This power 5 contender’s rushing defense completely fell apart. Despite having an offense that had struggled mightily all year, their opponent racked up 418 yards rushing and controlled the ball en route to an 18 point win.
Ranked in the top 10 and expected to contend for a playoff, the run defense was useless against a withering read option attack, which piled up 452 rushing yards. Their unheralded opponent won by a comfortable margin.
Undefeated following a big out of conference win, they set their eyes on an opponent with an abysmal defense and a .250 record on the road. The passing game imploded; they completed less than 50% of passes for 4 yards per attempt and lost by a point.
With New Year’s bowl hopes on the line, they just couldn’t control the football, turning it over seven times. This conference powerhouse was toppled by an opponent coming off a nine game conference losing streak in a 14 point victory.
The Predictive Impact of One Awful Game
Last week, Utah State looked like the worst team in the FBS. With 3.3 yards per pass attempt and 4 yards per carry, the Aggies punted 14 times, had 8 three and outs, and scored 3 offensive points, only winning due to a returned extra point attempt and a late punt return for a TD. This was against an FCS Thunderbirds team that went 3-9 last season and gave up over 30 points per game to FCS foes.
There is danger in reading too much in to this box score. The four teams above, Georgia (4th in F/+), USC (16th), Utah (29th), and Boise State (21st) would all finish with impressive records and ranked in the AP top 25 at the end of the year. Their opponents Florida, Boston College, Washington State, and Air Force would all finish well outside the rankings.
F/+ can be used to generate a game score for every game by each team. Expressed as a percentage, this score estimates how close a team came to their full potential in any given game. Of the top 40 schools in the F/+ rankings, 65% had at least one ‘flop’ game where they put up a game score of 30% or less in 2014.
These games are one data point out of what will eventually be twelve or more. Georgia would ultimately finish with 4.12 yards per carry allowed, 51st nationally. USC would allow 3.83 YPC (36th) over the season, despite their abysmal 8.37 showing against BC. Utah’s passing offense would finish 64th nationally in passer rating. Boise State would finish with 24 turnovers, tied for 87th nationally. Most of these teams turned in overall performances somewhere between solid and serviceable, consistent with the low end of preseason expectations.
The baffling performance from the Utah State offense is almost certainly an outlier, just one of those bad days that everyone has in their profession from time to time. This game was unusual in that the level of competition was so low, but from a predictive perspective that makes me more confident that it doesn’t represent a trend, because there’s no way that the Aggies were overmatched at the skill positions or on the line; they are too well coached and recruit too well for an FCS team with a bad defense to stifle them to that degree. When we’re faced with surprising statistics, we should consider them in light of what we know and interpret them in a way that fits with our existing information.
"USU has a terrible offense" doesn’t really gel with what we know about the Aggies. Up until last week, they had managed to put up decent numbers against all but the very best defenses, even when their starting QB went down with an injury. This suggests that they have a new problem: a lack of playmakers to take the pressure off of Keeton. This lines up perfectly with what we already know about USU.
What the Stats Say
The suspension of Hunter Sharp, Tyshon Mosley, and Bryant Hayes have created some real problems for this team early, together with the dismissal of JoJo Natson and a re-injury for Brandon Swindall. The Aggies have also lost a lot in the secondary and will miss its two best pass rushers.
The Aggies have earned the benefit of the doubt in replacing defensive players, and they return a stable of running backs that have plenty of talent to pick up yards on the ground. They also return… 5th? 7th? 20th? year senior Chuckie Keeton, and up until his poor performance against SUU, all indications were that he was back to his old self in practice and camp. What they don't have is anyone to throw the ball to. This offense was one-dimensional enough that even SUU's sub-par FCS defense was able to stop them. USU doesn't have any athletes who can make the over-the-top plays that could hurt the Utes.
With no proven receivers, I would expect USU to play to their strengths, letting Keeton improvise and look for space to run. All the same, this team has had some awfully bad breaks in the offseason, and I doubt the offense will be anywhere near as good as Aggies fans had hoped at the end of 2014. It's going to be a struggle to run against the Utes' fierce defensive front. The defense has plenty of talent and returning experience, and has consistently been a well-coached and effective unit against all but the best offenses.
Advanced metrics strongly favor the Utes, overall. Some of these metrics consider FCS games, others exclude them from the data. Usually this serves to tamp down expectations after a team beats a Big Sky squad by 55, but in this case the Aggies get some help in FEI and S&P+.
We’re starting to get some useful numbers, but there’s still too little data to place a lot of stock in them. ESPN’s efficiency numbers are usually illuminating, and the Utes are currently ranked 29th while the Aggies clock in at 114th, but right now they are too volatile to rely on.
Vegas and the polls
Utah opened as 12.5 point favorites, and have slid slightly upwards to 13.5. Massey’s ratings aggregator, which collects polls and analytical rankings and averages them out, pegs the Utes at 25 while Utah State lags well behind at 52nd.
SBNation’s Utah State preview runs the headline "If luck finally goes Utah State’s way, that could mean a Mountain West title". Suffice to say that luck saw Utah State coming and ran in the other direction. They still have Chuckie, and the defense promises to once again be difficult to score against, but with all these bad breaks USU doesn’t look to be a threat to the Mountain West or the Utes. The Utes would have been favored without Utah State’s off season attrition, and when you add in the way the team has been gutted by suspensions, dismissals, and injuries, hope seems dim.
The numbers all show a team which is overmatched, and will have to rely on rivalry pluck to keep the game in reach. I fully expect Chuckie to rebound from his bad day against SUU, but without talented, experienced receivers to deliver the ball to, most of his magic is going to have to take place behind the line of scrimmage. With the Utes’ dominant front 7, there won’t be many yards to be gained between the tackles, either.
The Utes are likely to lean on their defense on Friday, and take a conservative offensive approach which conceals much of their playbook from Pac-12 defensive coordinators. It’s possible that there will be a talent mismatch on the outside too large to ignore, but expect shorter passes and plenty of Booker up the middle, similar to the Michigan game plan. I project a classic Utes’ performance where they score enough points to win comfortably and not much more than that.