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Statistically Speaking: Utah 2014 vs Utah 2013

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Utah quarterback Travis Wilson and his Utes finished the season 8-4 with a bid to the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl.
Utah quarterback Travis Wilson and his Utes finished the season 8-4 with a bid to the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl.
Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Back-to-back five and seven seasons had begun to disgruntle fans and attract the notice of the media. The Utes’ offense has struggled to adapt and succeed in the PAC 12, and it’s been difficult to keep up with the high scoring attacks that the Utes regularly face up against. This year was better. Working off a dominant special teams and defense, the Utes were able to be competitive in all but one game this year, and came away with eight regular season wins. There are certainly things to be unhappy about, but there can be no doubt that we’ve seen a big improvement over last year’s squad.

That’s the narrative, but it is far from the only interpretation. The reality is that last year’s Utes were quite good, too. This week’s article will compare 2013 to 2014, and shine a statistical light on what makes football at the same time so exciting and so frustrating: the core of randomness that runs through every game.

Basic Stats Review

Utes Offense

PPG

YPCarry

YPPass

Off. F/+

Utah 2013

29.2

4.08

7.25

42nd

Utah 2014

30.2

4.09

6.82

73rd

Utes Defense

PPG

YPCarry

YPPass

Def. F/+

Utah 2013

28.0

3.52

7.24

30th

Utah 2014

26.2

3.89

7.08

21st

Utes Spec. T.

FG%

Punt Ret.

Kick Ret.

S.T. F/+

Utah 2013

85%

9.81

18.59

39th

Utah 2014

84.6%

15.15

24.48

5th

There isn’t a huge gulf in these stats, and it shows up in the Utes’ overall advanced ranking. According to F/+, the 2013 Utes were the 31st best team in the country, the highest ranked sub. 500 team by a wide margin. They were solid in all areas, although they didn’t excel anywhere. The 2014 Utes are actually ranked lower overall, 37th in the nation. The big difference is in returning kicks and punts, which as we know very well by now allowed the Utes to score points even with an inefficient offense.

The truth is, last year’s Utes were every bit as good as this year’s squad. So what’s the difference between 5-7 and 8-4? A whole lot of bad luck.

Turnovers

The biggest piece of bad luck the Utes faced in ‘13 were their struggles creating turnovers. There are three elements to turnovers: creating fumbles, recovering fumbles, and getting interceptions. From a statistical perspective, defenses can control only the number of fumbles created. That is, year to year and game to game, a team which has forced fumbles in the past is likely to continue to do so. Thanks to the bizarre shape of the football, unpredictable bounces and tip trajectories render interceptions and fumble recoveries fairly random from week to week. Teams tend to regress to 50% of fumbles recovered, and the best predictor for how many interceptions will be thrown is not how good the defense is at creating picks, but how bad the offense is at protecting the football.

The Utes did a fantastic job forcing fumbles in ‘13: they forced 25 and recovered 13, enough to rank 36th in the nation. They also got lucky on offense; while they fumbled only 13 times, they were fortunate to recover all but 4 of those loose balls. This year, they only forced 18 fumbles and recovered 8, while keeping their good fumble luck going by losing only 8 of the offenses’ 20 fumbles. This year’s Utes made up for the lower fumble rate by picking off a lot more passes, and getting picked off a whole lot less.

Interceptions are mostly on the offense. To be sure, there are skills a player needs to successfully intercept a pass, but from a statistical perspective, the only way to accurately predict interceptions thrown is to ask how many the QB threw in the last game. This means that when you see a ‘ball hawking’ defense, it’s usually an artifact of a small sample size, rather than a true trend. This also means that you expect to see every QB’s interceptions more or less equally distributed across their games.

We’ll talk more about Travis Wilson’s misfortunes later. Right now, I want to focus on the Utes inability to get interceptions last year. The Utes picked off BYU, Colorado, and UCLA once each. However, Utah’s opponents were not particularly good at protecting the football. Oregon and Arizona each ranked in the top 20 in interceptions allowed, but the Utes played a number of opponents ranked 59th or worse. Against Washington State, who gave up 24 picks in 13 games, the second worst mark in the country, the Utes didn’t get a single interception; the only game in which the Cougars QB didn’t throw a pick.

The Utes opponents averaged .84 interceptions a game; you would expect the Utes to stick to about that average, and come down with 10 or so picks. Instead, they managed .25 a game. It’s tempting to call out a lack of playmakers, poor defensive approach, or some other tangible factor to explain this discrepancy, but historical analysis suggests that this poor performance was in large part a statistical outlier. This year, the Utes opponents averaged .85 interceptions per game, and the Utes picked off 1 pass per game, much closer to what you would expect.

Close Games

In general, teams tend to win 50% of their games which are decided by a touchdown or less. Long-term analysis tells us that ‘knowing how to win’ is a mirage. Teams which win many close games in a season aren’t any more likely to win their next close game. Football is chaotic enough that any game within a score is a crapshoot, subject to the whims of fate. If you want to win 80% or more of your games, the key is to be so good that you simply don’t play in many close games.

In 2014, the Utes had a lot of close game luck. The Utes went 5-2 in their games decided by a touchdown or less. We would expect the Utes to win 3.5 of this kind of game. In 2013, the Utes were 3-3 in single score games, right where you would expect them to be. The extra two wins the Utes realized by pulling out wins in close games were instrumental in the different appearance of these two seasons.

Better Football from the QB spot

Travis Wilson improved substantially from 2013 to 2014, taking a more conservative approach that protected the Utes’ turnover margin and kept them in position to win games. Wilson’s performance didn’t fluctuate much in most key statistical measures between the two years. He threw for 7.0 yards per attempt with a 135.92 passer rating in 2014, and 7.7 yards per attempt with a 129.66 passer rating in 2013. The big difference was that Wilson threw 12 fewer interceptions this year, and that Wilson was able to play out the entire season.

Adam Schulz did an admirable job in relief of Wilson, and he was able to produce stats that were close to Wilson’s production, going for 6.5 yards per attempts with a 110.05 passer rating. Nonetheless, this dropoff in production was significant: the Utes went 1-4 in the games in which Schulz saw meaningful action, and 4-3 in the games where Wilson was in control of the offense.

Many Utah fans are deeply frustrated with Travis Wilson’s performance this year, and there’s plenty of reason for it. However, he demonstrated that he was significantly better than the other options the Utes had, and his guidance and ability to manage games and protect the football were absolutely essential in the Utes’ wins.

The takeaway:

The Utes have been legitimately competitive in the Pac 12 both of the last two years, but were a little lucky this year and quite unlucky last year. The Utes didn’t really improve substantially from ’13 to ’14. Some fans may take this as a sign of stagnation, but in my opinion the Utes have established a baseline for how we can expect them to perform year in and year out with coach Whittingham at the helm and more or less average Pac 12 athletes at most positions. The Utes are going to win 5 games in a very unlucky year, and 9 or 10 in a very lucky one, with most years being 6 to 8 wins. This team has the coaching and resources necessary to compete for the south title year in and year out. With these years under our belt, I think Ute fans can be confident that we have avoided the fate of cellar-dwelling teams like Colorado and Washington State.

In the end, the Ws are all that matter. 2013 was a failure by that measure, 2014 a success. However, the way in which the Utes failed in 2013 was encouraging: the Utes appear to have the structure in place for sustained success and a permanent place in the upper half of the conference. A few lucky breaks in recruiting coupled with the emergence of a new level of financial support is all that’s missing for the Utes to take the next step and be part of the preseason national conversation.