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Statistically Speaking: Utah at Stanford

Red and White will take on White and Red this Saturday, and it’s not only the uniforms that will have you seeing double. Stanford and Utah closely match up in a number of statistical categories, each featuring a top defense and explosive return man that seek to control games enough that their average offenses can do enough to win.

Head football coach David Shaw and his Stanford Cardinal host the Utah Utes on Saturday.
Head football coach David Shaw and his Stanford Cardinal host the Utah Utes on Saturday.
Bob Stanton-USA TODAY Sports

The Utes are headed to Palo Alto to take on a Stanford squad that likely harbors dreams of revenge, given the Utes upset victory over the national-championship minded Cardinal of 2013. In 2013, Stanford backed up a suffocating defense with a bruising, efficient offense: the team averaged close to 5 yards a rush, scored 32 points a game, and converted around 50% of third downs. When they came to the hill, the Utes were able to control the line of scrimmage on defense and break down the Stanford defensive front with swing passes and screens, resulting in a decisive win over the 5-0 Cardinal.

This year’s Stanford team features a defense that’s just as punishing and technically sound, but without Tyler Gaffney the running game has slowed to 4.2 yards per carry, and it has cost Stanford to the tune of 8 points a game and a 10% worse 3rd down conversion rate. This offensive stagnation has shown up in a lackluster 5-4 record; with challenging games against Utah, Cal, and UCLA, Stanford is looking down the barrel of a losing season.

While Stanford has been taking a step back, the Utes have taken a step forward. They’ve solved their turnover problems of a year ago, limiting costly miscues while at the same time capitalizing on opponents’ mistakes, whether by good luck or hard work (likely a little bit of both). The defense has turned into a national power, laying waste to the potent attacks of teams like UCLA, ASU, and USC. Kaelin Clay and excellent coaching by Kyle Whittingham have brought the special teams to a new level, and field goal efficiency and a consistent field position advantage have been on the Utes’ side in almost every game.

Just as on "the Farm", Utah’s offense has not kept up with the top-10 production of the special teams and defense. The Utes have Devontae Booker, a stud running back who breaks tackles and makes big plays. The passing game, meanwhile, has struggled. Travis Wilson’s position as starter has been in doubt all season long, and a lack of confidence seems to have plagued both the 6’7" QB and the offensive coordinator, with conservative plays and throws leading to a lack of major success in two of the Utes’ three losses.

In terms of pure wins and losses, the Utes have handled this challenge one game better than the Cardinal. Basic statistics struggle to draw a distinction between these two squads:


Yds. / Rush

Yds. / Pass

3rd Down %

Red Zone %


















Yds. / Rush

Yds. / Pass

3rd Down %

Red Zone %

















Utah’s offense has been less mistake-prone, with fewer turnovers and a much higher red zone percentage. Stanford’s passing game has been a hair more efficient, and they’ve done just a little better on third downs. On defense, Stanford looks to have a slight edge in every area except takeaways. They have had exceptionally poor fumble recovery luck (teams recover 50% of fumbles, there’s essentially no element other than random chance), and haven’t created as many INTs as the Utes. Overall, though, these teams look exceptionally evenly matched, except for that red zone issue.

If we dig a little deeper, we can see a likely source of Stanford’s red zone woes: field goals. The Cardinal is 11/17 on field goals, a 64.7% mark that’s tied for 96th in the country. Of their six missed field goals, four have come in comfortable wins. The other two were the difference between a win and a loss against USC. If the Utes trade kickers with the Cardinal, they likely trade records as well.

So traditional stats suggest that these teams are basically even, with the Utes edge at placekicking the only difference between a national ranking and a forgettable season. What story do advanced metrics tell?

Advanced Metrics Primer:

Stanford ended the 2013 season ranked 3rd in F/+. They excelled in every area, ranking 18th in offense, 4th in defense, and 2nd in special teams. Such a complete team is extraordinarily rare; last year only three teams ranked in the top 20 in all three areas, this year only one does. Stanford’s 2014 squad struggles in two places: offense and special teams.

F/+ rankings:




Special Teams
























These numbers are interesting. Both stats agree that these offenses have been struggling, with Stanford looking a touch better. FEI has the Utes as the top-shelf defense, but S&P+ is much higher on the Cardinal. Overall, F/+ favors the Utes by a hair, ranking Utah 31st and Stanford 35th.

ESPN Efficiencies:

Offense (RK)

Defense (RK)

Spc.T (RK)

Overall (RK)


Utah Last Week

1.15 (69)

9.51 (14)

6.27 (1)

16.93 (23)

14.1 (26)

Utah This Week

-.22 (75)

10.31 (11)

5.37 (2)

15.46 (27)

13.3 (29)


1.83 (69)

12.58 (8)

.34 (60)

14.75 (30)

15.8 (20)

FPI gives Stanford a 63.8% chance to win.

These numbers show two very evenly matched teams, with a strength at defense and a weakness at offense. Utah has slipped to second in the special teams rankings (curse you, Memphis!) after holding the top spot most of the year, but Stanford is much further down the list.

Despite one of their better offensive performances of the year against Oregon, the Utes have slipped into the negatives in offense, which means that for the first time this season ESPN sees the Utes as a below-average team on that side of the ball.

I thought the Cardinal were ‘Special’ too:

Let’s drill down into the special teams numbers a little bit. Your casual observer, or even expert, might list Stanford’s special teams unit as one of their strengths. There aren’t many national stars playing for Stanford, but Ty Montgomery is inarguably one of the premier wideouts and return men in the country. There’s been media buzz about placekicker problems at Washington State and a few other PAC 12 schools, but you don’t hear that kind of thing about Stanford.

Conventional statistics consider the Cardinal field position game to be excellent. Stanford is 3rd in the nation in punt return yards, and they rank in the top 35 in kickoff returns, return yards allowed, and touchback percentage. Metrics which measure strength of schedule are less favorable, and Stanford drops from the thirties into the forties and fifties in most areas.

What really drags them down is kicker Jordan Williamson’s field goal struggles. It’s one thing to miss long field goals, but Williamson has failed to convert shorter kicks, too: FEI puts Stanford’s field goal efficiency at 92nd in the country.

Vegas and Massey:

The Massey composite gives Utah a slight edge in this one. The Utes come in at 32nd in the nation, and Stanford trails slightly behind at 36th. While most other areas suggest a slight edge for Utah, Vegas has them pinned as a touchdown dog on the road, opening at around -7.5. Betting has widened the gap to -8. I’m not a gambling man, but if I were I would take those points. Advanced metrics suggest that neither of these teams are going to have much luck scoring touchdowns, and it’s hard to imagine enough points being scored in this game to create such a wide margin of victory in either direction.

Stat-Head Prediction:

I’ve got a ‘feeling’ about this game. I think Stanford’s been punching above their weight class all year. I see the Utes gelling and improving on offense over the last three weeks as Travis Wilson finds the sweet spot between conservative and out of control. I think the Utes are going to score more easily than expected, and completely stifle the Stanford O. You folks aren’t here for my gut reaction, though. You want to know what the numbers say.

These teams are something of mirror images of each other in their respective divisions. Potent defenses and average offenses make them a dangerous adversary for all but the most complete football teams, and the teams’ solid records and performance in conference play are representative of that. The Utes’ efficiency with field goals stands out as a difference-maker here, along with their edge in the field position game.

I have no doubt Stanford has had this one circled for a while now, and are looking forward to getting the Utes at home. This year’s Cardinal is a flawed team, however, and does not have the defensive playmakers that the Utes do. Advanced stats call for another game that goes down to the wire, with a couple missed field goals being the difference.

26-20 Utah