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Statistically Speaking: Who Should Be Utah's QB?

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There's a quarterback controversy in Salt Lake City. Wilson has better passing numbers, but KT sparked the run game against UCLA. Thompson's ability to make plays in the read option allows Booker to be more explosive and efficient. Or does it? All the QB has to do is hand Booker the ball, right? With the offensive line struggling to pass block and the receivers dropping balls left and right, does it really matter who is taking the snaps?

Travis Wilson was chosen by the coaching staff to start at quarterback against USC.
Travis Wilson was chosen by the coaching staff to start at quarterback against USC.
Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

Kendal Thompson and Travis Wilson have been locked in a close quarterback competition since fall camp. Wilson is more experienced and has more of a quarterback build. He has a quicker release, more powerful arm, and is generally regarded as the more accurate thrower. He fits balls into tight spaces and can throw a receiver open (although they still need to catch the ball). Thompson is smaller, but runs with elusiveness and aggression, making the QB keeper a dangerous play. Utah fans fondly remember his big runs on the final drive of the UCLA game, putting the Utes in position to win the game.

There are three components to the question of who should start at QB:

 

  • Who is the better passer?
  • Who is the better runner?
  • Who most improves the players around him?

Let's dig into the numbers and see what they can tell us about the answers to those questions.

 

Better Passer: Travis Wilson

After starting the season with 7 touchdown passes on 58 attempts, Travis Wilson has not found the end zone through his 53 attempts in conference play, although he has not thrown a single interception, either. Kendal Thompson threw a touchdown pass against UCLA, but has had costly miscues and turnovers. Travis Wilson has flashed the ability to create explosive plays with his arm, and to convert challenging down-and-distance situations and keep drives alive. Kendal Thompson has not shown that capacity. Basic numbers and advanced numbers show that Travis Wilson is the superior passer.

First, we can break down the simple statistics:

Overall Passing


 

Comp/Att


 

Comp %


 

TD


 

INT


 

Yards


 

Passer Rating


 

Wilson


 

63/111


 

56.8%


 

7


 

0


 

833

 

140.6

 

Thompson


 

28/47


 

59.6%


 

2


 

2


 

301


 

118.89

 

 

These numbers show Wilson to be a more prolific and efficient passer. One number you don't see in this table is sacks. Thompson has taken 10 sacks on very few dropbacks, for an ugly 17.5% sack rate. Wilson is excellent at avoiding sacks, having been brought down on only about 4% of his dropbacks. Given the O-lines struggles in pass blocking, Wilson's escapability is a very valuable skill.

We can further examine the value of Wilson's poise under pressure by looking at his numbers on 3rd and long. While a QB isn't blitzed on every play in this situation, he is pressured more often and has to wait for plays to develop, allowing opposing defenses to close in. This is where Wilson really separates himself statistically from Kendal Thompson.

Overall Passing


 

Comp/Att


 

Comp %


 

TD


 

INT


 

Yards


 

Passer Rating


 

Wilson


 

10/19


 

52.6%


 

1


 

0


 

143

 

133.22

 

Thompson


 

3/11


 

27.3%


 

0


 

1


 

22


 

25.8

 

 

Not only does Thompson take sacks, he also makes poor decisions and inaccurate throws under pressure. Especially in a run-first offensive system, the Utes' quarterback's passing ability makes the most difference on obvious passing downs. When the drive is on the line, Travis Wilson is consistent. Thompson struggles mightily.

Better Rusher: Kendal Thompson

NCAA stats count sacks as negative rushing plays, which muddies up rushing numbers for QBs and challenges statistical analysis. Luckily, ESPN provides us with run EPA (estimated points added). This number is a statistical guess at the estimated point value of each of the running plays executed by each quarterback. If we divide this number by a QB's rushing attempts, we can get at the core of who is the better runner.


 

Run EPA


 

 

Attempts


 

EPAPR


 

Wilson


 

-4.0


 

33


 

-.12


 

Thompson


 

-1.0


 

41


 

-.02

 

 

If these numbers don't look very good, that's because they aren't. Marcus Mariota adds about half an expected point (+.54) every time he runs with the ball. Travis Wilson costs the Utes a little over a tenth of a point, while Thompson just about breaks even, on average. The good plays stick in our minds, but these advanced metrics suggest that while KT is a better runner, he still isn't very good.

Better For the Team: Travis Wilson (and it isn't even close)

Taken individually, the quarterback controversy makes sense, and it looks like Wilson should get a slight edge. Thompson's running ability doesn't make up for his inability to convert on passing downs, and Wilson has flashed the ability to be a game changing player. The real case for Wilson, however, is in what the rest of the team does with him under center. First, we'll take a look at the two halves of last week's game, where Wilson and Thompson saw about the same number of snaps (31 and 29) against the same defense. Second, we will take a look at the production of offensive standout Devontae Booker and answer the question: does it even matter who is handing him the ball?

First, a word about these stats. A play is 'successful' if it gains 50% of available yards on first down, 70% of available yards on second downs, and 100% of available yards on third or fourth down. I've broken the game down into three splits, along with the overall offensive success rate. The first is QB Success Rate, which measures only those plays on which the QB threw a pass or ran the ball. The second is Pass Down Success Rate, which measures the success rate on 2nd down and 8+ plays, or 3rd/4th down and 5+ plays. Finally, QB Pass Down Rate removes the occasional plays where Devontae Booker ran the ball in a passing down and asks what the QBs were able to do. Leverage Rate is the percentage of downs which were not passing downs, and is a nice measure of efficiency and ability to create makeable third down situations. The national average for leverage rate is 68.3%.


 

Success Rate


 

QB Success Rate


 

Pass Down Rate


 

QB Pass Down Rate


 

Leverage Rate


 

Thompson (1st Half)


 

6/29

20.7%


 

1/19


 

5%


 

1/11


 

9%


 

0/10


 

0%


 

18/29


 

62%


 

Wilson


 

(2nd Half)


 

12/31


 

38.7%


 

4/13


 

30.7%


 

3/8


 

37.5%


 

3/7


 

42.8%


 

23/31


 

74%

 

 

The difference between Travis Wilson's offense and Kendal Thompson's offense is obvious from these stats. Thompson completely failed to make any plays on passing downs, while Wilson was able to create a good situation for his offense when it was necessary. While he only had ten attempts in this game, he transformed those limited opportunities into third and short or new sets of downs for the offense, giving Booker more opportunities to break big plays loose.  This wasn't just a bad game for Kendal Thompson, either. Kendal Thompson has taken the snap on 43 passing downs this season, and has only succeeded on 18.6% of those downs. Even against UCLA he only managed 16.6%. Thompson simply cannot produce in situations where he needs to make a big play to keep a struggling drive alive. When he does manage a conversion, it's almost always by handing the ball off to Devontae Booker, but no one benefits more from having Travis Wilson on the field than The Beast.

Booker's Shocking QB Splits

 

Carries

Yards

YPC

Explosive Carries

 

Explosive Yards

 

YPEC

Explosiveness Rate

Wilson


 

 

68

 

500

 

7.35

 

15

 

354

 

23.6

 

22.1%

Thompson


 

 

52

 

193

 

4.7

 

5

 

65

 

13

 

12%

It's the difference between a win and a loss. With Wilson handing him the ball, Devontae Booker rips off huge runs (10+ yards) on more than 1 out of every 5 plays. The big plays not only come more frequently, but they go for 10 more yards on average. This enormous increase in explosiveness makes the Utah offense threatening, efficient, and capable of keeping up. Without it, the offense stagnates. The opponent doesn't really change the story: Booker has averaged 7.55 yards per carry in Pac 12 play with Wilson, and 4.7 with Thompson.

The explanation lies in Wilson's superior power and accuracy. Where a Thompson pass floats in, Wilson's get to the receiver sooner and in better position. Wilson's better passes require safeties to start deep and help defend downfield routes. When the safeties are further upfield at the snap, they are a handful of yards further from the line of scrimmage when Booker hits his hole. Instead of being gang-tackled by a safety and a linebacker, Booker has already beat the LB and is in open space by the time the safety gets there.

The inescapable conclusion:

Wilson is the better passer, Thompson the better runner, or so the argument goes. Statistical analysis bears that idea out, although it calls into question how effective of a runner Thompson really is. Even if Thompson gets the benefit of the doubt about his ability to run the ball, Devontae Booker's productivity with Travis Wilson taking the snaps undermines that argument. The run game isn't just better, it's about twice as good, with all the makings of one of the most dangerous units in the nation. The whole offense clicks along with a higher success rate, and in particular is able to effectively convert tough down and distance situations.

Dres Anderson doesn't need to catch the ball (although it would be nice). The combination of his breakaway speed and Wilson's downfield accuracy is enough to open up the defense and let Booker run wild. With Thompson under center, the defense can crowd the line of scrimmage and trust the DBs to get to Thompson's floating passes before Anderson can come away with them. Thompson's read option threat isn't enough to make up for the difference.

The coaching staff needs to have the courage to stick with Travis Wilson, even when he isn't making big plays. Kendal Thompson is an exciting, dynamic player and by all accounts a great teammate and person, but his skill set demonstrably weakens the offense. With a bottom-half offense that can't afford any compromise, Wilson is the clear choice.