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Statistically Speaking: Up and Down of College Football

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The box scores from the Utes' games against the Cougars and Bruins are eerily similar. WSU and UCLA both outgained the Utes, turned the ball over more often, and kept up with the help of a few remarkable moments from the QB. With just a few seconds left in the game, the scores were the same- Utah trailed 27-28. So what made the difference?

Utah running back Devontae Booker has been a steady, reliable option for the Utah offense, producing over five yards per carry on average.
Utah running back Devontae Booker has been a steady, reliable option for the Utah offense, producing over five yards per carry on average.
Kevork Djansezian

Three More Points

UCLA and WSU aren't the same team. The Bruins are just better, period. They play much better defense, have a totally different (and arguably more efficient) offense, and are better on special teams. They have better athletes. The Utes played them on the road, not in the friendly confines of Rice-Eccles Stadium.

Yet only three critical points separate the Utes dismal loss from their uplifting win. Andy Phillips was 3-of-3 against the Bruins, and the Utes won by two. He was 2-of-3 against the Cougars, and the Utes lost by 2. The Utes burst out to early leads in both games with explosive plays and turnovers, and then grimly tried to hold onto the lead through the next three quarters. So is Phillip's accuracy the difference? Or was it the frequently mentioned efficiency of junior quarterback Kendall Thompson, who went 10-of-13 compared to fellow junior signal caller Wilson's 18-of-38? Was it the "Beast Mode" of stud running back Devontae Booker?

When you crunch the numbers, none of these factors stand out as being the true difference-maker. The Utes offense was slightly more efficient against UCLA, and the passing game was better, but by no means impressive.

Yards Per Play:

vs. WSU @ UCLA
Yards per play 4.46 4.68
Yards per pass 4.1 5.6
Yards per rush 4.8 4.4

These numbers are not very good. Over a whole season, they would drop you in the bottom 20 teams in the country in yards per play, just behind Iowa State and UTSA, respectively. As for Booker, he ran for a whopping 7.4 yards per carry against the Cougars (4.4 if you cherry pick away his big TD), and only 4.7 against UCLA. Given Washington State's season average of 7.05 yards per play and UCLA's 6.31, the defense is going to need to step up big time to keep the Utes in the game. They did.

vs. WSU @ UCLA
Opp. Yds per play 5.75 5.63
Opp. Yds per pass 6.8 12.2
Opp. Yds per rush 3.1 2.7

You can see that the Utes did an effective job of holding both teams well below season averages, particularly against the Cougars. The similarity in these scores should help to explain why both teams did about the same on offense. WSU gained a few more yards, UCLA a few less, but overall you would expect about the same points out of these two teams.

Special Teams:

vs. WSU @ UCLA
Opponent Field Pos. 29.9 19.4
Utah Field Pos. 27.4 26.4
Utah Field Goal % 66.7% 100%

Right away, two differences stands out. UCLA had, on average, 10.5 more yards to go to get to the endzone than WSU needed. Over UCLA's 13 possessions, that's almost 140 yards. A team with a 7-yard differential in field position wins 78.3% of the time [source]. It's not surprising that the Utes were outgained in this victory, given the huge discrepancy in starting field position. That one extra field goal also stands out, and was difference in scoring margin between the games.

Against WSU, Phillips was asked to hit two 46 yard shots and a 43 in the pouring rain. In the SoCal sunshine, Phillips was asked to drill a 45, a 48, and the game winning 29 yard attempt. Phillips is an incredible kicker, and he has never missed a field goal of 29 yards or less. He's only missed one between 30 and 39 yards, but out past 40 yards, he becomes a bit mortal at16-of-20.

It's true that had Phillips hit all three field goal tries against WSU, the Utes would have won. It's not as simple as telling Andy to shoot straighter, though. The difference in these two games was 17 yards: the distance between Phillips' game winning make (29) and his game losing miss (46).

How did the Utes get those critical extra yards on their last drive of the game? Deep analysis highlights two components: success rate and offensive play calling.

The Utes played a much better offensive ball game against UCLA, especially given the steep rise in quality of opponent. However, they played well enough to win against WSU as well, had they been able to spread out their success more evenly, and, perhaps more importantly, had the coaching staff committed to the running game.

1. Success Rate

Success rate is an advanced efficiency metric that tells a more complete story than average yards per play or third down conversion percentage. It asks if a play was successful: 50% of available yards on 1st down, 60% on 2nd, and 100% on 3rd and 4th. The percentage of plays which were successful is your success rate. The national average for success rate is 42.1%. Against WSU, Utah had a success rate of 33.8%. Against UCLA, Utah's success rate was 45.2%.

What this means is that the Utes spread out their four and a half yards per play much more efficiently. In football, it's much better to have three four yard gains and then a zero yard gain than one twelve yard gain and three tries where you come up empty. The first approach increases your likelihood of getting a fresh set of downs; the second may be exciting but it will result in more punts and less points.

12% is a huge jump in success rate, especially when you consider that UCLA (Ranked 33rd in ESPN defensive efficiency, 63rd in Defensive FEI, and 34th in Defensive S&P) has a much better defense than Washington State (75th, 109th, and 60th respectively). It was this jump in efficiency that allowed the Utes to drive easily down the field in the waning minutes of the game and give Phillips an easy look at the uprights with little time left on the clock. Against the Cougars, the Utes got their yards in chunks instead of a steady stream, especially when passing the ball.

2. Superior Offensive Playcalling

The Utes' game plan has been very run-heavy overall, and that trend continued against UCLA. Over the course of the season, the Utes have run the ball on 61% of downs. Against the Cougars, the Utes rushed the ball 50% of the time, compared to a staggering 75% rush ratio against UCLA. The Utes were much more effective running the ball against Washington State than they were throwing it; the Utes had a 38.5% success rate running the ball, compared to an embarrassing 29.3% on passes.

Having gone up 21-0 early in the first quarter, and given Booker's early and continued success, the emphasis on the passing game was perplexing. Except for the very last drive, the Utes had ample time on the clock to do exactly what they did against UCLA- pound the ball between the tackles, chew up yards and clock, and kick a field goal as time expired to win the game. Yet on the Utes' second to last drive, there were 6 pass plays out of 11.

Many will point to the presence of Kendall Thompson as the missing element that opened up the run game for the Utes, but the stats show that even with Wilson under center, the Utes were able to pave the road for Devontae Booker and pick up meaningful yards and successful plays. With the weather, Wilson's poor passing performance, and the Utes' success on the ground, the pass-first instincts of the coaching staff were probably the wrong call.

What does that mean?

It appears that the coaches have learned their lesson and are shifting to a run-heavy offensive package, at least until they can correct the problems in the passing game and move to a more balanced attack. On both sides of the ball, the Utes have lived and died with their line play. They are very good at it. The Utes are competitive in the Pac 12 and will have a solid chance to win most of the games they play.

This approach should be effective against Oregon State, as the Beavers have allowed 4.25 yards per carry (75th nationally). The Beavers have a middling offense this year, and they have an offensive line that allows defenses to get after the quarterback, giving up 2.4 sacks a game (88th nationally). When the Utes find themselves up against the more potent D-lines in the conference, though, they are going to have to find another way to score.

If the Utes want to compete for the Pac 12 crown this year, the passing game needs to improve dramatically from what they have shown against WSU and UCLA. The good news is that this team has produced excellent passing numbers in other games this year. The talent is there, but the players have to learn to give full effort and execute consistently. Seventeen yards and a dry football were enough to knock off UCLA, but they will need more than that if they want to get to eight or nine wins and take the division crown.