Varsity Numbers: Passing All the Time
by Bill Connelly
This isn't Tecmo Bowl. Knowing a team is going to pass isn't enough to stop the pass. When you've got, for instance, Ryan Broyles and a good quarterback, you can get away with being predictable. But is it still possible to pass too much in certain circumstances? Oklahoma is about to find out.
Last year, Oklahoma attempted a balanced offense on standard downs, running the ball 56.5 percent of the time in such situations. The national average was 60.7 percent. Establishing the run with DeMarco Murray and company was a clear piece of the Sooners' strategy. But when OU fell into passing downs, all bets were off. The Sooners ran just 22.3 percent of the time on passing downs (national average: 34.0 percent), trusting quarterback Landry Jones to bail them out. He usually did. But when OU began to fall behind schedule at Missouri (with the No. 6 Passing S&P+ defense) and Texas A&M (No. 23), they were unable to bail themselves out with the aerial attack. The Sooners went punt-interception-punt in a key 16-0 run by Missouri in the fourth quarter, and their last five drives against A&M resulted in a punt, a missed field goal and three turnovers on downs.
Was this turn of events simply the Sooners being overwhelmed by good opponents surging in front of an intense home crowd? Would Oklahoma have struggled against these hot opponents even if they ran draw play after draw play? Or was the Sooners' lack of diversity an issue, especially in a hostile environment? Was OU's predictability the result of an iffy run game all along?
Oklahoma leaning on the pass has been a growing trend. In 2005, they ran 40.3 percent of the time on passing downs, the 20th-highest total in the country. That number has dropped every season, from 39.4 percent in 2006 (23rd), to 34.3 percent in 2007 (38th), to 25.0 percent in their record-setting 2008 campaign (104th), to 23.6 percent in 2009 (104th), to 23.0 percent in 2010 (112th). In the offseason, OU offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson left to take over the head coaching job at Indiana, and the reins were handed to co-coordinators Josh Heupel and Jay Norvell. Is this where the Sooners fall back into balance a bit? Possibly not. In fact, if their first game against Tulsa is any indication, OU might be doubling down. Oklahoma ran the ball just 11.5 percent of the time on passing downs -- a number that would place them among the lowest averages in recent history over the course of a full year (the only teams to run less frequently than that: 2007 Arizona and 2007 Texas Tech) -- and in a blowout win, no less.
Oklahoma heads to Florida State for an enormous matchup this weekend; the Seminoles have suffocated two cupcake opponents so far this season (UL-Monroe, Charleston Southern), but if last year's performance is any indication, the FSU defense should be quite strong against living, breathing opponents as well. Is this going to be another case where the Sooners' general predictability bites them?
Let's take a look at how pass-heavy offenses have fared against good pass defenses on the road. Below is a list of matchups between teams running less than 19 percent of the time on passing downs and Top 25 S&P+ defenses against the pass. You'll notice that in a lot of these matchups, the pass-heavy team was the clear underdog (not many teams on this pass-heavy list were actually that good), so I've bolded the games in which the pass-heavy team had an excellent overall offense.
|Pass-Heavy Offenses Facing Good Pass Defenses on the Road|
|2009||San Jose State||12.1%||Boise State||9||0.440||L||7-45||A|
|2008||San Diego State||13.6%||TCU||1||0.250||L||7-41||A|
|2008||San Diego State||13.6%||San Jose State||7||0.369||L||10-35||A|
|2010||Central Michigan||17.9%||Virginia Tech||13||0.623||L||21-45||A|
Rows in Bold mean the offense ranked in the Off. F/+ Top 25.
Overall, the pass-heavy road team went 2-20 in the games above. Focusing just on the six games that featured truly good offenses (2006 Texas Tech, 2007 Tulsa, 2009 Texas Tech), the road team still just went 1-5, averaging 21.0 points per game. Is there some causation here with the correlation, or are the above matchups simply cases of good defenses playing well at home, pass or no pass? Oklahoma has a chance to prove the purpose of this table horribly misguided. This is going to be a very telling, and hopefully enjoyable, game tomorrow night.
With so many top teams playing on the road and other programs facing opportunities to set their season's narratives, this weekend has a chance to be quite entertaining. Here are some of the under-the-radar matchups I want to watch:
South Carolina's Defense versus Awareness. The Gamecocks host Navy this weekend and should handle them pretty easily. The Midshipmen, however, thrive in taking advantage of teams that overpursue or attempt to physically dominate them, chop-blocking their opponents into oblivion and running their flexbone set with great success. South Carolina should have a high-ranking defense when the season is over, but this is an interesting matchup. Just ask Clemson about unique offenses doing damage against athletically superior opponents.
Chris Polk versus The Alleged Black Shirts. Fresno State's Robbie Rouse rushed for 169 yards against the vaunted Nebraska defense in the Huskers' 42-29 win last week, and FSU actually outgained NU overall, 444-438. Somehow, the Huskers did not register a single tackle for loss. Now, Washington comes to town. As with South Carolina, Nebraska is a superior team and should win, but was last week a red flag about the NU defense or just a random, unfocused glitch?
Hugh Freeze versus Virginia Tech. East Carolina gained 345 yards and scored 37 points against South Carolina two weeks ago, then hosted Virginia Tech last Saturday and got completely shut down. The Hokies held the Pirates to just 112 total yards in a 17-10 win. Now Hugh Freeze's Arkansas State Red Wolves come to town. Freeze is a fast-riser, taking little time to move from head coach of the NAIA's Lambuth University to ASU's chief. He has seen offensive improvement everywhere he has gone, his quarterbacks have produced a 175.5 passer rating so far, and he will provide another interesting, pass-heavy challenge for the Hokies. Can Tech dominate again?
Notre Dame versus Notre Dame. Okay, this one really isn't under the radar, is it? In the first two games of the season, Notre Dame has committed ten turnovers worth 55.3 Equivalent Points (as defined here). That's almost eight touchdowns in a season in which they have started 0-2 with a combined losing margin of just one touchdown. The Irish secondary was exposed late against Michigan, but if the offense holds onto the ball, this is a very, very good team.
Tyler Bray versus Will Muschamp. Another not-so-hidden matchup. Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray has been nearly flawless thus far, completing 79 percent of his passes and averaging 10.7 yards per attempt against Montana and Cincinnati. Receivers Justin Hunter and Da'Rick Rogers have caught 31 passes for 502 yards in the process. Now the Vols face a real defense for the first time as they head to Gainesville for a showdown with Florida. I almost talked myself into Tennessee making some serious noise, but their lack of defensive depth and the departure of safety Janzen Jackson worries me a bit. Is the offense good enough to account for those defensive holes? We'll find out Saturday afternoon.
Here is this week's F/+ Top 25. Obviously we are still working significantly from preseason projections, but you can start to see some interesting moves here.
The following full rankings are also available:
"What The...?" Team of the Week
Georgia Tech. This could very well be a mirage, but it is difficult to look too much better than Georgia Tech has in destroying Western Carolina and Middle Tennessee so far. The fact that raw numbers are being used certainly helps their cause (and, like Washington State below, they are going to be vulnerable to slippage as opponents adjustments take hold). Regardless, quarterback Tevin Washington and receiver Stephen Hill have thus far provided what Tech didn't have last year: a connection on the deep ball. Georgia Tech is going to run all day and night, but if they can't threaten to burn opponents deep with the pass, they're just not going to be that successful. Hill so far in 2011: seven catches for 307 yards and three touchdowns. That's Demaryius Thomas-esque. The Yellow Jackets host Kansas and North Carolina in the next two weeks. If they are still connecting deep against UNC, then they could end up quite successful this season.
Washington State (20 spots, from 97th to 77th). Yes, they've just destroyed two stiffs -- they beat Idaho State by 43, UNLV by 52 -- but ... they've destroyed stiffs. This is improvement. And their yardage margins (they're averaging 600 yards per game and allowing 306) suggest that they truly are dominating these teams. Once opponent adjustments work their way into the formulas, their ratings could begin to sink a bit. But there's just no question that they've looked great against bad teams, and that's a step up from recent years.
Toledo (16 spots, from 83rd to 67th). The team with what is easily the best average recruiting rankings in the MAC have actually looked quite talented so far. They whipped New Hampshire by 36 in Week One, then almost took out Ohio State this past weekend.
Wake Forest (12 spots, from 84th to 72nd). We'll see how good Syracuse and N.C. State actually turn out to be this week, but Wake Forest almost knocked off The 'Cuse on the road, then built a huge early lead before holding on at home against N.C. State. They've looked saltier in these first two weeks than they did all of last season.
Illinois (nine spots, from 43rd to 34th). They destroyed poor South Dakota State last week, but I'm actually more impressed by their first game, a 33-15 win over Arkansas State. I think there's an off-chance that ASU turns out to be a really strong offensive team, and the Illini defense held them in check.
Others: Temple (81st to 62nd), Georgia Tech (39th to 22nd), Arkansas State (94th to 81st), Central Florida (51st to 39th), Florida International (68th to 57th), Houston (65th to 55th).
Air Force (32 spots, from 54th to 86th). They looked average in taking out South Dakota by just a 37-20 margin, and they got completely dominated by TCU last weekend. They're probably not truly in the bottom-third of FBS, but they haven't proven they're better than that just yet.
Duke (17 spots, from 76th to 93rd). They lost to Richmond for the third consecutive time two weeks ago, and they got (predictably) dominated by Stanford last week. They've done nothing thus far to prove that this isn't just another iteration of the same poor Duke team.
Oregon State (17 spots, from 41st to 58th). Well ... the defense didn't look completely hopeless against Wisconsin last week. But in losing to Sacramento State, then getting shut out by a defensively flawed Wisconsin team, they have shown that this appears to be a complete rebuilding year in Corvallis.
Cincinnati (15 spots, from 31st to 46th). They were ranked too high after their flawless mercy killing of Austin Peay, and in getting dominated by Tennessee, they pretty quickly regressed back to where they should have been all along.
Others: Nevada (52nd to 80th), UAB (87th to 104th), Middle Tennessee (96th to 110th), San Diego State (63rd to 76th), Arizona (36th to 49th), Purdue (77th to 89th), Penn State (27th to 37th).
Full F/+ Picks here.
West Virginia over Maryland (Spread: Maryland -1.5 | F/+ Projection: West Virginia by 5.5)
This is a nice test for both teams. Maryland's offense looked great against Miami on Labor Day (at least until they got to the red zone and had to settle for four field goals), while West Virginia has alternated between lively and hopeless on offense in two wins over Marshall and Norfolk State. These are two teams that could actually both be quite successful this season; we'll know a lot more about each of them Sunday morning.
Auburn over Clemson (Spread: Clemson -3 | F/+ Projection: Auburn by 1.3)
Auburn has won an incredible ten straight one-possession games, and I'm pretty sure at this point people are just going to keep doubling down against AU until they finally lose. That Clemson is a favorite is surprising, but the "Okay, now's the week they're going to lose..." factor is strong.
Pittsburgh over Iowa (Spread: Iowa -3 | F/+ Projection: Pittsburgh by 0.03)
Pittsburgh couldn't protect quarterback Tino Sunseri against Maine last week, while Iowa couldn't close in on Iowa State quarterback Steele Jantz to save their lives. Neither team has looked like a world-beater in 2011, so I guess the F/+ ratings are leaning on Pitt's strangely high 2011 preseason projections in this one.
Florida State over Oklahoma (Spread: Oklahoma -3.5 | F/+ Projection: Florida State by 1.2)
It's hard to call the No. 5 team in the country winning at home much of an upset, but technically Oklahoma is favored...
UTEP at New Mexico State (Spread: NMSU -3 | F/+ Projection: UTEP by 2.8)
New Mexico State greatly exceeded their projections last week in their 28-21 upset of Minnesota. UTEP is nowhere near as decent as Minnesota, and the game is in Las Cruces, but the ratings are skeptical. One good game does not neutralize years of terrible play.
Favorite Moment of Last Weekend
Three comebacks in 90 seconds, in front of a night crowd of well over 100,000 people? Yeah, give me the end of the Michigan-Notre Dame game. It wasn't amazingly well-played, but the ending sure was fun. Sorry, Fremeau.
This weekend sets up as an opportunity to create the narrative for the rest of the season. Is Oklahoma ready to make a national title run, or will their occasional road woes bite them again? Which team trips up on the road: Stanford (versus Arizona)? Wisconsin (versus Northern Illinois)? Oklahoma State (versus Tulsa)? Arizona State (versus Illinois)? Texas (versus UCLA)? Can Notre Dame salvage their season? Can Ohio State overcome a trip to Miami and head into the second half of their season (after all their suspensions have expired) undefeated? Can Auburn somehow continue their close-game win streak and make a surprising run in 2011? Are you excited yet?