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Statistically Speaking: Utah and Washington State

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Today we'll talk fireworks, havoc, explosions, and pirates versus soldiers.

Washington State wide receiver Dom Williams and his teammates bring the Air Raid to Rice-Eccles Stadium Saturday.
Washington State wide receiver Dom Williams and his teammates bring the Air Raid to Rice-Eccles Stadium Saturday.
James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Did 26-10 prove anything, or did Utah just beat a team on the way down? Is Washington State the awful team that lost to Rutgers, or the very good one that hung with second-ranked Oregon? When asked for one word to describe these Utes, Coach Whitt picked "warriors." Mike Leach has said that "Sometimes a pirate beats a soldier." So who wins this time? The scurvy sea dogs from Pullman or our own brand of redcoats?

Cry Havoc:

Havoc rating is a unique stat with an awesome name and a ton of usefulness. The havoc rating measures on what percentage of snaps a defense disrupts what an offense is trying to do. It includes tackles for a loss, sacks, passes defensed, interceptions, and forced fumbles. The Utes have been causing havoc since the first game, and it shows in their excellent havoc rating. With 54 havoc plays, the Utes have wreaked destructions on 22.6% of defensive snaps. How impressive is this? Well, I picked three teams for the Utes to measure up against, as well the Cougars:

Michigan State – 19.6%

Stanford – 21.9%

Alabama – 17.11%

WSU – 14.8%

As you can see, the Utes have been remarkably effective at causing havoc and disrupting the rhythm and execution of an offense. Washington State fields a team that allows havoc plays. Conner Halliday throws picks (five) and takes sacks (nine), and the running game is often bottled up behind the line of scrimmage (five). Look for Utah to continue to create havoc on Saturday.

Going Boom:

The counterpoint to an explosive defensive play is a pass or run that eats up a big chunk of yards. WSU is explosive, but where they really struggle is their inability to limit the opponent's explosive plays (any play from scrimmage of 20 yards or more). The Cougars have been averaging 5.25 explosive plays per game. The Utes have been a little more explosive, with 6. This close comparison on offense doesn't hold up on defense, where the Utes have allowed only 3.33 explosive plays per game, while the Cougars have given up 5 a game, one of the worst numbers in the country. It wasn't just Oregon either. WSU gave up 13 explosive plays in the other three games.

There's no denying that the Cougars like to throw the ball, and they average a very efficient 6.3 yards per play (28th nationally), but their bread and butter is a dink-and-dunk, yards after the catch approach that really tests linebackers and safeties. How far that will take them, though, depends on how far they have to go.

Where You Start is How You Finish:

The Cougars are one of the worst special teams units in the country, overall. On average they start drives on the 30 yard line (60th nationally) and allow opponents to start them on the 28 (44th). They miss field goals like crazy and touch back kickoffs on about 26% of their kicks, allowing plenty of returns. They don't punt often, but when they do, it's average at best, and only half of their punts have been unreturnable.

The Utes' special teams unit has been talked about enough that I don't need to tell anyone how good they are. Ranked third in the nation in special teams efficiency, the Utes feature the best return man in the country and a kicker and punter who are both at the very top of their game as well. The Utes start their drives on the 35 (eighth) yard line, while holding their opponents to the 24 (ninth).

With as fast as these teams play, you can expect at least 10 WSU possessions on Saturday. Over all those punts and kicks, the Cougars are likely going to have at least an entire football field more space than the Utes in between them and a touchdown on every possession. More space means more plays, and more plays means more opportunities for drive-killing havoc plays by the Utes. It wouldn't be surprising at all to see the Cougars outgain the Utes but still lose by a wide margin, just as Michigan did.

Playmakers to watch – WSU:

Quarterback: I'm just going to say Connor Halliday throws for lots of yards, and leave it at that. Everyone is aware of what he's capable.

Wideouts: Six receivers share the bulk of Halliday's targets, and two underclassmen stand out for their explosive play ability. Isiah Myers (6-0, 172) and Dom Williams (6-2, 180). Myers averages 14.1 yards a catch while Williams has been WSU's most explosive player, with a 21.1 YPC average and an 84-yard touchdown to his name.

Tailbacks: These guys don't carry the ball very often or go very far when they do, but running back Jamal Morrow (5-8, 187) is an active participant in the passing game, with 15 catches on the season.

Defensive front seven: Watch for freshman defensive tackle Xavier Cooper (6-3, 278) to try and get into the backfield and make a mess, while linebackers Ivan McLennan (6-4, 236) and Kache Palacio (6-2, 225) help put pressure on Travis Wilson.

Defensive secondary: Cornerback Daquawn Brown (5-11, 175) leads the team in tackles and has broken up six passes this year. Charleston White (5-11, 175) has broken up four passes and has a pick as well.

Should we be scared?

The offense has a reputation of one of the most dangerous units in college football, but the gaudy passing numbers are deceptive. Halliday has managed eight yards per attempt, only good for 48th in the country. His quarterback rating is 10th in the conference, and his 153.1 passer rating doesn't stand out either. It's up to the linebackers and safeties to play their assignments soundly, punish pass catchers, and keep short passes from turning into long gains.

On the defensive side, the inexperience stands out, as does the small size of the star defensive backs. They will have a hard time containing Utah's big, physical receivers, and junior Travis Wilson (three sacks) has proven to be an elusive QB. The Cougars have allowed over four yards per carry and 9.9 yards per pass against FBS schools, so look for that easy efficiency to continue as Utah dominates on offense.

Team Metrics – Utah vs. WSU:

The truth is, these numbers aren't close. Utah appears to be the better team by every advanced metric, and Vegas and the voters agree.

F/+

Football outsiders puts the Utes well ahead with the 21st overall F/+ (14.9%). The Cougars trail far behind at 59th (1.4%).

S&P, an overall metric that includes special teams and explosiveness heavily favors the Utes as well, who are ranked 30th (223.6) compared to WSU's 64th (199.9)

FEI, which is all about efficiency, is where Utah is at its best. Ranked 12th in the nation (.209), our guys completely outclass the 56th ranked Cougars (.050).

ESPN Efficiency

I've added in an extra row this week, so you can see how the Utes improved or were devalued by the last game they played. It's no surprise that there was a bump in defensive efficiency and a decline in the offense. The Utes proved a lot about their defense and special teams against the Wolverines. Utah's defense proved that it can handle extremely skilled athletes and big, physical football players. The special teams continues to prove that it is as good as it gets. The offense came back to earth, along with Travis Wilson, though his numbers did not (third overall passer rating, 24th overall QBR). After seeing the FEI numbers, it shouldn't come as much of a surprise that ESPN has the Utes ranked in the top 10 in overall efficiency this week.

FPI (RK)

OffE (RK)

DefE(RK)

SpcE (RK)

OverallE (RK)

Utes wk 3

12.2 (29)

15.78 (19)

-5.84 (88)

7.34 (2)

17.28 (22)

Utes wk 4

14.1 (25)

8.88 (44)

6.33 (26)

7.68 (3)

22.89 (10)

WSU

4.7 (57)

9.35 (42)

-4.11 (79)

-2.60 (107)

2.64 (62)

On offense, the teams are just about dead even, and the Utes hold huge advantages with defense and special teams. Whether you use FPI or team efficiency, the Utes are a cut above the Cougars. After crunching these numbers and taking into account home field advantage, ESPN gives the Utes a 78.6% chance to win this game.

Polls and Vegas:

Just as in the AP, the Utes are climbing up all of the poll charts as they continue to win games. The Massey Ratings have the Utes at 24th in the country, and Washington State at 76th.

Vegas sees the game the same as everyone else. The lines opened with the Utes favored between 10 and 11.5, and the line has pushed up to 13.5 in some places.

Stat-Head Prediction:

Teams like the Cougars defy easy analysis. The "pirate" label fits very well, as this team takes lots of risks on offense and defense, and plays fast and loose. They make a lot of mistakes, but have a lot of incredible plays as well. This inherent volatility makes predicting their performance very difficult. However, if they make an average number of mistakes and big plays, they are a team that gets beaten by Rutgers and Nevada. If they make few mistakes and play their best game, this team can hang with Oregon.

Utah is every bit as explosive as the Cougars on offense, but are much more disciplined, and tend to play well wire-to-wire. This is why Utah's efficiency numbers so far outstrip the Cougars. Washington State is going to be looking at long fields all night, and the Utes will wreak plenty of havoc on the Washington State offense and do a good job limiting explosive plays with their disciplined approach to defense. The golden age of piracy ended when disciplined naval forces got fed up and headed to the Caribbean, sending the pirates to the bottom of the sea. I expect the Cougars are sunk as well.

48-30 Utah.