OFI: Watching Weird Games and Welcoming Back the Big Ten
It might be appropriate to say that Week 8 was the first "normal" college football week of the 2020 season, although "normal" takes a different meaning these days. 44 FBS vs. FBS games were played on Saturday as the Big Ten and Mountain West conferences began their seasons.
While the slate featured only two contests between ranked teams, it did have plenty of weird games. A useful heuristic for the general insanity of a college football game is comparing teams' yards per play and their turnover margin. If the final score tends more towards the yards per play disparity, then a team simply got beat, most of the time. If the final score tends more towards the turnover margin? Well, then we can officially declare a game weird.
Let's dive into some "weird" matchups from the weekend.
No. 2 in SP+ Clemson beat No. 105 Syracuse 47-21. The Orange outgained the Tigers 5.60 to 5.42 on a yards per play basis. Syracuse also threw three interceptions and added a fumble, losing the turnover margin four to one. This game was weird! Syracuse only had 11 first downs and still entered the fourth quarter down by just two scores. This game was 27-21 in Clemson's favor until the Orange lost a fumble that the Tigers returned to the end zone. Clemson won the success rate margin by 14 percentage points (45.3% to 31.3% for Syracuse) and the EPA margin by over half a point (+0.546 EPA/play). Going further, you could cut out that fumble return (-7.846 EPA on that one play!), and Clemson still won the EPA margin by +0.469. Clemson got out-gained even as they were more efficient than Syracuse, but the Tigers still needed three turnovers and touchdown drives of 47, 43, and 3 yards to pull away from arguably the worst team on their schedule. A decisively weird game for the Tigers, as they gave up a few big plays and struggled to pass consistently: Trevor Lawrence completed only 61% of his passes, averaging only 10.6 yards per completion. Travis Etienne added 100 all-purpose yards and three rushing touchdowns on the day as the Tigers ultimately pulled away and won by 26 points. Don't let that margin fool you, though -- this was a decisively weird game for the Tigers, and without Syracuse offering up four turnovers, Clemson would've been sweating well into the fourth quarter on Saturday.
No. 13 Oklahoma State edged out No. 23 Iowa State at home 24-21, taking control of the race to the Big 12 Championship Game. The Cowboys were also outgained 5.76 to 5.80 yards per play, and they lost the turnover margin two to one. The score margin went against both the yards per play and the turnover battle! What happened here? Those two turnovers -- interceptions against Oklahoma State quarterback Spencer Sanders -- resulted in a short-field touchdown for Iowa State (26 yards) and turned a failed drive into a touchdown for the Cyclones to start the second half. So, what happened? How did Iowa State outgain Oklahoma State and win the turnover battle on the road, and still lose? Well, the Cyclones missed two field goals, and in the second half, they punted on five straight drives, gaining a grand total of 31 yards over the course of almost 17 minutes of game time. This game really came down to who made big plays when: aside from the Cyclones' complete stall out in the second half, a stretch during which Oklahoma State extended their lead to 10 points, Iowa State really couldn't move the ball. Running back Breece Hall had rushes of 70 and 60, but outside of those, the Cyclones has seven plays of more than 10 yards, compared to 31 plays of 1, zero, or negative yards. On the other hand, Oklahoma State had 15 plays of more than 10 yards, with longs of 40, 34, and 32. I'm here to declare: this game was weird! Oklahoma State was not its usual brand of explosive, but the Cowboys did just enough on offense to outlast a stagnant Iowa State offense, managing to win the EPA margin (+0.047 EPA/play advantage) and the game, despite being outgained and losing the turnover battle.
The Big Ten conference rejoined college football this weekend, playing a full slate of games. The game to focus on this weekend was not one of the blowouts, but of course one of the upsets. No. 5 Penn State fell in overtime 36-35 to No. 32 Indiana despite outgaining the Hoosiers by 2.2 yards per play. The Nittany Lions lost a fumble and threw two interceptions, all in the first half, losing the turnover battle by one. We already have the seeds of weirdness in this game. The other weird moments aren't hard to find, and they really boil down to two plays: Penn State scored a touchdown to extend their lead to 28-20 with 1:40 left to go in the fourth quarter. This play substantially decreased their win probability (by about 5 percentage points)! The Nittany Lions were leading, had just stopped Indiana, and just needed to milk the clock -- Indiana had no timeouts, and so had Penn State not scored, the Nittany Lions would now be 1-0, happy to escape from a weird first-week game and looking forward to their top-10 matchup against Ohio State this upcoming weekend. Instead, Penn State scored, Michael Penix Jr. drove the Hoosiers 75 yards to tie the game, and Penn State missed a field goal as time expired. In overtime, Penn State scored first and Indiana matched, which brings us to weird play No. 2: The Hoosiers went for two. Penix scrambled, diving with the ball outstretched, narrowly grazing the pylon. The referees, presumably as excited as most fans in the stands, ruled it a conversion on the field, and video evidence to overturn was judged inconclusive. The play stood, the two-point conversion counted, and Penn State lost a game in which they led, had the ball, and their opponents had no timeouts with a minute and a half left in the fourth quarter. Welcome back, college football.
Elsewhere in the Big Ten, No. 17 Michigan stormed past No. 16 Minnesota 49-24. The Wolverines were up 35-17 at halftime and never looked back. They outgained the Gophers by 4 yards a play (8.53 to 4.52) and sacked Tanner Morgan five times on the day. Michigan quarterback Joe Milton had an excellent debut, completing 68% of his passes and adding 52 rushing yards and a touchdown on the ground. Michigan's line play might be the highlight of the game -- on offense, the Wolverines averaged a 58% rushing success rate and +0.585 EPA/rush, and the defense held the Golden Gophers to only 4.6 yards per rush on early downs, 0.040 EPA/rush. Minnesota had to fill some gaps along the line, and that capped their offensive efficiency -- the Gophers were successful on 40% of their plays in non-garbage time, but failed to convert in plus territory three times on the day.
Across the Nation
The rest of the AP Top 25 had a relatively quiet weekend, as 12 of 16 games featuring ranked teams resulted in double-digit scoring margins. It's useful to divide them up into the blowouts, the solid performances, and the unexpected close games.
The Big Ten blowout fun started on Friday night, as No. 6 Wisconsin hosted No. 66 Illinois, winning 45-7 on the back of a 20-of-21 (95% completion rate), five-touchdown night from freshman starter Graham Mertz. Mertz's long passes gained 53, 34, and 23 yards, indicating that the Badgers capitalized on efficiency more than explosiveness against the Illini. Wisconsin won the EPA/play margin by 0.450 and the success rate margin by 22.4 percentage points. Illinois was successful on only 25.0% of their non-garbage plays in a rough start to the season.
On Saturday, No. 3 Alabama, No. 7 Notre Dame, and No. 1 Ohio State all joined in the blowout fun. Alabama outgained No. 37 Tennessee by over 4 yards per play en route to a 48-17 drubbing. The Crimson Tide held Tennessee quarterback Jarrett Gaurantano to just 162 yards on a 50% completion rate. Tennessee averaged -0.041 EPA/play on Saturday. Notre Dame exorcised some demons against No. 38 Pittsburgh and their backup quarterback. A week after a 12-7 slogfest, the Irish passed for 319 yards, outgaining the Panthers by over 2 yards on early downs, while converting 11 of their 18 (61%) third downs, holding Pittsburgh to only three of 13 (23%). Ohio State held No. 31 Nebraska to only 105 passing yards, winning the EPA/play margin +0.463 to +0.133. Nebraska actually moved the ball well, averaging +0.250 EPA/rush and a 55% success rate, but the Cornhuskers struggled to find the end zone: the Huskers fumbled twice in Ohio State territory, both in the second half, and punted or turned the ball over on seven of 10 drives in their 52-17 loss. The Huskers and Buckeyes were within two scores at halftime, but Ohio State took over in the second half, going on a 28-3 run. Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields completed 20 of his 21 passes and added 54 yards on the ground, totaling three touchdowns for the Buckeyes as they looked every bit as good as their preseason expectations.
Zach Wilson and No. 15 BYU averaged +0.888 EPA/play against No. 110 Texas State in a 52-14 win. Wilson, a legitimate Heisman Trophy contender, added 287 yards and four touchdowns to his season totals. No. 20 Cincinnati shocked No. 30 SMU in Dallas on Saturday. Bearcats quarterback Desmond Ridder ran for 179 yards and three touchdowns as the Cincinnati defense held SMU to just 35% on third downs and only 3.7 yards per play on early downs. The Bearcats' win clarifies the American Conference standings and the Group of 5 New Year's Six race, as Cincinnati is now the prohibitive favorite on resume alone.
No. 10 North Carolina took care of in-state rival No. 61 North Carolina State 48-21 as Sam Howell passed for 252 yards. Tar Heels running back Javonte Williams averaged 8.42 yards per carry on 19 attempts, including a long run of only 27 yards, scoring three touchdowns on the day. That's just brutal efficiency, given how his total was not driven by a single long run.
In the unexpected category, No. 71 Wake Forest upset No. 21 Virginia Tech 23-16 despite a negative EPA, early downs, and success rate margin. Chalk that up to three interceptions by the Hokies, who otherwise outgained the Demon Deacons 5.55 to 4.78 on the day. No. 19 Miami struggled against No. 49 Virginia despite a big day from D'Eriq King, who has struggled to find consistent passing: King completed 70% of his passes Saturday, well above his season average, but the Hurricanes struggled to find the end zone in the absence of Cam'Ron Harris and Brevin Jordan. Miami eked out a 19-14 win as their defense continues to excel, but their offense is going to have to find a way to put together all the parts headed down the stretch.
And finally, a college football column wouldn't be worth writing if we can't talk about America's favorite team, the No. 72 Coastal Carolina Chanticleers, who moved to 5-0 on the season, justifying their AP Top 25 ranking with a 28-14 win over No. 81 Georgia Southern. Coastal was missing experienced passer Grayson McCall and still managed to score on the back of explosive passes, averaging 9.7 yards per pass on early downs.
These players generated the most value for their teams this week:
- Mark Willis, Liberty QB: +32.72 Total EPA
Willis passed for 345 yards and six touchdowns, adding 97 yards and a touchdown on the ground. He completed 77% of his passes and found nine different receivers in the Flames' 56-35 win over Southern Mississippi.
- Justin Fields, Ohio State QB: +25.7 Total EPA
Fields completed 20 of 21 passes and accounted for 330 yards and three touchdowns. That performance seems meager for the leaderboard, but note that Ohio State went 8-for-13 on third downs and 2-for-2 on fourth downs, and conversions on those high-leverage plays are worth a lot!
- Graham Mertz, Wisconsin: +23.7 Total EPA
Mertz, filling in for the injured Jack Coan, completed 20 of 21 passes for five touchdowns against Illinois.
- Javion Hawkins, Lousiville RB: + 11.8 Total EPA
Hawkins rushed 16 times for 174 yards and three touchdowns against Florida State (10.87 yards/carry). The Cardinals beat the Seminoles 48-16.
- Marlon Williams, UCF WR: +19.2 Total EPA
Another week, another UCF receiver on the list: Williams caught nine passes, averaging 19.3 yards per catch, with three touchdowns and a long of 54 yards in the Knights' 51-34 win over Tulane.