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Playcalling in the Sugar Bowl

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Oh Lane. What were you thinking?

John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

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

* This was originally intended as the lead-in for the Charting the Tide offensive review, but given some discussion in the Jumbo Package on the 27th and the overly epic nature of the review, I decided to split it off into a separate article. The final Charting the Tide for the offense IS coming, though.

Let’s talk about playcalling.

One of the reasons it has taken me so long to wrap up Charting the Tide for the year is because I really, really did not want to look at this[1], but it needs to be done. An integral part of being a true Crimson Tide fan is to question the playcalling of the offensive coordinator after a loss and I’m going to go ahead and do my Gumply duty for you right now.

1 | Also, stuff. And things. Reasons.

I was certainly not the only crimson-clad viewer to wonder what foul spirit had possessed Lane Kiffin in the second half of the Sugar Bowl, but I’m probably the only one that made spreadsheets at him out of spite[2]. Below is a breakdown of offensive plays from the first and second half of the Sugar Bowl, split out by rushes (to the left, up the middle, and to the right) and passes (throws less than 5 yards from the line of scrimmage, between 6 – 10 yards, and over 10 yards). Running plays only include designed runs — no quarterback scrambles, sacks[3], or kneeldowns — and passes do not include throws that were intentionally thrown away. The results are disappointing to say the least:

2 | I’m probably the only person anywhere who makes spreadsheets at people out of spite, but that’s neither here nor there.

3 | Don’t track direction on sacks or scrambles, only reason for their occurrence. I did count designed draws by Sims as Middle rushes, though.

Playcalling Results From the Sugar Bowl
FIRST HALF SECOND HALF
PLAY TYPE COUNT SUCCESS RATE YARDS PER PLAY COUNT SUCCESS RATE YARDS PER PLAY
RUSHES
- Left
- Middle
- Right
12
4
4
4
67%
100%
50%
50%
6
12.8
2
3.3
13
4
7
2
69%
100%
43%
100%
5.6
10.5
2.6
6
PASSES
- Under 5 Yds
- 6-10 Yds.
- Over 10 Yds.
14
8
3
3
36%
38%
33%
33%
4.3
4
4.3
5
21
11
4
6
38%
36%
50%
33%
8
7.9
6
9.4

I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge splitting out one game like this creates a bevy of small samples, which can lead to some wonky results. That being said, what the hell, Lane? In the first half, runs to the left side were basically the only plays that didn’t suck, and as a result the Tide ran… the same number of runs to the left in the second half. And although the efficacy dropped a bit, those were still the most effective plays the Tide ran in the game, outside of the 52 yard screen to Derrick Henry (which greatly boosted the YPP on short passes in the second half, and is more an extension of the run game than anything else) and the 51 yard catch-and-run by DeAndrew White (which boosted the long pass YPP in the second half from 2.1 to 9.4).

Even getting away from runs to the left specifically, just look at the overall splits between rushing and passing. Rushes were almost twice as successful as passes in both halves, and if it weren’t for those two long pass plays they would have been more effective in both halves as well. This uncharacteristic[4] aversion to sticking with what’s working plagued the Tide on two drives in particular. The first was the first possession of the second half, where after gaining 18 yards on a Blake Sims scramble and 8 yards on a T.J. Yeldon run to the — you guessed it — left side of the line, the Tide had 2nd and 2 at their own 45. Kiffin dialed up two pass plays, and two sacks later J.K. Scott had to save ‘Bama’s bacon again. The second was after the botched Ohio State punt that gave the Tide the ball at OSU’s 21, which should have yielded a field goal attempt at the very least. Instead, Kiffin dialed up some bizarre rollout pass to O.J. Howard that had me screaming at the TV — and that was before it was picked off. The defense bowed up a bit in the second half, but when your run game is working and the opponent’s offense is clicking, generally the best option is to run it down their throat and milk the clock. We’ve seen it work for the Tide a million times, and it was the obvious choice here.

4 | This is the same guy that ran like 9000 bubble screens against the Tide’s first four opponents, after all.

Those two possessions were where, in my opinion, Kiffin got way too cute for his own good, and it may have cost Alabama a chance to play for a national championship. Worse, it afforded Ohio State the opportunity to do so, and the program and its fans have handled that success with exactly the level of class and dignity you’d expect. Tide fans have enjoyed more national titles than any other fanbase, but it’s not like these opportunities roll around every single season, even if it’s seemed that way under Saban. This is a second golden age of Alabama football, but you never know when the ride is going to end. You have to capitalize on opportunities like this, period.

All THAT being said…

I’m pretty sure if I was asked to step into Kiffin’s shoes and call a college football game, you could put an eight-year-old whose football experience consisted of Lots of Madden on the other side and he’d outwit me pretty easily. For most of the season, Kiffin’s done an outstanding job mixing it up and keeping the opponent’s defense on their toes, and the result was arguably the most effective offense in school history, and unquestionably of the Saban era. There was more than one occasion that Kiffin’s lights-out playcalling was the difference in the game[5]. I’m absolutely delighted he’s returning to the sidelines next season, because I also think we’re lucky to have him.

5 | The Creamsicles and LSU come to mind.

Furthermore, some of these decisions were defensible. You’ll see when I get around to finishing the offensive review that, for the season, up-the-middle runs were the Tide’s most successful running play, so trying to fall back on that in the second half is perhaps understandable. Going for the jugular with a goofy play like that ill-fated pass to Howard is something that’s worked this season, most notably against LSU with next great receiving tight end Brandon Greene in overtime. Once the Tide fell behind by two possessions later on in the fourth quarter of the Sugar Bowl, running the ball wasn’t really an option anymore, and even with all of this the Tide were perhaps a recovered onsides kick[6] away from overtime, or better.

6 | Like everything else involving Evan Spencer in this game, completely ridiculous. Just perfect execution and the grippiest gloves ever.

Two more things before we wrap this up. You might recall we’ve seen this story before. 2008, de facto national championship SEC Championship game, the Tide go into the fourth quarter with a lead over the Gators, on the strength of hellacious running by Fort Walton Beach’s own Glen Coffee[7]. After UF drained nearly 6 minutes off the clock before scoring to take a 24-20 lead, Jim McElwain dialed up some interesting pass plays (and one unsuccessful run play) for a three and out. UF drained another 5 minutes off the clock, scored again, and when the Tide got the ball back with 2:50 left and 11 points to score running was off the table. The following year, McElwain rode NFL Pro Bowler, Heisman Trophy Winner, and National Champion Mark Ingram all the way to a national title, and did the same with Trent Richardson two years after that.

7 | 8-5-0!

Flash forward to 2012, where the Tide were playing catch-up against Texas A&M after a 20-0 drubbing in the first quarter. The Tide had battled back, particularly on the strength of unstoppable NFL Pro Bowler and National Champion Eddie Lacy (5.8 yards per carry in the game) and some sharp passing from A.J. McCarron. After a 54 yard pass to Kenny Bell gave the Tide first and goal from the Aggies’ 6 yard line with about 4 minutes left, Doug Nussmeier dialed up 3 pass plays, two of which resulted in McCarron scrambles for minimal yardage. The third was one of those truly bizarre play designs that never, ever works, and it resulted in McCarron’s second pick of the game. Later that year in the de facto national championship SEC Championship Game, LACY WITH NO REGARD FOR GEORGIA’S DEFENSE[8] produced the Tide’s 23rd SEC Title and a re-run a month later brought #15.

8 | Still my favorite meltdown entry.

Just to sum that up: the last two Tide OCs in their first years on the job failed to run when they should have in a critical spot, losing the game and opportunities for national titles. They both clearly learned from that. And then they brought national titles. I’m just sayin’.

ROLL TIDE