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Unit Efficiency: Penn State game

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3 forced turnovers helped the Tide defense turn in another dominant statistical performance.
3 forced turnovers helped the Tide defense turn in another dominant statistical performance.

Last week we presented a look at the Alabama-Kent State game through the lens of advanced statistics and efficiency measures. Admittedly, there was a lot to digest in that post, so we'll try to keep things a little more concise this week as we assess the Tide's performance in Happy Valley from a statistical standpoint.

We still don't have the post up detailing the data, but that will be coming soon. For now you'll just have to trust us as far as the source and derivation of the statistics.

Scoring Defense  |  47.7% Efficiency  |  Very Good

Once again, the defense led the way from a statistical standpoint. On the day, the Penn State offense had 11 non-garbage-time possessions. Thanks to a solid day overall from the offense and kick coverage units (more on them below), none of the Nittany Lions' possessions began in Alabama territory, and their average starting field position on the 11 drives was their own 30 yard-line. Because of the weak starting field position and the relatively low number of possessions, the total expected value on the day for the Lions offense was only 20.41 points.

Of the 11 possessions, only the opening drive (a 43-yard field goal attempt valued at 1.74 points) and the final drive (a touchdown valued at 8.00 points thanks to a successful 2-point conversion) resulted in scoring chances. In total, the Bama defense gave up only 9.74 points in scoring value to the Penn State offense, meaning they only allowed 47.7% of the expected scoring value given Penn State's number of possessions and starting field position on each possession. This is an excellent stat for any defense against almost any opponent from a BCS conference.

Scoring Offense  |  127.8% Efficiency  |  Above Average

The Bama offense turned in a solid day at the office. Not spectacular by any means, but above average. Considering that Penn State's defense is probably above average, or maybe even good, in their own right--we won't know for sure until opponent-adjusted data is available later in the season--scoring above the expected value is a commendable, though not overly impressive feat.

Like the Penn State offense, the Alabama offense had 11 non-garbage-time possessions throughout the game. Also like Penn State, Bama never started a drive in plus territory, and the Tide's average starting field position was its own 31. However, in an excellent illustration of the importance of field position, check out this stat. In Bama's five possessions that began between their own 35 and the 50, the offense scored three touchdowns and set up two very short field goal attempts. However, in the six drives that began between their own 30 and their own 9, the result was a punt each and every time.

Because of the relatively low number of possessions and the unfavorable field position on more than half of the drives, Bama's total expected offensive value was only 20.72. Thanks to the three touchdown drives (valued at 6.94 points each) and the two short field goal attempts (valued at 2.76 and 2.91 points respectively), the Tide offense produced 26.49 points in scoring value on the day, for a total scoring efficiency of 127.8%. Until we know more about how strong Penn State's defense is, it's hard to say just how impressive, or perhaps even unimpressive, that is. What we can say is that the Tide offense produced 27.8% more points than would have been expected against a defense of equal strength.

Defensive Field Positioning  |  +0.05  |  Average

As we described in last week's stats post, scoring isn't the only way to measure an offense or defense's impact on the game. The role they play in setting up field position for their counterparts is also important. Surprisingly, despite the very good performance in limiting Penn State's scoring, the Bama defense never really did much to add value to the team by flipping field position. The field position value added by a few 3-and-out's was offset by field position value lost on a few short but meaningful Penn State drives that stalled near midfield.

Meanwhile, even the three forced turnovers didn't do much to aid the Tide in field position terms, although they certainly helped in the scoring efficiency department by ending Penn State scoring chances. The fumbled forced at midfield in the 2nd quarter, which was worth +0.75 points in field position change, was offset by another forced turnover in the second half that actually hurt Bama from a field position perspective. When Mark Barron intercepted Rob Bolden's pass on the deep ball in the 3rd quarter, it actually gave Bama worse field position than would have otherwise been expected (he went down at his own 9). So while the play was a net positive due to Penn State coming away with 0 points on a drive valued at 1.5 points, the field position swing in and of itself actually benefited Penn State.

So while the defensive field positioning was more or less a wash, coming in at almost exactly a net zero, it did little to mitigate the overall value added by the Bama defense, which totaled 10.72 points in value.

Offensive Field Positioning  |  -0.82  |  Average

The rating says "average" but in this case Bama fans everywhere should be ecstatic. The biggest fear heading into this game was that the Tide offense and its inexperienced quarterbacks would put the defense in bad spots, as it had done a week earlier against lowly Kent State. This was Penn State's most realistic path to victory, but thankfully that path was never opened in this game as A.J. McCarron and the Tide offense prevented spotting the Penn State offense with any significant amount of field position value on the day.

As was mentioned earlier, the offense had a little trouble when pinned deep in their own territory, punting the ball from inside their own 38 six times. These drives ending deep within negative territory led to the small net loss in field position value, but again, considering the fears that I and many others had, -0.82 is a number we can live with (by comparison, the Bama offense gave up -7.00 points in field position value against Kent State).

Special Teams Field Positioning  |  +1.79  |  Above Average

In the final balance, special teams didn't have a major impact on this game. I'll repeat what was said about the offense's effect on field positioning: this was a good thing for the Crimson Tide. Penn State needed big field position swings from their defense (in the form of turnovers) or from special teams (in the form of a big return or a blocked kick), and like the Bama offense protecting the ball, the Bama special teams thankfully didn't comply. In fact, the Tide special teams came out ahead in the final tally.

  • The top performing special teams unit was the kickoff unit. OTS pointed out in his Initial Impressions piece that Cade Foster's kicks aren't that impressive in terms of raw distance. He's correct, of course, but the lack of distance has not been a factor in the kickoff unit's effectiveness. Whether that is the result of Foster's kicks making up for their lack of distance with extra hangtime, or just the coverage unit being that good, the unit overall has thusfar been excellent. (My guess, for what it's worth: a little of both). The kickoff unit added 1.22 points in field position value on six kickoffs. Five of those resulted in tackles between the 19 and 22 yard-lines, and considering that the average starting position following a kickoff in college football is the 28, that's like earning a 6-9 yard play each time the team kicks off.
  • The punt return unit, featuring Marquis Maze, had mixed results on its six attempts, but came out ahead on the day by adding 0.52 points in gained field position value. 0.98 points came from Maze's 45-yard return in the third quarter, while the unit lost a combined -0.46 points on the other five.
  • The punting unit, featuring Cody Mandell, wasn't nearly as ineffective as people thought. Like Foster's kickoffs, Mandell's punts weren't very good in terms of raw distance, this much is true. However, it really doesn't matter how far the punter kicks it, it matters where the play ends and the offense gets the ball--net punting, in other words. In this regard, the punt team was solid, with a net average of 35 yards on each of the six attempts. Considering that the average net punt in college football is only 33 yards, the Bama punt unit actually came out ahead on the day statistically, adding 0.34 points in field position value. The same question that was posed about Foster and the kickoff unit can be asked of Mandell and the punt unit: since the kicks don't have great distance, is it hangtime or just excellent coverage that is preventing opponents from getting much on the returns? I don't have the answer, but either way the punt unit hasn't been nearly as bad as people think.
  • The kick return unit, featuring Trent Richardson and Dee Milliner, only got two opportunities on the day, and they weren't particularly impressive on either, with tackles made on the 25 and 22 yard lines respectively. This resulted in -0.29 points in lost field position value, since the average starting field position is the 28.

Field Goal Success  |  +0.42  |  Good

Jeremy Shelley continued to remain flawless on the season on short field goals and PAT attempts, going 5-for-5 on three extra points (0.06 points in value added for each) and two field goal attempts (0.24 and 0.09 points in value added respectively). The kicks were so short that the offense was given most of the credit for setting them up, but nevertheless Shelley and the field goal unit converted and avoided losing any of the value.