Point Blank – November 17
What a “Bettor Better Know” – NCAA #12
The Week that Was on the NCAA gridirons, and some key concepts that you can incorporate into your own portfolio to find edges in the weeks ahead.
Item: Welcome to the New World Order/Did Dan Mullen know how much ONE late TD was worth?
As handicapping approaches alter for late-season games in the Playoff era, let’s submit Mississippi State’s final drive at Alabama as a prime exhibit. Mullen’s Bulldogs took possession on their own 28-yard line with 3:18 remaining, tailing by 12. In the days of old, that would have meant a desperate hurry-up offense and low-percentage passes down the field, needing two TDs to stay alive in the chase. But what did we see instead? A methodical 13-play drive to the end zone, a march that included five runs.
The difference? Mullen is one of the sharper guys out there – to build the team that he has in Starkville, of all places, is a tribute to that (watch what happens to this program when he leaves for greener pastures, possibly as early as to Florida when this season ends). So let’s offer the hypothesis that Mullen believed that a single TD was actually worth a small fortune in regard to how the Playoff committee (again, CAPS “P” and small “c” are intentional) will do their job this week. And if they get it right on Tuesday, offer it up as something important for the future.
If you are rated #1, and lose at Alabama by five points, winning some key stat battles like 26-17 in first downs and 428-335 in total offense (yes, they were leading both categories even before that final drive), you are not supposed to drop much at all. In terms of “quality losses”, which will be a measuring stick when comparing the teams with a single defeat, 25-20 in Tuscaloosa should go down as the clear #1. But 25-13 might not have. Mullen called that final drive seemingly believing that; now let’s see how it shakes out.
Item: For Brian Kelly, it wasn’t just about the chart
While Mullen was dialing up what will likely prove to be a savvy end-game, there have been many questioning Kelly, after his decision to go for a two-point PAT when up by 11 in the fourth quarter. It left the door open for Northwestern, a door that the Wildcats squeezed their way through to win in overtime at South Bend. The “chart” is explicit for that setting – there is only small benefit to being up 13 instead of 12, but there is a significant gap between 11 and 12. By not getting the game to 12, Northwestern was not forced to need a pair of TDs, instead just one, with a two-point conversion, and a FG. Which is what the Wildcats got, to extend the game.
But for proper perspective, it was not just about the chart for Kelly. Instead it came down to his concerns about the kicking game, and in the aftermath he did not handle it well. Including one particular comment about PK Kyle Brindza that should have remained private – “I didn’t like the way … the mental approach of our kicker.”
Some background is needed. Through the first nine games there were three miss-handled snaps on Fighting Irish kick attempts, so on Saturday the job was given to Malik Zaire for the first time. And part of getting to the unusual 40-29 count at the time of Kelly's key decision was a bobbled PAT snap by Zaire in the first quarter, which led to a Northwestern block of the kick that was retuned the distance for two points. Instead of going up 14-7 early, Notre Dame was only ahead 13-9. Which was absolutely in Kelly’s mind when he deviated from the standard call -
“Our chart tells us, in that situation to go for (a kick). We felt like, given the circumstances with our kicking situation we’d try to extend it with a two-point play. … He’s (Brindza) got a new battery in there. He was probably thinking too much. … He starts thinking about the hold and you start rushing your mechanics. Unfortunately it hurt us today.”
As was noted here a couple of weeks ago, when West Virginia’s Dana Holgersen made some unfortunate post-game comments about the play of QB Clint Trickett vs. Baylor, one of the prime jobs for a HC is to build the confidence of his players. You do not accomplish that with the wrong public statements. And think about this irony – by not attempting that kicked PAT in the fourth quarter, did Kelly actually lessen the confidence of Brindza? He had one attempt the rest of the day, a 42-yarder in overtime. He missed.
There is more for Kelly to worry about beyond re-instilling confidence in the kicking game. There is also the matter of a defense that allowed the Northwestern offense to more than double their per-game scoring average, and to also get 221 more yards in regulation than they had been averaging. But those defensive headaches were nothing compared to Bo Pelini’s…
Item: Melvin Gordon was sensational* (but…)
Gordon’s stat line from Saturday was one for the ages, 25 rush attempts for an almost incomprehensible 408 yards, and four TDs (yes, he did lose two fumbles, but that can be excused in this instance). And that is without a single carry in the fourth quarter, which makes one shudder to think what he might have done when the Nebraska defense wore down. Except, of course, that it may not have made any difference whether the Cornhuskers were tired or not. Because the * that goes with Gordon’s performance is one that does matter as you compile takeaways from the game – it was not all about him.
Pelini likes to consider himself a defensive specialist, and he has taken on that Wisconsin ground game four times since joining the Big 10. The results have been remarkable – how about losing SU by 102 points, and to the spread by a nearly identical 102.5? The first encounter was a 48-17 drubbing in Madison in 2011, when Montee Ball ran for 151 yards and four TDs. The Cornhuskers did get revenge at home in 2012, rallying from 27-10 down to win 30-27, but they did not sniff the -9 spread. But then came the last two. The teams had a rematch in the 2012 Big 10 Championship game at Indianapolis, with Nebraska favored by -3, and it was a 70-31 Badger demolition. They ran the ball 50 times for 539 yards, including what seemed, at the time, like an astonishing nine carries for 216 yards from Gordon. And it was even better than the bottom line, with two kneel-downs for (-3) at the end of the game doing the defense a statistical favor.
So let’s add up the rushing totals for last two meetings, with kneel-downs removed (there were also two at the end of Saturday’s game):
2012 Big 10 Title Game 70 48-542
Saturday 59 51-583
Totals 129 99-1,125
That bottom line is outside the realm of anything that traditional football measurements can allow for. Wisconsin vs. Eastern Michigan would not produce 11.4 yards per carry over eight quarters. The 2014 Nebraska defense had not allowed more than 31 points, or 188 rushing yards, to any other opponent. And while Gordon’s 34 carries for 624 yards over those two games is something that we will not see the likes of again, consider that all other Wisconsin runners amassed 501 at a 7.7 per carry clip in those drubbings. It wasn't just Gordon's abilities in play here.
This is not a bad Cornhusker defense – there is plenty of talent on that roster - but they did not have a schematic clue as to how to get in the path of Wisconsin ball carriers. And that was with the revenge motive from that debacle at Indianapolis as both a motivator, and something that gave them plenty of film study. The number of times that Gordon scampered downfield without any contact at all was an indication of what may have been the worst defensive game plan I have seen all season. Which raises questions in Lincoln – although this has been a successful campaign for the Nebraska program, it has never been a warm and cozy relationship with Pelini. How the Cornhuskers respond from that shellacking could well determine whether he ever gets another chance to figure out how to defend the Badgers, and one has to particularly question the psyche of that defense as they take on Minnesota and Iowa teams that can also get physical with their overland attacks. It is worth noting that Nebraska was 0-2 SU and ATS against those two LY, losing to the spread by 44.5 in the process.
Item: Has Tevin Coleman played better than anyone?
Gordon’s performance should make headlines, and there is plenty of food for thought in the takeaway from both sides of the equation. But the above headline is one that you will only see here, for while Indiana’s Coleman will barely make the fine-print of the Heisman voting, if even that, a case could be made that while he is not the nation’s Best Player, perhaps no one has Played Better.
Coleman has gained 1,678 yards on 214 carries, a 7.8 clip, with 12 TDs, while also catching 21 passes. That puts you in the Heisman hunt most seasons, with 2,000 yards in sight. But when that production has come for a 3-7 team that is heading nowhere, there will not be much notice. Here is what you need to focus on, especially this week, when the ability to run the ball and work some clock will be a genuine pointspread factor in the range Ohio State is laying – Coleman’s recent results have been spectacular.
The current state of the Hoosier QB position was detailed on this page two weeks ago – “Indiana Passes on Passing” (http://pregame.com/pregame-forums/f/14/t/1078499.aspx). It has been five games without Nate Sudfeld, and four of them have come against teams that rate among the better up front on defense in the Big 10 – Iowa, Michigan State, Michigan and Penn State. The offense brings no real passing threat, completing just 43.7 of the passes at 79.6 yards per game in that span. Yet even with quality rush defenses being able to focus almost entirely on him, Coleman keeps going – it has been 837 yards at 7.7 per carry in that span. He is the real deal, and also a prime “November” factor.
Item: The Texas Tech defense has faced at least 40 running plays in every game
November was used in helping to detail the terrific play by Coleman because it goes back to a theme established here last Wednesday (http://pregame.com/pregame-forums/f/14/t/1086523.aspx), and one that should be a big part of your thought processes over the remaining boards. But while Coleman is a positive under that heading, there is also the flip side – a tired Texas Tech defense that was not much good even when fresh, is running on empty.
The Red Raiders held a 14-7 halftime lead against Oklahoma on Saturday, much of that built through a mind-numbing Sooner game plan that had QB Cody Thomas, forced into the starting lineup because of an injury to Trevor Knight, throwing the ball far too often. He had three interceptions before intermission. And when Tech scored on the first possession of the second half to make it 21-7, there was a setting for a badly-needed win. But then Bob Stoops and his offensive staff came to their senses, and began pounding away overland, mostly behind Samaje Perine. They ran, and ran, and ran, with the only stops being made by the goal line – five drives, five TDs, 316 rushing yards along the way. The Red Raiders knew what was coming, but could not do anything about it.
The problem is that an inexperienced and under-sized defensive front has been overmatched from the start of the season, and those flaws have been exacerbated by the opposition running the ball at least 40 times in all 10 games, including seven of 50 or more. It has taken an ugly toll, and five different opposing players have rushed for over 100 yards in the last three games alone. The “November” models tell us that this particular weakness does not get corrected late as fatigue sets in, especially when there is not even the hope of a bowl game as a target. So as bad as those numbers are, the defense may bring even less in the two remaining road games.
Item: The North Carolina defense has allowed 11 TDs of 50 yards or more
Texas Tech can blame those awful defensive showings on a lack of personnel, which you can not scheme around, no matter how you align the X’s. But it has been a different story at North Carolina. There was an expectation that Larry Fedora would bring a fast and furious offensive package to Chapel Hill, and that hopefully the defense under DC Dan Disch might at least hold its own. But as the Tar Heels head into their Tobacco Road rivalry games against Duke and N. C. State still needing to win to become bowl eligible, the natives are getting restless. Concerning the defense, they should.
Carolina managed to escape past Pittsburgh 40-35 on Saturday, but in the process allowed a 56-yard TD run, and a TD pass of 50. Those home runs are nothing new – it has now been 11 TDs of 50 yards or more through nine lined games, and in over three decades of charting NCAA defenses, I can not recall one ever averaging over one-per-game in that category for a full season. That many plays can’t be simply attributed to personnel; there are clearly scheme issues, and it is timely with the short turnaround before taking on David Cutcliffe and Duke on Thursday. Cutcliffe is awfully good at slicing up defenses that leave holes, and in going 2-0 SU and ATS against Fedora/Disch so far, he has beaten the market expectations by 20.5 points. Disch only had one season as a full-time DC before getting that nod at Carolina, and does not appear to be ready for this level. Would this program dare to ante up for Will Muschamp?
Item: The value of Deshaun Watson/Was Andrea Adelson correct?
Let’s stay in ACC country, and go to the QB situation at Clemson, which has been difficult to measure because it has been difficult to believe. Freshman Deshaun Watson is a superb talent, and until he was injured vs. Louisville appeared to be on his way to a break-out season, with one of the first chapters to his story written here over a month ago "Clemson, and the Deshaun Watson era" - (http://pregame.com/pregame-forums/f/14/t/1051824.aspx). But when he went down the offense went with him, despite that fact that Cole Stoudt looked like the kind of veteran that could manage the attack.
It led to a lot of speculation last week as Watson prepared to return at Georgia Tech, including the kind of over-statement that so often shows up in the Sports Mediaverse – “But having Watson back in the lineup against a mediocre Georgia Tech defense is going to be the key difference. His presence alone is worth at least 20 additional points, considering the way the Tigers scored with him playing an entire game -- 91 points against North Carolina and NC State; 90 total points in the next four games with Watson relegated to the sideline.” That was the take from Andrea Adelson, a blogger for the ACC on ESPN. But while we know that such estimates are generally not realistic at this level of the sport, in this case Andrea’s perceptions do point us to a story that perhaps does run deeper. Watson has been fantastic, while Stoudt has had a truly rough go.
Yards per pass attempt has not even been close – 10.1 for Watson vs. 6.2 for Stoudt. Watson threw 12 TD passes vs. only two INTs, for Stoudt it is five vs. eight in the wrong direction. Watson is also much fleeter afoot, to add a dimension to the offense. And when he was injured for the second time this season, it led to a shattering game-change at Georgia Tech.
On Clemson’s second possession Watson led the Tigers to a first-and-goal at the 10-yard line, before they had to settle for a FG. On the next drive they were on the march again, getting a first down at the Tech 14. It was about to become either 10-0 or 6-0, and an early command of the game. But Watson was injured again, and Stoudt entered the game. Three plays later he threw a Pick-Six that Jamal Golden returned 85 yards, and there was a huge swing in both the scoreboard and the momentum. The rest of the game was 22-3 for the Yellow Jackets, including another Pick-Six.
Here is how it shakes out, now that the Clemson ACC season is over. Watson could be considered the #1 QB for about 12.5 quarters, the final three plus overtime at Florida State, the wins over North Carolina and N. C. State, and a little more than one quarter combined vs. Louisville and Georgia Tech. In that span the Tigers scored 12 TDs, and could have had more – it was 41-0 midway through the third quarter vs. N. C. State when Dabo Swinney backed off. That leaves 19.5 other quarters of play, and in those there were only seven TDs, but even that comes with an *, since four were vs. Wake Forest. So let’s look at offensive points per quarter behind the two QBs, and then pro-rate that to a full game -
ACC Play, Points Per-Quarter/Per-Game:
Watson 8.3 / 33.3
Stoudt 4.0 / 16.0
These measurements are not as precise as I would like for them to be, but they do portray a most telling contrast, without even considering the turnovers by Stoudt, and the points directly given away. Adelson may not have been all that far off, in a QB disparity that has run far beyond traditional measure.
Item: Is Anu Solomon wearing down?
Arizona gutted out another thriller on Saturday, getting a 47-yard field goal from Casey Skowron on the final play to escape 27-26 over Washington. It takes a young Wildcat team to 8-2, perhaps a year ahead of schedule in the rebuilding process under Rich Rodriguez, and keying the ascent has been red-shirt freshman Anu Solomon, who has thrown for 3,058 yards and 25 TDs. Absolutely no one could have seen that coming, with a logjam for the #1 QB spot entering fall practice.
But a couple of things can happen to a young upstart that are not so positive: 1. The benefit of opposing coaches and players not having films of him goes away with each game played; and 2. The rigors of leading a QB-centric offense can also wear a player down against this class of competition. While the overall statistics shine brightly, the month of November shows tarnish, as both of the above concepts come into play -
Completion% 63.3 44.8
Yards Per Pass 7.7 5.0
TD / INT 20/4 5/3
Passer Rating 146.2 95.4
That is quite a drop, and he looked noticeably worn down vs. Washington, with two INTs and no TD passes in a game the Wildcats won despite being out-gained 504-375. With eight quarters left vs. Utah and Arizona State, the finish line is still a long way off for a QB that has already thrown 441 passes, and has also been the ball carrier on 94 plays.
Item: Akron is without Zip
Akron took a bit of a gamble back in 2011, hiring 55-year old Terry Bowden to be the new HC, instead of opting for some young blood to turn the program around. In truth, it was difficult to question the move, since Zips football has not been relevant in quite some time. Perhaps a big name could attract recruits that might otherwise have ignored the program. And there was a sense of optimism LY, when Bowden’s 1-11 opener, the third straight such season for the program, was elevated to 5-7. This season a shocking upset at Pittsburgh got them to 2-2 before MAC play began, and with the conference schedule opening with home games vs. lightweights Eastern Michigan and Miami O., there was a 2-0 that led to even more excitement. It was premature.
Akron has not won since, four consecutive outright losses as a favorite. And in an ugly progression, each SU loss has come by a bigger margin than the previous scoreboard, as has each ATS result (the latter flowing -6, -17.5, -20.5 and -34.5). While the one-sided scoreboards vs. Ball State and Bowling Green can be excused a bit because of a major turnover imbalance, there was simply no effort at Buffalo last Tuesday. The Zips got the huge break of a Pick-Six on the opening offensive snap to go up 7-0, but instead of being lifted by that were trounced 55-17 the remainder of the way by a listless Bulls squad, playing for a lame-duck coaching staff. It was a 310-68 pummeling in rushing yardage, which should be contrasted with the Buffalo averages of 145.4 gained vs. 200.0 allowed in five previous MAC games.
That game was the type that causes a long second look when examining those teams for which a season is too long, a key November factor. After having those early high hopes, were the expectations simply in the wrong place, and has the crashing of them left the Zips without focus? Does an older HC like Bowden, DC Chuck Amato (his next birthday with be his 69th), long for those days when there was more at stake, and have a difficult time coaching the season out? Those issues are as important as the stat tables when you begin to break down the Akron home game vs. Massachusetts on Tuesday evening.