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Statistically Speaking- ASU at Utah

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After a start to the season that involved a complete annihilation at the hands of Texas A&M and incomplete victories over lower tier teams, ASU has rounded into form with a solid win over UCLA and a dominant rout of Colorado. Or so the narrative goes, anyway. This team hasn’t changed as much as you’ve been lead to believe.

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Same Players, Same Coach, Same Results

Most sports fans watch sports for the stories, and the human mind excels at spotting trends and patterns. Put these two things together and you get team narratives. Some of them we like to hear: "Travis Wilson really figured it out during the Oregon game, he’s a new quarterback now." some of them we don’t: "Michigan has improved drastically since they lost to Utah. If they played now, the Utes would get their butts kicked." These narratives tend to be figments. If the players and coaches are the same, and the opponents meet again, the results are going to be similar.

A football team is basically a product of three variables: the players on the team, the coaches calling the plays and preparing them during the week, and the opponent they are up against. Teams probably do improve over the course of the season, but there’s no statistical evidence to suggest that one particular team improves more or less than any other.  A basic tenant of objective statistical analysis is that a result from five weeks ago is as compelling as a result from five minutes ago, so long as the variables haven’t changed. The natural tendency to give more weight to whatever happened most recently is so common that it has its own name: recency bias.

Arizona State got beaten badly in their opener, scraped by against Cal Poly and New Mexico, and then got pummeled once again by USC. Dirt was piled upon the Sun Devils as they were declared dead upon arrival. Then, they upset UCLA in Los Angeles, and new life was breathed into them. They followed up that 15 point win with a 25 point victory over Colorado, a gaudy scorecard indeed. The narrative writes itself- the Sun Devils couldn’t find an identity, but somewhere between getting embarrassed by USC and the plane ride to the Rose Bowl, they found the inner fire that drives a team to greatness.

This makes a much better Sports Center piece than the truth: ASU is a solid Power-5 team with some exploitable flaws. They have played three crappy opponents, and beaten them all. They have played two opponents who were superior to them overall, and lost quite badly. They beat a UCLA team who looked superior, but who suffered from significant injuries which created a new, less capable, team. They could have played these games in any order, it wouldn't have changed what happened. 

The truth is in the numbers: ASU is about a nationally average offense (ESPN efficiency is 56th nationally), who is at its best passing the ball. The defense is strong, and is particularly dominant against the run (13th ranked rushing S&P+ in the nation). They force teams into passing down situations by stopping early down runs, and then the famous ASU blitz attack goes to work, damaging the efficiency and explosiveness of a passing game (24th and 23rd ranked success rate and S&P explosiveness, respectively). Contrarily, a team which runs the ball effectively controls the flow of the game, and is able to punish the ASU defense with well-executed play action or screen passes when the Sun Devils are in a cover 0 look.

Let’s look at the Devils' losses first:

Texas A&M is a very good team top to bottom, with particular strength on defending the pass (5th ranked defensive S&P+). On offense, they are much stronger rushing the ball than passing, but they do everything well enough to be considered an elite offense overall (14th ranked in ESPN Efficiency). They overwhelmed ASU despite losing the turnover battle, gaining about 1.8 more yards per play and winning 38-17.

USC has an excellent advanced metrics profile. Their defense has been good but not great, and is best at defending the pass. Their offense is spectacular, and strongest when its running the football (2nd nationally in run S&P+). They won the turnover battle by 2, gained 1.1 more yards per play, and beat them by 28.

Now ASU’s wins:

New Mexico, Colorado, and presumably Cal Poly all share the same unifying characteristic: they are no match for ASU. UNM is 100th or worse nationally in every single S&P+ metric, and is 106th overall according to ESPN’s FPI. Colorado appears a little better in spots, with a rushing offense that isn’t totally useless and a defense that has been stiff in spots. Nonetheless, they are 95th nationally according to ESPN’s overall efficiency metric. Cal Poly is an FCS team; although we have few stats accumulated for them, they cannot be expected to compete with ASU.

UCLA seems like the outlier. They have an impressive profile, although there are some weaknesses on offense, particularly in the run game, that ASU could seek to exploit (the Bruins are ranked 48th in Rushing S&P+ and 71st in standard downs). Their defense is excellent against the pass and stout against the run as well, but it’s important to note that by the time ASU got to them, UCLA had lost two major components of that defense: LB Myles Jack and DT Eddie Vanderdoes. Even with season ending injuries, both are still highly touted NFL prospects; Jack is the 5th ranked linebacker and Vanderdoes the 11th ranked DT, according to NFLDraftScout.com. These holes in the middle of the defense have been exploited effectively by every opponent they’ve faced since they opened up. The players variable changed, and so the results have as well.

ASU dominated the time of possession in that game with 46 rushing attempts, averaging 4.2 yards per carry. They suffocated the Bruins’ run game and forced them to be one dimensional, limiting their ability to be explosive and slowing down the offense considerably. The Bruins managed 23 points.

If you take the games out of order and focus on the stats, the pattern that emerges is that ASU succeeds against teams that fail to run the ball, and have a fairly balanced offense that will do its best to take advantage of their opponent’s weaknesses. They’ve beaten exactly the teams you would expect them to beat in exactly the manner you would expect them to be beaten. There’s no story here, just a pretty good ASU team.

Advanced Metrics Overview

Last week didn’t move the needle for the Utes much overall, although the balance shifted to favor the defense. Most Ute fans expect this, but even with Travis Wilson’s less than stellar performance, the offense is still explosive, efficient, and impressive to advanced metrics. There’s really nothing not to like about this Utes team right now. ASU is a good team, solid just about everywhere, but they don’t rise to a dominant level in any broad statistical measure. This game is a solid mismatch in favor of the home team.

The Utes should be able to score comfortably against the Sun Devils. Their run-first approach matches the dynamic that USC and Texas A&M exploited to control their games and cruise to easy victories. Defensively, an ASU offense that has proven to struggle against elite offenses will once again run into a team it can’t handle. The Sun Devils will struggle to move the ball, particularly if their star running back isn’t 100%.

Vegas and the polls

The Utes opened at 7 point favorites, but many have been betting on the Sun Devils, pushing the line down slightly to 6.5. Massey continues to have a much more favorable impression of the Utes than advanced metrics, perhaps indicated that the crowd is recognizing the loss of a starting quarterback for two games which created some offensive struggles against teams there shouldn’t have been struggles against. Utah is ranked 2nd in this aggregate ranking system, while ASU is ranked 39th. Partially due to the injury issues in the first three games, and partially due to the high volatility and low accuracy of preseason projections, I’m giving the Massey aggregate rankings more weight in my analysis than I usually do. I think the advanced metrics are going to need to see two or three more games before they become as reliable as I’ve come to expect.

Stat-Head Pick

I realize that history has trended against the Utes when they’ve played ASU, but that doesn’t concern me. Those were different players and different coaches. I don’t think ASU has the Utes’ number, or that there’s some inherent schematic advantage that the Utes can’t overcome. I think that in 2012, the Deils were much better than the Utes and it showed on the scoreboard. In ’13 and ’14, the two teams were fairly evenly matched, and ASU happened to come out ahead both times. This year, the defensive struggle looks to continue, but the Utes have added powerful new weapons on offense and dramatically improved their pass blocking and ability to react to blitzes. I don’t foresee a close game.

The Utes aren’t going to score at will, but they are going to score. Wilson will see blitzes coming and audible to better plays, and extra time in a clean pocket will enable him to make the throws he needs to exploit the weaknesses in ASU’s scheme. ASU's is going to be largely stymied by Utah’s dominant defensive line. The Utes will pull away somewhat late, but the end result will be a comfortable victory.

Utah 30, ASU 17