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» 2017 Play-Action Defense

Our look at play-action pass in 2017 flips to the defensive side of the ball. Carolina was historically good, Houston was historically bad, and a long-standing question about year-to-year correlation gets cleared up.

09 Oct 2017

OFI: Upsets Shake Up Conference Races

by Chad Peltier

A theoretically quiet week that only had two games between AP-ranked teams (North Carolina State vs. Louisville and TCU vs. West Virginia) ended up being one of the best weeks of the 2017 season, which is now at the halfway point. Two major upsets shook up the top ten, as well as Playoff and conference races: Iowa State and its backup quarterback took down Oklahoma, and the Michigan State Spartans beat the Wolverines in the Big House. This week's upsets planted the seeds of a potentially chaotic, 2007-esque season -- even some teams that won looked vulnerable for the first time.

It's anyone's guess why we're still surprised that an underdog Spartans team would beat a highly-ranked Michigan team. That's Mark Dantonio's MO at this point -- and it's increasingly becoming Jim Harbaugh's, too, as he has now fallen to 1-4 against rivals Michigan State and Ohio State. Almost every statistic would make you think that Harbaugh's team should have improved to 5-0 and maintained its position in the AP top ten, particularly because the Wolverines had a +9 percent edge in success rate. We can fairly safely say that one statistic could sum up why Michigan lost: -5 in turnover margin. The Wolverines gave up two fumbles, one of which gave the Spartans the ball in Michigan territory and led to their first touchdown, and backup quarterback John O'Korn (who now looks like the starter for the rest of the year with Wilton Speight out with injury) threw interceptions on three consecutive drives in a rainy second half. The Spartans were content to sit on their 14-10 lead for the entire second half, going three-and-out six times on eight total drives. Michigan is unlikely to have such a terrible turnover margin in subsequent games, but the Spartans nevertheless took advantage of a few Michigan weaknesses -- namely their offensive line. In addition to the five turnovers, Michigan allowed four sacks and six total tackles for loss. The Spartans now sit at 26th in the S&P+ with a surprising tenth-ranked S&P+ defense.

The second big upset was much, much more surprising: Iowa State with their backup quarterback topping third-ranked Oklahoma. F/+ gave Iowa State a 9.2 percent win probability and favored the Sooners by 23 points, but the Cyclones equaled or bettered their opponents in many areas: they were +0.18 in yards per play, created the same number of scoring opportunities, went +1 in the turnover battle, and averaged roughly 0.9 points per scoring opportunity more than the Sooners. But on a per-play basis, arguably the most important of all metrics, the Sooners had a 54 percent success rate to the Cyclones' 36 percent -- one of the widest margins of the week. Iowa State held Oklahoma to a single second-half touchdown while racking up 25 second-half points of their own, limiting the Sooners to just four second-half drives (where they fumbled, missed a field goal, and turned the ball over on downs for three of those four drives).

Iowa State's Kyle Kempt, filling in for regular starting quarterback Jacob Park, was incredible, throwing for 343 yards (14.3 yards per attempt) and no interceptions. Converted linebacker Joel Lanning played both ways, compiling an incredible stat line: 2-of-3 for 25 yards passing, nine carries for 35 yards, and eight tackles, including a sack and a fumble recovery. Big plays also helped win the game for the Cyclones, as they had four receivers average more than 20 yards per catch. Since Oklahoma's 31-16 win over Ohio State in Week 2, the two teams have gone in totally different directions: Ohio State has posted four wins with an S&P+ percentile performance of 94 percent or higher and an average margin of victory of 42 points, while Oklahoma gave up 41 points to 0-5 Baylor and escaped with an 8-point win, and lost to Iowa State.

After TCU's win over West Virginia -- a game largely decided by two turnovers as TCU used a fumbled punt return for a short-field touchdown and then scored a 45-yard touchdown following a midfield interception -- the Big 12 looks like it might come down to the Horned Frogs and Sooners, despite their loss (and remaining games against Texas, TCU, West Virginia, and Oklahoma State).

In the SEC, Georgia's win over Vanderbilt (+25 percent success rate margin) and Florida's loss to LSU puts the Bulldogs squarely in the driver's seat to meet Alabama in the conference championship. And Michigan's loss to Michigan State makes the Ohio State vs. Penn State game even more of a Big Ten Championship semi-final game.

The other interesting conference race is in the ACC, where Miami's win over Florida State (finally!), North Carolina State's win over Louisville, and Clemson's closer-than-expected win over Wake Forest set up one of the most exciting races this season. After their win, Miami is now 11th in the S&P+ and is expected to win every game left on their schedule -- but there are still three games left where the S&P+ favors the Hurricanes by ten points or less (Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech, and Notre Dame), before likely meeting Clemson in the ACC Championship Game. And Clemson has undoubtedly the best resume so far in college football, with wins over three teams in the S&P+ top 20, but they have a tough three-game stretch of Georgia Tech, North Carolina State, and Florida State coming up after winning just 28-14 over Wake Forest. That score is a little deceiving considering Wake was shut out until the fourth quarter and had a -17 percent success rate disadvantage compared to the Tigers. Finally, North Carolina State is a real dark horse after slowing down Lamar Jackson Thursday night. The 5-1 Wolfpack just look solid -- certainly solid enough to challenge Clemson for the ACC Atlantic crown.


  • Who would have though Western Michigan vs. Buffalo would be one of the best games of the week? A game that ended regulation even at 31-31 all ended up going to a record-tying seven overtimes as the two teams compiled a record-breaking 139 total points. The two teams had drastically different ways of getting to what ended up being a 71-68 win for Western Michigan. The Broncos had a clear edge in per-play efficiency, (+13 percent success rate), while the Bulls averaged 0.7 yards per play more on the back of big plays -- including four Buffalo receivers with at least one 53-plus-yard catch. In fact, quarterback Drew Anderson threw for 597 yards (35-of-61), seven touchdowns, and no interceptions in the loss.
  • It was a weird day for presumptive Heisman favorite Saquon Barkley. The Penn State running back finished with 16 carries for 75 yards (4.7 yards per carry), but that included a 53-yard run at the end of the third quarter. Otherwise he was held to 15 carries for 22 yards, or 1.5 yards per carry. In fact, he only had six successful runs all game, with every other carry going for no gain or a loss. Northwestern, fittingly, finished with five sacks and 12 total tackles for loss in the 31-7 defeat.


  • Khalil Tate, QB, Arizona. After Arizona starting quarterback Brandon Dawkins was knocked out of the game against Colorado on the opening drive, backup Khalil Tate entered and managed to set a FBS record for quarterback rushing yards with an astounding 327. He averaged 23.4 yards per carry. On top of that, he completed all but one passing attempt, going 11-of-12 for 142 yards and no interceptions as the Wildcats improved to a surprising 3-2.
  • Kyle Kempt, QB, Iowa State. We've already mentioned Iowa State backup quarterback Kyle Kempt in the Cyclones' win over the Sooners, but Kempt gained 343 yards on 18-of-24 passing (14.3 yards per attempt) with no picks. Honorable mention to two-way player Joel Lanning, forced back onto the offensive side of the ball while starting at linebacker too.
  • Jonathan Taylor, RB, Wisconsin. Wisconsin has really missed a dominant running back since Melvin Gordon left for the NFL. Freshman Jonathan Taylor is the guy that Badgers fans have hoped for. Fourth in the FBS with 153.4 rushing yards per game, Taylor managed 25 carries for 249 yards against Nebraska in a 38-17 win.
  • Sam Ehlinger, QB, Texas. Sam Ehlinger looks like he might be the starter now at Texas after filling in for an injured Sam Buechele for two games this season. Ehlinger threw for 380 yards on 30-of-50 passing, while rushing for 107 yards on 20 carries to completely shoulder the load in the Longhorns' 40-34 double-overtime win over Kansas State. Ehlinger looks capable of carrying the offense much like Greg Ward Jr. did for Tom Herman's Houston offenses.


  • The Ohio State defensive line. Ohio State's defense hasn't been really challenged since the Oklahoma game, but they've played about as well as could be expected given the level of competition. Against the Terps, Ohio State allowed 66 total yards, including just 13 total passing yards on three completions. Ohio State's defense managed five sacks and 12 total tackles for loss, and a big part of that is the constant harassment from the deep defensive line.
  • Kenny Willekes, DL, Michigan State. Michigan State defensive lineman Kenny Willekes was a big reason for the Spartans' upset (is it really ever an upset anymore?) win over Michigan, totaling two sacks, three total tackles for loss, and seven total tackles.

Posted by: Chad Peltier on 09 Oct 2017

2 comments, Last at 09 Oct 2017, 5:34pm by horn


by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Mon, 10/09/2017 - 5:24pm

"And Michigan's loss to Michigan State makes the Ohio State vs. Penn State game even more of a Big Ten Championship semi-final game."

Careful with that. Dantonio has been almost as good at upsetting Ohio State.

by horn :: Mon, 10/09/2017 - 5:34pm

You forgot Braxton Berrios for the Honor Roll, almost singlehandedly won the game for the U.