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Not Close: The Definitive Statistical Case for Travis Wilson

As we approach fall camp, Utah’s depth chart shows Travis Wilson as the starter at quarterback. Coach Whittingham has made clear that it’s an open competition between Wilson and Oklahoma transfer Kendal Thompson for the job. Ultimately it comes down to what the coaches see in practice, but if we base the decision off of last year’s performance, Wilson should have the job, and it is not close.

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Our eyes and memories are imperfect things, and when it comes to measuring the Utes’ quarterbacks, it’s hard to draw a conclusion. On one hand, it’s easy to recall masterful play from each: Wilson’s bootleg scramble and Herculean dive to the one yard line to put the USC game in hand; a flawless fade pass in overtime against Stanford. For Thompson it was relentless drives against UCLA; methodically chipping away at a long field with flawlessly executed play action runs.  On the other hand, it’s just as easy to think of painfully frustrating moments against WSU and Oregon State where they looked out of sync and lost.

In the end, the decision over who should start was made by the tendons in Kendal Thompson’s knee. They blew out and Wilson took the reins for good. He seemed to gain confidence and execute better once the job was secure. Thompson’s final drives against Oregon were impressive as well; he seemed completely in control of the offense, running and passing with efficiency and skill.

I’ve gone through each of the QB's seasons play by play. Each dropback was categorized by down and distance, rated as successful or not, rated for completion percentage, and rated by yardage. I have done the same analysis for each QB’s rushing statistics. Crucially, I have pulled sacks out of the rushing statistics, giving a much clearer picture of how the quarterbacks performed as ball carriers and as passers. I excluded the Idaho State game; not counting FCS stats is typical for advanced metrics.

Traditional Quarterback Stats (Sacks Removed)

Traditional Passing Comparison
Traditional Rushing Comparison

These two players look pretty close, going by these simple stats. Wilson’s a slightly better passer, and clearly better at taking care of the ball, but Thompson rushes for over half a yard more per carry, which could make up for that difference. Removing sacks help both player’s rushing numbers, but it’s the impact on their passing numbers that tells the story.

Stay On Your Feet and Hang on to the Ball

Sacks are the first area where Travis Wilson is clearly superior to Kendal Thompson. Wilson was roughly average as a PAC 12 QB, avoiding sacks well enough to keep drives comfortably alive. Kendal Thompson allowed sacks more than twice as often as any starting QB in the conference.

Sacks Allowed Comparison

It’s a relatively simple matter to add these statistics into your passing numbers; just count the yards against the passing yards total, and count each sack as an incomplete pass attempt. When you do that, we go from a close race to a blowout.

Sacks Added Passing Comparison

With this taken into account, Wilson has a better completion percentage, and is throwing for almost a yard and a half more per attempt than Kendal Thompson. 1.5 yards per attempt is huge; it’s the difference between Conner Halliday and ISU’s Sam B. Richardson. If you count the time they spent on the turf, Travis Wilson is the superior passer by a wide margin.

Using percentages instead of raw counts also helps highlight how much better Wilson was than Thompson. Wilson was more likely to throw a touchdown, and much less likely to throw an interception. He also took many, many less sacks.

Making Plays when it Counts

A quarterback’s greatest contribution is being able to turn lost possessions into a fresh set of downs. Advanced metrics split downs into ‘passing downs’ (2nd and 8 or more, 3rd and 5 or more) and ‘non-passing downs’ (everything else). We can measure these different situations using traditional statistics, and also using success rate, defined as getting 70% of the available yards on 2nd down, or 100% of the available yards on 3rd down.

Passing Downs Comparison

This is where the ground slips out from under Kendal Thompson. It settles the debate over who should be starting for the Utes. Travis Wilson kept his passer rating over a hundred and completed nearly half of his passes. He was successful more than one out of every four plays and kept many drives alive. Thompson’s passer rating cratered and he missed his target on two out of three plays. 13.04% speaks for itself.

Not Close

A deeper analysis shows that Wilson's 2014 was far superior to Thompson's. He functioned as a conservative game manager who held it together in tough, long yardage situations. Thompson has stats which suggest his reuptation for superior pocket presence and poise is a mirage; he can’t stay upright or stop throwing picks, and he wilted on passing downs.

Just like Wilson can’t be expected to improve much at this late stage in his career, Thompson’s curve is leveling out as well. He’s 22 years old and has three years of training at Oklahoma and a year at Utah under his belt. Bob Stoops does a pretty good job coaching up QBs.

You want your quarterback to be able to contribute when you have no other options, particularly with a Utes team that features an excellent offensive line and an All-Conference running back. You want him to avoid negative plays like interceptions and sacks, and to be able to dig your team out of a hole when you’ve got a long way to go to move the chains. These are the exact areas where Kendal Thompson struggles the most.

There’s a lot to like about Kendal Thompson. He’s a young man of high character, a hard worker, and has a reputation as an energetic and talented leader. The coaches may well see something in fall camp that convinces them that he’s the best choice to lead the Utes to victory. Our eyes and memories can deceive us, but the stats are the stats. There are sound football arguments to be made in favor of Thompson, but they can't be based on his on-field performance. Thompson wasn’t as good as Wilson in 2014, and it was not close.