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Charting the Tide, Week 14 | The Iron Bowl

Reviewing the night the PAC-10 came to Tuscaloosa

Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

The 2014 Charting Project is the brainchild of Bill Connelly; check out his college football analytics blog, Football Study Hall.

But first, let’s talk about finishing drives.

Alabama met its most bitter rival in Tuscaloosa last Saturday, and the result was an Iron Bowl unlike any other. The two teams combined for 99 points and 1,167 total yards of offense, both Iron Bowl records. The opponent dialed up 628 of those yards, tying the worst day an Alabama defense has ever had1, at least with respect to yards allowed. A slew of individual records were set as well, but I’ll save discussion of those until a bit later.

1 | Set by Texas A&M in 2013, also a win for the Tide. Clearly they should give up 600+ yards of offense every game.

UPDATE: The correct stat is 630 yards, which was a new record for the Tide. See note #9 about being completely wrong. A lot.

You know how everything turned out in the end. But one look at the box score would leave the uninformed reader rather befuddled. Alabama was outgained by nearly 100 yards, lost time of possession and turnover margin, and didn’t really make up for it on third downs and penalties2. So how in the world were they up by 19 late in the fourth? This game is a classic example of why traditional metrics don’t tell you what you need to know about a football game. In reality, Alabama was the more explosive team, the more efficient team, and most importantly, they finished drives.

2 | The Tide had a slight edge in both, but nothing crazy.

You see, there’s a school of thought out there that all of the different elements of performance in a particular sport can really be traced back to a small number of “factors”, which can be thought of as core skills and abilities. The most famous example is Dean Oliver’s Four Factors of Basketball, which are shooting, ball security, offensive rebounding, and drawing fouls. Nothing too shocking there — score points (from shooting well and getting to the line a lot) and limit your opponent’s opportunities to score (by taking care of the ball and limiting possessions through offensive boards).

Bill C. took this concept and applied it to college football, and the result is as follows:

Explosiveness, efficiency, field position, finishing drives, and turnovers are the five factors to winning football games.

  • If you win the explosiveness battle (using PPP), you win 86 percent of the time.
  • If you win the efficency battle (using Success Rate), you win 83 percent of the time.
  • If you win the drive-finishing battle (using points per trip inside the 40), you win 75 percent of the time.
  • If you win the field position battle (using average starting field position), you win 72 percent of the time.
  • If you win the turnover battle (using turnover margin), you win 73 percent of the time.

This is from 2013 college football game data. It's very, very similar from year to year.

Bill’s done a good bit of work on this concept over the last year, you can read several more articles about it over at this StoryStream at Football Study Hall.

Keeping this in mind, consider the following breakdown:

Offensive Performance by Zone
Standard Zone
Metric Alabama Opponent
Attempts 33 46
Yards Per Play 9.3 9.8
Success Rate 51.5% 41.3%
Scoring Zone
Metric Alabama Opponent
Opportunities 8 10
Points per Opportunity 6.88 4.4
Attempts 31 45
Yards Per Play 8.1 4.1
Success Rate 54.8% 37.8%
Red Zone
Metric Alabama Opponent
Attempts 15 31
Yards Per Play 4.9 2.3
Success Rate 46.7% 29%

Here, the “standard zone” is defined as the portion of the field between a team’s own endzone and the opponent’s 40 yard line; the “scoring zone” is from the opponent’s 40 yard line to the opponent’s end zone; and “red zone” is inside the opponent’s 20 yard line per usual.

Check out the middle portion of that table, for the scoring zone. The opponent made 10 trips inside of Alabama’s 40 yard line, and they came away with 44 points on the day. 44 points is pretty good, right? Wrong! The national average at the end of the regular season was 4.66 points per opportunity, which you may note is a quarter of a point higher than what little brother managed on Saturday. Also note that the Tide poured in 55 points on just 8 opportunities, good for 6.88 points a trip3.

3 | The Tide scored 8 touchdowns in 8 trips — failed extra point attempts kept this average below 7 for the game.

Simply put, the Tide were lethal inside the 40, whereas the opponent sputtered and had to settle for field goals more often than not. The issue was so obvious that even Jesse Palmer noticed it live, sharing this nugget of wisdom4 on the ESPN telecast:

I don't think you're going to beat the #1 team on the road kicking field goals all day. Some of these need to turn into touchdowns.

4 | Later followed with this gem: "His last 7 classes have been top-3 classes or better". Can't really get better than Top-3, chief.

The Tide’s dominance is further reflected by the YPP and Success Rate in the Scoring Zone, both of which heavily favor the Tide. The difference is even starker inside the 20, where the opponent managed just 2.3 yards per play vs. 4.9 a pop for the Tide, with a near 20% deficit in success rate to boot. The Tide weren’t exactly going prevent, but “bend — don’t break” wouldn’t be a stretch to describe the defensive performance last Saturday. Except for when it broke, but we'll talk about that later.

In addition to drive finishing, the Tide had a clear edge in overall success rate (54.1% vs. 44.2%) and yards per play (8.6 vs. 7)5. Field position was more or less a push, and the turnover battle went to the opponent. That’s 3 factors to 1 for the Tide, and that’s going to get it done more often than not.

5 | Not the definitive explosiveness measure, but when taking into account success near the goal line, the Tide piled up a lot of valuable yardage Saturday.

Armed with this, you could make the argument that, with all due respect to the second-half efforts of Amari Cooper, Blake Sims, and T.J. Yeldon, the Tide defense won this game in the first quarter6. The opponent fumbled away their first possession, leading to the ‘Bama’s first points of the day. Their next three featured 213 yards of offense, 37 offensive plays, and a measly 9 points — drives that ended at the 3, 7, and 3 yard lines. Convert touchdowns on those three drives, and you pick up an additional 12 points — you might recall the final margin was 11.

6 | Plus a couple minutes of the second.

Granted, 21-14 with 10 minutes to go in the second is a lot different from 14-9, and undoubtedly would have affected decision making for the rest of the game. But just for “fun”, imagine if it didn’t, and the rest of the game played out exactly the same until the final drive. In that situation, down by just 7, little brother likely takes the extra point instead of going for two after the late touchdown, and kicks it back to Alabama with less than a minute left in a tie ballgame. Sound familiar? No? Yeah, I forgot all about last year too.

The Goods

Confused?

  • Air Yards — The down-the-field or vertical yardage gained on a pass play as a result of the quarterback’s throw (i.e., prior to the receiver’s involvement), as measured from the line of scrimmage. So for forward passes thrown behind the line of scrimmage, the Air Yardage would be negative. This metric is also tracked on incomplete passes — underthrown balls are measured from where the ball lands, and overthrown balls from where the intended receiver is. Balls tipped at the line or thrown away are not measured. The companion statistic on completed passes is yards after catch — the sum of Air Yards and yards after catch on a completed pass equals the yardage gained on the play.
  • Blake Sims Map of Quarterbacking Excellence — Hand-crafted using the absolute finest graphical techniques of the late 90s, the Blake Sims Map of Quarterbacking Excellence breaks the field down into 9 blocks by Air Yards (Behind Line, 0 - 10 Yards, Over 10 Yards) and direction of throw relative to the hash the ball was placed on (Left, Middle, Right — see Pass Direction for more explanation). Each header/leader contains the number of attempts for that designation within parentheses (e.g., the number in parentheses next to “LEFT” denotes the number of attempts that were thrown to the left, regardless of distance). Each block contains the number of complete passes to that block over the total number of passes to that block, the completion percentage, the YPA, and the success rate. The block behind the line of scrimmage in the middle of the field contains the man himself, Blake Sims. The hashmarks are even relatively accurate!
  • Catch Rate — The number of balls caught over the number of targets for an individual, or how often a receiver makes the catch when targeted.
  • Disruptive Plays — A sum of sacks, blocked kicks/punts, passes defensed, interceptions, and forced fumbles. Think of these as things that got you multiple helmet stickers when you were playing peewee.
  • Distance Splits — The “distance” on these charts refers to the yardage required to gain a first down, not the yardage required for a successful play (see Success Rate).
  • Frequencies for Rushing and Passing Splits by Down — These numbers refer to the percentage of first down plays that were a rush, second down plays that were a pass, and so on, NOT the percentage of rushes that were on first down. For example, the sum of first down pass frequency and first down rush frequency will be 100%, but the sum of first, second, third, and fourth down rush frequencies will be well in excess of 100%.
  • Garbage Time — Defined as when a game is not within 28 points in the first quarter, 24 points in the second quarter, 21 points in the third quarter, or 16 points in the fourth.
  • Pass Direction — One datum tracked by the Charting Project is the direction of throw or Pass Direction. This refers to the direction the ball was thrown relative to the hash the ball was placed on, NOT the part of the field where the ball ended up. For example, on a play where the ball was placed on the left hash at the snap, a throw directly down the left hash marks would be tracked as Middle, whereas a ball thrown to the area between the hashes would be tracked as Left, and a ball thrown toward the left sideline would be tracked as Right. This is an important distinction for interpreting the Blake Sims Map of Quarterbacking Excellence.
  • Run Directions — See the figure below. Defensive letter gap terminology is on the top in blue, and offensive hole terminology is on the bottom in green. Rushes are coded as “Left Tackle” if they head through the left B and C gaps / the 3 and 5 holes, and so on.
  • RunDirection
  • Success Rate — A “successful” play is defined as gaining 70% of required yardage on first down, 50% of required yardage on second down, and all of the required yardage on third and fourth downs — required yardage is another term for the distance required for a first down on a given play. Success rate is simply how often a team is successful.
  • Target — The intended receiver on a pass play. All pass plays have intended receivers, with the exception of passes that were tipped at the line, thrown away, or otherwise thrown in such a manner as to render identification of an intended receiver impossible.
  • YPA — Passing Yards Per Attempt, which is a measure of explosiveness that pairs nicely with Success Rate. This is simply the number of passing yards gained over the number of passing attempts, both complete and incomplete.

OFFENSE

Passing Splits
Attempts Frequency Success Rate
Down VS.
OPPONENT
VS.
OPPONENT
2014
Season
VS.
OPPONENT
2014
Season
1st 14 45.2% 40.9% 64.3% 48.5%
2nd 9 50% 47.4% 66.7% 47.8%
3rd 3 33.3% 57.4% 66.7% 54.1%

Observations

Not a bad looking chart, right? Aside from some issues throwing to his left resulting in three interceptions on the day, Sims was spectacular all over the field. The first two picks were bad throws to the deep left, and the last was a jumped route by Jonathan Ford in the intermediate left7. Unlike some of Sims’ previous sparkling games, this chart isn’t all Amari Cooper — these were not wide receiver screens Cooper was housing. Sims attacked the opponent’s secondary down the field, putting several deep throws right on the money, and that’s why you see the 35.7 YPA in the upper right corner this week.

7 | The camera shot after this was priceless — a guy in the stands casually munching on some nachos, not a care in the world about the INT.

It didn’t matter when Sims threw either, as the success rate was essentially constant regardless of down. More importantly it was significantly higher than normal, with a solid 10-20% increase over seasonal norms. Aside from leaning on the run in third down situations, the Tide really took it to little brother through the air in this one.

Rushing Splits
Attempts Frequency Success Rate
Down VS.
OPPONENT
VS.
OPPONENT
2014
Season
VS.
OPPONENT
2014
Season
1st 17 54.8% 59.2% 29.4% 34.5%
2nd 9 50% 52.6% 55.6% 63.4%
3rd 6 66.7% 42.6% 50% 55.6%
Direction VS.
OPPONENT
VS.
OPPONENT
2014
Season
VS.
OPPONENT
2014
Season
Left End 5 17.9% 18.2% 80% 53.5%
Lt. Tackle 4 14.3% 12.5% 0% 27.5%
Middle 8 28.6% 39.2% 50% 48%
Rt. Tackle 6 21.4% 16.3% 66.7% 55.8%
Right End 5 17.9% 13.8% 0% 40.9%

Observations

With the exception of third downs, the Tide leaned on the pass plays quite a bit in this one, running less frequently on first and second downs than usual. And for good reason – despite T.J. Yeldon’s fantastic night, success rates were below average for this offense.

Not too much to take away from the direction chart. Runs around Cam Robinson were very efficient (80% success rate), but runs between Robinson and Arie Kouandjio were not (0% success rate). The announcers had lots of nice things to say about Kouandjio during his final home start, but there’s no evidence here supporting strong play from him in this one. In fact, the one time I distinctly recall seeing Kouandjio was during his attempt to pull on a left end run, but not being able to get to the edge before Yeldon was long gone.

Down and Distance Splits
Plays Frequency Success Rate
Down VS.
OPPONENT
VS.
OPPONENT
2014
Season
VS.
OPPONENT
2014
Season
1st 31 51.7% 45.6% 45.2% 40.2%
2nd 18 30% 32.6% 61.1% 56%
3rd 9 15% 20.6% 55.6% 54.7%
4th 2 3.3% 1.3% 100% 77.8%
Distance VS.
OPPONENT
VS.
OPPONENT
2014
Season
VS.
OPPONENT
2014
Season
Under 3 Yards 11 18.3% 14.5% 63.6% 69.2%
4 to 6 Yards 7 11.7% 14.3% 57.1% 59.2%
7 to 10 Yards 37 61.7% 63% 46% 42.6%
Over 10 Yards 5 8.3% 8.2% 80% 42.4%

Observations

Per usual, this chart ties everything together nicely. The Tide were more successful on each down against little brother than they were normally, which led to a higher rate of first down attempts. The 100% success on fourth down was huge, as one attempt was a touchdown and the other kept a touchdown drive alive.

The frequency portion of the distance chart is unremarkable, but one success rate jumps out at you. 80% on downs over 10 yards is nasty. The four successful attempts all resulted in first downs, including Blake Sims’ 2nd and 11 scramble for a touchdown in the fourth quarter.

Formation Splits
Plays Frequency Success Rate
Formation VS.
OPPONENT
VS.
OPPONENT
2014
Season
VS.
OPPONENT
2014
Season
Shotgun 49 79% 46.7% 46.9% 49.4%
Pistol 5 8.1% 9.4% 80% 52.2%
Under Center 8 12.9% 44% 75% 47.3%
Play Action 8 12.5% 7.9% 75% 48.5%
Backs VS.
OPPONENT
VS.
OPPONENT
2014
Season
VS.
OPPONENT
2014
Season
0 2 3.2% 2.9% 50% 47.6%
1 26 41.9% 66.1% 42.3% 48.6%
2 30 48.4% 29.6% 60% 48.1%
3 4 6.5% 1.4% 75% 60%
Receivers VS.
OPPONENT
VS.
OPPONENT
2014
Season
VS.
OPPONENT
2014
Season
0 1 1.6% 1.7% 100% 75%
1 3 4.8% 3.1% 66.7% 54.6%
2 14 22.6% 34.9% 64.3% 50.4%
3 33 53.2% 37.9% 45.5% 43.4%
4 9 14.5% 20.2% 55.6% 52.4%
5 2 3.2% 2.2% 50% 50%

Observations

Kiffin tends toward a fairly even split between shotgun and under center looks, with a bit of pistol sprinkled in if he’s feeling frisky. Not so much in this game, as the Tide ran almost 80% of offensive plays out of the shotgun. Kinda hard to complain with the end result, even if pistol and under center looks were more efficient8. Play action was violently successful in this game, as many of the big downfield plays were off play-action looks.

8 | This is normally the part where I tell Lane he needs to make their asses quit. Whatever he’s doing works though, Lane’s just gonna Lane, etc.

I saw a lot more Jalston Fowler in the backfield Saturday, and that’s reflected in the Backs chart. Almost half of the Tide’s offensive plays featured two backs, which is almost 20% higher than normal. Aside from the three back heavy package, this was the most successful alignment at a 60% clip. Not terribly surprising – a lot of those successful play-action passes came out of the I formation.

Three wide receiver sets were the most prevalent on Saturday at 53% frequency. They were unfortunately the least successful as well, if still outpacing 2014 norms. As was the case for most aspects of the offense the Tide were more successful than usual regardless of the number of receivers on the field.

Targets and Catch Rate
Player Targets Catch Rate
Amari Cooper 137 68.6%
DeAndrew White 55 60%
T.J. Yeldon 23 65.2%
O.J. Howard 23 56.5%
Christion Jones 22 59.1%
BRANDON GREENE 1 100%

Observations

I don’t really know what you else can say about Amari Cooper at this point. He’s easily the finest wide receiver the Tide’s ever had, at least during the modern era of college football. You can talk about Don Hutson all you want, but I’m reasonably certain you didn’t see him playing at the Capstone. Coop’s headed to the NFL after this season, and he’ll be toting every major receiving record at this university with him, including most receiving yards in an Iron Bowl with 224.

T.J. Yeldon, Jalston Fowler, Christion Jones, and O.J. Howard hauled in their lone targets of the game, and DeAndrew White collected 4 of his 6. Unfortunately those two misses were a drop and a play where White slipped, the only real miscues I saw by the receiving corps on the evening.

DEFENSE

These numbers are going to be a little misleading, as I’ve only been providing efficiency splits (in the form of success rate) in most of these tables, without regard for explosiveness. Anyone who watched the game Saturday knows little brother made most of their hay on explosive pass plays down the field, for the most part to Sammie Coates. Incorporating yards per play into these charts is on the task list for the offseason, so look for that next year.

Formation/Play Action Splits
Plays Frequency Success Rate
Formation VS.
OPPONENT
VS.
OPPONENT
2014
Season
VS.
OPPONENT
2014
Season
Shotgun 76 100% 79.1% 38.2% 36.1%
Pistol 0 0% 3.6% N/A 13%
Under Center 0 0% 17.3% N/A 31.8%
No Huddle 54 70.1% 56% 38.9% 36.5%
Huddled 23 29.9% 44% 39.1% 31.9%
Play Action 10 10.9% 7.8% 40% 43.6%

Observations

In the meantime, revel in the uniformity of the HUNH. All shotgun, all no-huddle (save for a handful of no-kidding huddles, with the normal post-timeout/penalty plays and starts of drives). The opponent ran a little more play action than the Tide are used to seeing, but nothing they did was particularly successful in an efficiency sense. On the whole they were slightly more efficient than the Tide’s opponents have been this year.

Passing Splits
Attempts Frequency Success Rate
Down VS.
OPPONENT
VS.
OPPONENT
2014
Season
VS.
OPPONENT
2014
Season
1st 9 26.5% 41.2% 33.3% 40%
2nd 11 44% 51.2% 54.6% 41.8%
3rd 12 75% 67.4% 50% 34.3%
Air Yards VS.
OPPONENT
VS.
OPPONENT
2014
Season
VS.
OPPONENT
2014
Season
Under 5 6 18.8% 39.7% 16.7% 36.1%
5 - 10 9 28.1% 21.8% 44.4% 47.8%
11 - 15 6 18.8% 11.4% 33.3% 60%
Over 15 11 34.4% 27% 72.7% 34.9%

Observations

Nick Marshall had a school-record night throwing the ball, mostly to Coates, who repeatedly toasted anyone the Tide deployed to cover him. Except for Bradley Sylve, but we’ll get to that later. The higher the down, the more likely Marshall was to throw it, opting for the air on 75% of third down attempts. He was pretty successful on that down as well, converting 50% of attempts.

The explosiveness bit I talked about at the start of this section is readily apparent in the yardage chart, as Marshall converted 73% of his throws over 15 yards. That is an insanely high percentage for throws at that distance, over twice what the Tide typically give up. They needed every bit of that success down the field as well — they weren’t getting yardage anywhere else.

Rushing Splits
Attempts Frequency Success Rate
Down VS.
OPPONENT
VS.
OPPONENT
2014
Season
VS.
OPPONENT
2014
Season
1st 25 73.5% 58.8% 28% 14.7%
2nd 14 56% 48.8% 42.9% 45.7%
3rd 4 25% 32% 25% 42.6%
Direction VS.
OPPONENT
VS.
OPPONENT
2014
Season
VS.
OPPONENT
2014
Season
Left End 6 18.8% 12.8% 16.7% 26.9%
Lt. Tackle 1 3.1% 16.7% 100% 23.5%
Middle 13 40.6% 43.6% 23.1% 27%
Rt. Tackle 4 12.5% 13.7% 50% 28.6%
Right End 8 25% 13.2% 50% 40.7%

Observations

The book on little brother coming in was they liked to run the ball, and that was certainly the case on first downs. The Tide’s opponents have run on first down 60% of the time; their opponent on Saturday went there almost 75% of the time. They were relatively successful at a 28% clip on the down, almost twice what the Tide normally allow.

The opponent mostly tested the edges when not running it up the gut, and they found some success around the right side, which is not out of line with seasonal averages. They got a whole lot of nothing around the left side though, and were held to 23% success when running up the middle. Running up the middle is not an advisable thing to do against Alabama.

Down and Distance Splits
Plays Frequency Success Rate
Down VS.
OPPONENT
VS.
OPPONENT
2014
Season
VS.
OPPONENT
2014
Season
1st 34 44.2% 41.7% 29.4% 25.1%
2nd 25 32.5% 33.5% 48% 43.7%
3rd 16 20.8% 22.9% 43.8% 36.7%
4th 2 2.6% 1.9% 50% 50%
Distance VS.
OPPONENT
VS.
OPPONENT
2014
Season
VS.
OPPONENT
2014
Season
Under 3 Yards 11 14.3% 10.3% 45.5% 57.6%
4 to 6 Yards 9 11.7% 14.2% 44.4% 44%
7 to 10 Yards 50 64.9% 66.2% 34% 30%
Over 10 Yards 7 9.1% 9.4% 57.1% 26.7%

Observations

Just to tie it all together, little brother was fairly successful across the board, relative to the Tide’s typical opponent. Their success on earlier downs led to more first down attempts, but nothing out of the ordinary. The most concerning line from this chart is for distances over 10 yards, where the opponent was successful 57% of the time, over twice what the Tide usually allows. This is directly related to those explosive plays I mentioned earlier, so I won’t rehash the point here. Fortunately that was probably the worst matchup, receiver-wise, the Tide will face for the rest of the season, so it is unlikely we’ll see those sorts of breakdowns in the postseason.

Disruptive Plays
Player Passes Defensed Interceptions Sacks Forced Fumbles Blocked Kicks Total
Cyrus Jones 7.5 2 2 11.5
Eddie Jackson 5 1 1 2 9
Xzavier Dickson 1 8 9
Landon Collins 5 3 8
Reggie Ragland 2 1 2.5 1 6.5

Observations

While it was not a very good day overall for the Tide defense, several defenders showed out in this one. I really don’t know what to make of Bradley Sylve, he looked like a completely different player from the guy that was repeatedly schooled by Kevin White in the WVU game. As has been mentioned elsewhere on this blog, it’s clear now White is a very talented receiver and a tough cover for anyone, but I’ll freely admit I thought after that one Sylve didn’t have what it took to play cornerback at this level. Well, I was completely wrong9, because Sylve’s play in relief of the utterly torched Eddie Jackson was solid. He was robbed of an interception on a blown call by the replay official, but defensed two other passes on the night. He’s credited in my sheet for an interception too, because I do what I want, NCAA.

9 | It happens. A lot.

The other name that should be mentioned here is Nick Perry, who has been a totally different player over the last three weeks and was an absolute terror in this one. Perry picked off one pass and defended another, helped contain Nick Marshall several times, and picked up a TFL or two for his troubles. Perry and Sylve were the two most-maligned members of the Tide secondary, and both stepped up in a big way on Saturday.

Cyrus Jones didn’t show up on the stat sheet at all, because Marshall rarely threw in his direction. Teams are starting to figure out #5 is not to be trifled with.

As usual, if I missed anything please publicly shame me in the comments.

ROLL TIDE