Position %||36.9%||35.7%||Success Rate||35.0%||48.9%|
|Close Success Rate||30.8%||37.1%||Success Rate||24.0%||13.0%|
|Close Success Rate||31.4%||47.4%||Turnover Pts||7.5||0.0|
|Close PPP||0.18||0.20||Turnover Pts Margin||-7.5||+7.5|
|Line Yards/carry||2.25||2.96||Q1 S&P||0.487||0.146|
|Close Success Rate||30.0%||25.0%|
|Close PPP||0.15||0.18||1st Down S&P||0.496||0.619|
|Close S&P||0.446||0.431||2nd Down S&P||0.336||0.650|
|SD/PD Sack Rate||10.0% / 5.0%||14.3% / 5.6%||3rd Down S&P||0.608||0.330|
|Projected Pt. Margin: Texas A&M +10.3 | Actual Pt. Margin: Texas A&M +3|
Mike Sherman's transition from the pros to college has not been entirely seamless, but one gets the feeling Sherman's NFL experience paid off handsomely Saturday night. This was a grind-it-out affair dominated by turnovers, situational effectiveness and late-game execution (and Taylor Martinez's ankle). Neither team was able to generate much in the big-play department, so A&M hunkered down and simply outlasted the more error- and penalty-prone Huskers.
This game is remembered mostly for the constant fits that Bo Pelini threw on the sideline, both in screaming at his quarterback and unfurling an impressive array of obscenities after both correct and incorrect calls. (His brother didn't exactly help matters.) With a fan base that is absolutely convinced that this is part of a grand Big 12 conspiracy to screw Nebraska out of the Big 12 title, Pelini's antics play quite well. But higher-ups like Nebraska's chancellor weren't quite as sympathetic to the cause, and predictably, Pelini has since apologized.
What is more notable about this game in the long-run, however, is what it did for the Big 12 race as a whole. First, Nebraska still has not clinched the North. If they were to get upset by a surging (but still inferior) Colorado team on Friday and Missouri were to beat Kansas as expected on Saturday, the Huskers would not be heading to Jerry World to face the Big 12 South champion in a week and a half. Meanwhile, A&M is still alive in the South race. If they beat Texas on Thursday and Oklahoma wins one of the bigger Bedlam battles in memory in Stillwater Saturday night, then BCS standings will determine the South champion. Five teams still have a shot at the title game heading into the regular season finale. That's more standings drama than we are used to from this conference.
No. 4 Boise State 51, Fresno State 0
EqPts: Boise State 37.0, Fresno State 1.8
T/O Pts: Boise State +5.2
Boise State > Fresno State +40.4
The Pro- and Anti-Boise camps were both predictable and virulent after this one. Pro: "My god, they just embarrassed a pretty decent Fresno team!" Anti: "Yawn, Ole Miss beat Fresno State. This counts for nothing." The Pro-Boise S&P+ rankings were duly impressed, however. The intent of the S&P+ rankings is not to punish teams for playing weak schedules; you can still stay ranked quite high if you decimate the weaker teams worse than others would. In three previous losses, Fresno State had still managed to average 33 points per game. Against Boise State, they barely ended up with positive EqPts. Boise State would have beaten anybody in the country Friday night. On a separate note, doesn't it feel like Boise State has played every single game since Virginia Tech at home? That changes Friday in Reno.
No. 5 LSU 43, Ole Miss 36
EqPts: LSU 32.2, Ole Miss 26.4
T/O Pts: LSU +11.6
LSU > Ole Miss +17.4
Ole Miss did an outstanding job of keeping things close long after the game should have gotten away from them. This probably has something to do with the "Every game LSU plays on CBS must be crazy well into the fourth quarter" clause in the SEC's television contract, but regardless, we can say that Houston Nutt likely got the best of Les Miles in this one. Not that Miles minds, of course. A 10-1 record allows you to shake things off easily.
No. 6 Stanford 48, California 14
EqPts: Stanford 34.3, California 13.6
T/O Pts: Stanford +14.6
Stanford > California +35.3
First, he uncorks a long, gorgeous pass falling down against Arizona State. The next week, he humiliates most of California's defense on a 58-yard run. If Cameron Newton really isn't going to win the Heisman, shouldn't Stanford's Andrew Luck really be getting a better look than he has so far? He has the highlight reel at this point. And the wins.
No. 7 Wisconsin 48, Michigan 28
EqPts: Wisconsin 36.8, Michigan 27.5
T/O Pts: Michigan +5.5
Wisconsin > Michigan +3.8
Wisconsin sleep-walked through most of the first part of the season, looking unimpressive in wins over UNLV, San Jose State, and Arizona State. They're still paying the price for their first-month woes in the overall S&P+ rankings. But ever since their loss to Michigan State on October 2, the Badgers have been simply incredible. They whipped Minnesota, handed Ohio State their only loss, got by Iowa in Iowa City, and handled Purdue with ease; and all they've done in the last two weeks is score 131 points while maintaining a relatively slow per-play pace. Yes, Indiana's and Michigan's defenses are both awful. Of course they are. But against even NAIA defenses (say, Indiana Institute of Technology and the University of Michigan-Dearborn), you're not guaranteed to score 131 points and gain 1,156 yards in just 141 plays. Tough to do.
No. 9 Ohio State 20, No. 20 Iowa 17
EqPts: Ohio State 18.6, Iowa 15.0
T/O Pts: Iowa +10.5
Iowa > Ohio State +6.9
My colleague Rob did this one justice yesterday. Terrelle Pryor may not ever be able to live up to his high school hype (who could?), but he has been very good this year, and the Buckeyes' strong offensive S&P+ rankings show it.
No. 10 Oklahoma State 48, Kansas 14
EqPts: Oklahoma State 40.3, Kansas 18.0
T/O Pts: none
Oklahoma State > Kansas +22.3
How bad is Kansas? Oklahoma State let them hang around for a half before taking over, and they tumbled nine slots in the rankings. There were some very odd twists and turns in the rankings this week, but this one was possibly the funniest.
No. 12 Michigan State 35, Purdue 31
EqPts: Michigan State 26.4, Purdue 20.3
T/O Pts: Michigan State +2.0
Michigan State > Purdue +8.1
Purdue hung around to the bitter end, bopping Michigan State's S&P+ rankings down five spots in the process. But in the end, the Spartans' blessed run continued. They are now 3-0 in games decided by one possession or less -- and 10-1 for the first time since the mid-1960s -- thanks to a late blocked punt and gutsy Kirk Cousins plunge. This game may have been more exciting than it should have been, but Michigan State's Rose Bowl hopes are still alive.
No. 13 Arkansas 38, No. 21 Mississippi State 31
EqPts: Arkansas 28.4, Mississippi State 26.8
T/O Pts: Arkansas +2.4
Arkansas > Mississippi State +4.0
The projected score doesn't quite give the "Mississippi State fumbles reaching for the end zone in the first overtime, then Arkansas misses the game-winning field goal" exchange justice, does it? This was a fun game that turned crazy near the end. But the projected score suggests the right team won.
No. 16 Virginia Tech 31, No. 24 Miami 17
EqPts: Virginia Tech 23.3, Miami 18.4
T/O Pts: Virginia Tech +18.0
Virginia Tech > Miami +22.9
The FEI Darling Hokies beat the S&P+ Darling Hurricanes (OK, both ratings systems love both teams) thanks to some very Hokie-esque late-game play-making. Ryan Williams exploded into the secondary on his way to a tie-breaking 84-yard touchdown run, then Stephen Morris intercepted Jayron Hosley to set up the Tyrod Taylor touchdown that put the game away. And the projected score suggests it could have been worse. If this were a boxing match, Miami matched Tech blow for blow until running out of gas in the 10th round.
No. 25 Florida State 30, Maryland 16
EqPts: Maryland 18.6, Florida State 18.1
T/O Pts: Florida State +10.4
Florida State > Maryland +9.9
Some say it was correct not to overturn Greg Reid's late-game interception. Others politely disagree. Regardless, this was a game that played out the same on television and in the box score -- it was a nip-and-tuck affair decided by turnovers.
Full rankings here.
We have only begun to examine the relationship between FEI and S&P+. Our initial findings seem to suggest that S&P+ is better on a week-to-week basis, while FEI correlates more closely to win percentage for the season as a whole. This season, both systems have actually correlated more closely to overall win percentage than they had in previous seasons. S&P+ is right around 0.80 (still working on getting it higher), while FEI was around 0.84 heading into last week. F/+ was right around 0.85 to boot. On average, things are looking pretty good. However ...
That doesn't change the fact that Notre Dame currently ranks ahead of Oregon, Michigan State, LSU, and Oklahoma State. There are explanations for it -- a defense that has done great against non-elite offenses, odd circumstantial losses like the Tulsa game, etc. -- and I'm sure they're a pretty solid candidate for "What The ...?" Team of the Week on Friday. But it does not immediately pass the eyeball test, now does it?
You can't nail the ranking for every team in any system -- there will always be outliers. And it's pretty clear that with play-by-play data, the outliers seem to end up a little more extreme. If the overall rankings have improved in their general effectiveness, that's a good thing. But wow, have the outliers just jumped right off the page this season.
|2010 S&P+ RANKINGS (After 12 Weeks)|
|2010 S&P+ RANKINGS (After 12 Weeks)|
|2010 S&P+ RANKINGS (After 12 Weeks)|
I officially phased raw S&P numbers out of the overall S&P+ rankings this week -- they were still playing a very small role while the opponent adjustments continued to take hold -- and a handful of odd adjustments resulted. Notably, the team that lost 51-0 to Boise State improved significantly. As did the team that lost 53-24 to Oklahoma. And the team that lost 48-14 to Stanford. Timing has not been my friend this year. Of that there is no doubt.
Fresno State (30 spots, from 88th to 58th). Again, poor timing. Strength of schedule is as big an asset as ever for Pat Hill's Bulldogs, but it's safe to say they wouldn't have risen quite as much without the raw S&P adjustment. This does, however, hint at how well Boise State played. Fresno State was not at all hurt by their own performance; they just got their doors blown off by one of the country's best teams.
Purdue (13 spots, from 96th to 83rd). This one was more obviously earned. The Boilermakers have been up-and-down while fighting through youth and injuries, and they clearly performed well on Saturday -- even if in a losing cause.
San Diego State (12 spots, from 65th to 53rd). The Aztecs have now lost four games by five points or fewer, three times against ranked teams. Their Hail Mary-aided loss to Utah was just par for the unlucky course. They are three odd plays -- the Utah Hail Mary at the end of the first half, Missouri's late, long touchdown pass, and BYU's unfortunate replay review -- away from a potential 10-1 record right now.
Texas A&M (10 spots, from 26th to 16th). Well-earned as well.
Other Rises: Idaho (102nd to 91st), California (48th to 38th), Southern Miss (73rd to 63rd), Baylor (49th to 39th).
Syracuse (20 spots, from 67th to 87th). Like Baylor, 'Cuse is bowl-eligible, and nobody can take that way from them. But they are not exactly finishing strong. Only a tight win over Rutgers has prevented them from a three-game losing streak, and their lifeless home performance against Connecticut actually put the Huskies in position to potentially steal the Big East title if West Virginia were to knock off Pittsburgh this weekend.
UCLA (17 spots, from 44th to 61st). I was surprised that they didn't fall 20 spots after their depressing performance against Washington on Thursday night.
Georgia Tech (14 spots, from 66th to 80th). Duke is not necessarily the "Duke" of old, but ... they're still Duke. And you can't fight them to basically a statistical draw and not fall double digits. This has not been the follow-up season that Paul Johnson likely envisioned after last year's ACC title.
Virginia (13 spots, from 71st to 84th). Remember a couple of months ago, when I was wondering if Virginia's early statistical success was a sign of things to come or a mirage? Yeah, it was a larger Mirage than the one in Vegas.
Other Tumbles: Air Force (39th to 50th), Rutgers (83rd to 93rd), UAB (60th to 69th), Oklahoma State (eighth to 17th), Nevada (35th to 44th).
Honestly, there was plenty of entertainment in Saturday's football action, but my favorite part of the weekend was when I realized just how exciting this coming weekend could be. Huge rivalry games (Auburn-Alabama, Oklahoma-Oklahoma State, etc.), huge stakes, and so many games with conference title implications. It's going to be great.
8 comments, Last at 23 Nov 2010, 9:33pm by Jeff Fogle