OFI Week 6: Red Zone Woes Doom Crimson Tide
No. 6 Iowa 23, No. 7 Penn State 20
Expected Score: Iowa 16.78, Penn State 19.50
EPA/play: Iowa -0.151, Penn State -0.291
Eckel Ratio: Iowa 54.5%
Prior to quarterback Sean Clifford's injury-induced second-quarter exit, the Nittany Lions led the Hawkeyes 17-3. Penn State prevented Iowa from, well, being Iowa: the Hawkeyes had just one drive starting in plus territory (their only scoring drive) and turned two interceptions into only three points. Penn State had outgained Iowa 6.1 to 2.7 yards per play. Through the first five possessions, Penn State's game had gone according to plan.
After Clifford went out, Iowa outscored Penn State 20-3, with 10 of those points coming on drives starting at the 50 and the Penn State 44. Iowa's ability to induce turnovers resulted in only those three aforementioned points, but the Hawkeyes stole possessions via interceptions four times. Post-Clifford, Penn State gained just 66 yards on 10 possessions and took the ball across the 50-yard line just twice. The Nittany Lions averaged -0.290 EPA/play overall, but that number and Clifford's injury belies the real offensive performance. Before Clifford's injury, Penn State averaged 0.309 EPA/play to Iowa's -0.459. After Clifford went out, Penn State averaged -0.343 EPA/play while Iowa averaged 0.017.
Both teams amassed negative total EPA on the day (Iowa -8.22, Penn State -5.50), and neither team succeeded in extending drives (Iowa 36.8% third-down conversion rate, Penn State 38.9%). Iowa's offense was largely constrained to two passing plays, as catches by Nico Ragaini and Kegaan Johnson accounted for 45.1% of their total pass yardage on the day. Iowa quarterback Spencer Petras averaged -0.15 EPA/pass on Saturday, completing 54.8% of passes and averaging just 6.3 yards per attempt. Penn State held the Iowa rushing attack to 3.7 yards per rush (-0.16 EPA/rush), and Iowa punted on eight of their 15 possessions, turning it over twice.
This Big Ten matchup came down to two factors: Clifford's injury left Penn State rudderless on offense, and despite the lead they had amassed, Iowa's special teams set up the Hawkeyes offense to capitalize. With the loss, Penn State falls behind in the Big Ten East, as Michigan, Ohio State, and Michigan State all improved to 3-0 in conference play. Meanwhile, Iowa pulls even more comfortably ahead in the West, taking a two-game lead on the rest of the division.
Iowa's offense now sits at 116th in the nation, averaging -0.089 EPA/play, while their defense ranks seventh, allowing -0.148 EPA/play. Similarly, Penn State's offensive efficiency ranks 105th in the nation (0.073), while their defense ranks 11th. The Hawkeyes have three road games and three home games against division opponents next on the schedule, hosting Purdue this weekend. Penn State will look to heal up and right the ship with a bye week and hosting Illinois before a late-October trip to Columbus to face Ohio State.
No. 12 Oklahoma 55, No. 5 Texas 48
Expected Score: Oklahoma 51.42, Texas 36.66
EPA/play: Oklahoma 0.330, Texas 0.191
Eckel Ratio: Oklahoma, 55.5%
Heading into Saturday, seven consecutive Red River Shootout games had been decided by one score, and Steve Sarkisian's Texas Longhorns were determined to avoid an eighth. Longhorns quarterback Casey Thompson connected with Xavier Worthy for a 75-yard touchdown pass on the first play of the game, and Texas turned to Bijan Robinson after a blocked punt to punch in a second score from the Oklahoma 2-yard line. The Longhorns extended their lead to 38-20 at the end of the first half, frustrating Oklahoma quarterback Spencer Rattler (6-of-15, -0.201 EPA/play). Rattler's inconsistency (two turnovers—a fumble and an interception) led Sooners head coach Lincoln Riley to bench the starter and play Caleb Williams. With Williams at the helm, Oklahoma scored on seven of nine drives to erase the deficit. Prior to Rattler's benching (6:41 in the second quarter), Texas led 35-17. Under Williams, the Sooners outscored the Longhorns 38-13. In the first half, Texas averaged 0.438 EPA/play and held Oklahoma to 0.137 EPA/play. In the second half, Oklahoma averaged 0.533 EPA/play and held Texas to -0.099 EPA/play.
Another big shift in the game paralleled the Sooners' switch from Rattler to Williams: the Longhorns rushed on 45.5% of first-half plays, but on only 32.1% of second-half plays, despite playing with a lead. 28.4% of Robinson's total yards came in the second half; Robinson had just eight second-half carries. Thompson connected with Worthy nine times in the game, averaging 29.0 yards per completion. Worthy finished the game averaging 1.68 EPA per target, accounting for 18.50 total EPA. In the second half alone, Worthy had seven targets and 9.78 total EPA, but the offense struggled otherwise. In the second half, Texas faced an average third-down distance of 11.70 yards to go, compared to 5.33 yards in the first half, and the Longhorns converted only 16.7% of second-half third-down situations.
The story of the second half, and ultimately the game, comes down to early downs. On first and second downs, Texas averaged 0.641 EPA/play in the first half, but only 0.164 EPA/play in the second half. The Longhorns were successful on 51.9% of first-half early downs but only 33.3% of second-half early downs. The Sooners comeback happened because Alex Grinch's defense gave Caleb Williams a fighting chance by stopping Texas' early-down attack.
The Sooners offense certainly improved when Williams came into the game, but only by taking the passing game from a net negative to a net positive. Williams averaged 0.389 EPA/play, more than a half-point better than Rattler, but the Sooners rushing attack led the way all game. Oklahoma's Kennedy Brooks accounted for 13.80 total EPA Saturday, 0.550 EPA/play. Brooks averaged 8.7 yards per attempt, driven by two chunk runs of 65 and 33 yards. Aside from those, though, Brooks averaged a more-than-respectable 5.2 yards per carry, and his 58.3% first-half success rate likely prevented the Sooners from digging a hole they couldn't escape.
Oklahoma survives and advances, securing a key win over not only a rival but a probable Big 12 Championship Game foe. In terms of playoff calculus, Oklahoma has given themselves a little bit more bandwidth for a late-season stumble by securing, at worst, the split with Texas. The Sooners host TCU Saturday as they gear up for their march to the playoff, and Texas looks to rebound and avoid a skid as Oklahoma State comes to town.
No. 34 Texas A&M 41, No. 1 Alabama 38
Expected Score: Texas A&M 35.01, Alabama 36.91
EPA/play: Texas A&M 0.177, Alabama 0.147
Eckel Ratio: Alabama, 57.1%
Jimbo Fisher used to be winless against Nick Saban. Fisher, at Florida State and Texas A&M, had lost four straight to Saban's Alabama by an average margin of 21.5 points, and coming off consecutive losses to Arkansas and Mississippi State, looked to be destined for five. This year's matchup had some extra fire as Fisher had some offseason comments about who would win this game and Saban called it a "trap game" earlier in the week, and the game did not fail to meet expectations.
The Aggies jumped out to a quick 17-7 lead, capitalizing on an Alabama fumble and a short field (41 yards) to score their second touchdown. The very next drive, the Aggies stole three points from Alabama, intercepting Bryce Young on the goal line, which turned out to be the deciding drive of the game—not in the sense that it ultimately determined the outcome, although it did contribute to it of course, but that it prevented Alabama from restoring the narrative. If Alabama can score there, they're down only one possession, they have just marched down the field, and there is an entirely different sense of urgency from the Crimson Tide. On the season, Alabama rushes on 51.4% of early downs; against Texas A&M, playing from behind, the Tide rushed on 41.3%. Alabama is not used to playing from behind, and Texas A&M's early blows stunned the Tide. Alabama got a start in the second half with a blocked punt touchdown and quickly erased the deficit, pulling ahead 38-31 with five minutes remaining. Texas A&M drove 65 and 54 yards on their final two drives, scoring 10 points and kicking a field goal as time expired to complete the upset.
Aggies quarterback Zach Calzada averaged 0.392 EPA/pass, completing 67.8% of passes for 9.2 yards per completion, including 5-of-8 for 90 yards on Texas A&M's last two game-clinching drives. The offense ran through Calzada and receiver Ainias Smith (six receptions, 14.2 yards per reception, two touchdowns) and tight end Jalen Wydermyer (three receptions, 24.3 yards per reception). Running back Isaiah Spiller had a muted performance as Alabama's defense committed to stopping the run: Spiller averaged 2.7 yards per carry, -0.068 EPA/carry, and a 29.4% success rate. Calzada's timely passing capped off a nice performance from Texas A&M's offense (2.83 points per drive, 0.177 EPA/play).
For Alabama, Young had far from a bad performance. The sophomore averaged 0.164 EPA/pass, throwing for 369 total yards on 48 attempts. After two consecutive turnovers in the first half, Alabama's offense scored on nine of 10 possessions, outscoring Texas A&M 31-14 to take that 38-31 lead in the fourth quarter. The temptation is to say that Alabama's game came down to a failed drive with 2:54 left, the one that set A&M up for a field goal drive, but the reality of Alabama's offense is much starker: Alabama had first-and-10 inside the Texas A&M 20 six times and scored a touchdown only once, coming away with just 23 points (3.83 points average) and averaging -0.058 EPA/play inside the Texas A&M 20. The red zone struggles meant that Alabama kicked field goals instead of scoring touchdowns, and ultimately those struggles determined the game, not a fourth-quarter punt.
Texas A&M gets their best win of the season, perhaps of Fisher's tenure, and moves to 4-2 on the season. This win throws an interesting wrinkle into A&M's 2021. With the loss of Haynes King at quarterback, many were ready to write off the Aggies, but they have five winnable conference games left, drawing Missouri and South Carolina from the East, and have put themselves in a position to compete for a New Year's Six Bowl, if not a spot in the SEC Championship Game. The Aggies travel to Columbia to face Missouri this weekend. Alabama, on the other hand, takes a loss in what may have been their toughest regular-season game left. Given the relatively light schedule and the recent history of Alabama under Saban, one would think the Crimson Tide will rebound from this loss, use it to identify and improve team weakness, and run through opponents until they hit the SEC Championship Game. They'll travel to Mississippi State this weekend looking to iron out some wrinkles.
No. 16 Arizona State 28, No. 44 Stanford 10
Expected Score: Arizona State 31.05, Stanford 19.36
EPA/play: Arizona State 0.090, Stanford -0.091
Eckel Ratio: Arizona State, 50.0%
Friday night in Tempe started out with a bang and ended with a whimper, as Arizona State scored three touchdowns on drives of 87, 80, and 75 yards to start the game but then did not score for their remaining seven possessions en route to a 28-10 drubbing of Stanford that felt nowhere as close as the score implied. The Sun Devils averaged 0.090 EPA/play on the day, but 0.854 EPA/play on their first three drives. On those first three drives, Arizona State gained 242 yards on 22 plays, 11.0 yards per play. For the rest of the game, Arizona State gained 188 yards on 43 plays, 4.4 yards per play. This wasn't a situation, though, where Arizona State's offense hit a snag against Stanford's defense so much as it just politely declined to do an ounce more work than necessary. The Sun Devils rushed on 61.1% of early downs in their first three drives, but with a lead increased that rate to 70.6%, let the clock run, and went home. They added a defensive touchdown and missed a field goal in the second half, but more or less stopped playing once the game was decided. Quarterback Jayden Daniels accrued 4.50 EPA through the air and 4.26 on the ground, but again, almost all of that value came on those first three drives: 8.01 total passing EPA on possessions one to three, -3.51 total passing EPA the rest of the game. Running back Rachaad White added 96 yards and 0.324 total EPA in the rushing game, largely in cleanup duty.
The Sun Devils defense held Stanford to -0.091 EPA/play, intercepting Cardinal quarterback Tanner McKee three times along the way. McKee didn't have an abysmal game, averaging 0.176 EPA/attempt (8.28 total EPA), but interceptions cost him, and both came in Arizona State territory. Notably, Arizona State sacked McKee five times, pressuring him on 12 dropbacks, and he took -1.29 EPA on those sacks. The Stanford running game, 84th in EPA/rush coming into this game, could find no consistent success, and so the offense was entirely tied to whether McKee could make enough happen with his arm. Cardinal receivers Benjamin Yurosek and Elijah Higgins combined for 16.07 total EPA and 228 total yards on 13 receptions. At times, Stanford was able to move the ball well, but those turnovers crushed any chance the Cardinal had at mounting a comeback.
This Friday night game is worth focusing on for a few reasons. First, college football is fun and interesting, and no stone should go unturned. Second, Arizona State is one of two Pac-12 teams ranked in the AP Poll and they sit atop the Pac-12 South standings at 3-0 in conference play. Third, and most important, it illustrates how much context goes into aggregate stats. The Sun Devils beat Stanford in a convincing fashion. They could have scored plenty more, but Herm Edwards was content to get up by a sufficient amount, get everyone healthy, and take the win. Arizona State is seventh nationally in EPA/play margin, and in conference play, they have now played three straight games where they won by double digits and could have won by more. Arizona State has an ugly blemish on their resume with a loss to BYU, but the Sun Devils are playing at an extremely high level lately, perhaps even higher than the numbers indicate. They are the presumptive favorite for the Pac-12 South and could sneak into the playoff conversation with some help. More importantly, they're a very fun team playing good football; they'll travel to Utah Saturday.
No. 32 Kentucky 42, No. 21 LSU 21
Expected Score: Kentucky 42.46, LSU 28.76
EPA/play: Kentucky 0.349, LSU 0.071
Eckel Ratio: Kentucky, 54.5%
Speaking of fun teams and good football, the Kentucky Wildcats moved to 6-0 and doubled up LSU, beating the Tigers 42-21 on the back of a 147-yard day from Chris Rodriguez Jr. Rodriguez added 6.15 EPA on Saturday, and Kentucky was successful on 66.7% of his attempts. Most of Rodriguez's runs came with a healthy lead as Kentucky was content in the second half to beat the Tigers down and let the clock run. LSU fumbled on the first drive of the game to give Kentucky a short field and the Wildcats took advantage, never looking back. Kentucky was up 35-7 at the start of the fourth quarter and LSU did a little reputation-management against the backups to bring that score a little closer. LSU's Max Johnson had 23.7 total EPA Saturday, but 11.2 of that came in that fourth quarter. Kentucky only passed 17 times, rushing on 68% of plays, but Wildcat quarterback Will Levis completed 82% of those for 145 yards and 5.67 EPA through the air. The Kentucky python-squeeze in this game becomes all the more evident when you see that six of Levis' 17 attempts came on Kentucky's first two drives: up 14-0, Kentucky passed just 11 times on 49 plays to end the game.
With Levis providing a pulse in the passing game, Kentucky has marched to an undefeated first half of the season, far surpassing anyone's expectations. Of 10 remaining unbeaten teams, Kentucky ranks seventh in EPA/play margin, eighth in EPA/play offense, and fifth in EPA/play defense. The Wildcats will get their shot against Georgia this weekend, hoping to continue their win streak. The second half of Kentucky's schedule is extremely favorable (games against Mississippi State, Tennesee, Vanderbilt, New Mexico State, and Louisville) and so even if they stumble against Georiga, the Wildcats will have plenty of chances to play themselves into a New Year's Six game.
OFI Top 15: Week 6
These ratings will be fairly sticky from week to week, combining my preseason priors with recent performance and stats. For detailed team stats, see cfb-graphs.com. (Author's note: due to an oddity in Week 6 play-by-play data as yet uncorrected at the time of this article, I have removed the EPA/game margins for this week.)
- Oklahoma (+2)
- Cincinnati (+3)
- Alabama (-3)
- Ohio State (+1)
- Penn State (-3)
- Iowa (+1): Reshuffling at the top rewards those who won, but still respects how they won. Cincinnati won convincingly against a bad team, as did Ohio State, and Penn State and Alabama lost close games they probably would win if played again next week. Iowa gets some credit for beating a Clifford-less Penn State, but still sits behind the Nittany Lions based on their stat profile and close wins.
- Michigan (-1)
- Coastal Carolina: The Chanticleers are quietly decimating their competition.
- Kentucky (+1)
- Arizona State (NR)
- Florida (+1)
- Ole Miss (+1)
- Oklahoma State (+1)
- Michigan State (+1): Michigan State breaks in after another good performance and Arizona State peaks at 11th after three straight solid games and sitting atop the Pac-12 South.
Out: BYU goes down hard to Boise State and falls out. Oregon is out after solid performances by Arizona State and Michigan State push them back.
Hovering: San Diego State, Michigan State, UTSA, SMU, North Carolina State, Wake Forest.