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Graphing the Tide vs. Washington (Peach Bowl, CFP semifinal)

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Not one, but TWO strong defenses showed up to play in the Georgia Dome on Saturday

Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl - Washington v Alabama Photo by Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images

Roll Tide and Happy New Year to all! Alabama put away a more-than-capable Washington team on Saturday to earn a spot in the national title game for the second year in a row. The defense showed up big, allowing for only seven points and below-average efficiencies, but the Huskies’ have a good defense, too... one that actually turned in a similar performance versus the Tide offense. While the scoreboard showed a 3-score difference by the end of the 4th, the metrics tell of a much closer (even lockstep, at times) ball game.

Metric definitions

A "successful" play, as defined by Football Outsiders, is basically when a play gains enough yardage to keep the offense on track, i.e., 50% of needed yardage on 1st down, 70% on 2nd, or 100% on 3rd/4th. A "big play" (aka an "explosive play") is any play that gains ≥15 yards (run OR pass).

Success rates, big play rates

Big play rate (XR) and Success rate (SR)

* NCAA average SR = 40%

Not seeing a chart here?

Overall: That 33% overall Success Rate (SR) is the lowest that the Tide offense has turned in all season. Yep, we technically eked out a 34% SR against LSU; so from this efficiency perspective, the Washington defense played Alabama tougher than anyone else this season (scoreboard be damned).

Fortunately, the Husky offense was held to an even lower 29% overall SR and only a few big plays. This narrow efficiency advantage, when combined with a field position advantage and a few huge plays (thanks, Bo) was enough to give the Tide a comfortable margin of victory.

Progression: After trading dud first possessions, both offenses started out surprisingly well. Washington’s second drive was successful play after successful play (mostly passes), that ended in a perfect touchdown throw to Dante Pettis. Alabama followed with a huge drive of its own, with 6 successful plays in a row (for 7 of 9 in the drive, nearly all runs). For about a quarter, it looked like we were going to blow past that 54-point over-under.

Things clamped down quickly, though, on both offenses. After an already-sharp dropoff in efficiencies during the 2nd quarter, the defenses came out of halftime even stronger. In the 3rd quarter, the Tide defense put up one of its best quarters of the year by holding Washington to a 9% SR; however, Kiffin and co. also turned in their 4th-worst quarter of the year (behind 1Q Florida, 1Q USC, and 2Q Western Kentucky), with an 18% SR. Per the traditional box score, no points were scored in the 3rd quarter.

Interestingly, the efficiency trends for these teams seem to mirror each other (aside from the Alabama SRs being a few points higher overall). Maybe this is partially a sign of good (or at least evenly-matched) in-game coaching and adjustments. Or maybe both offenses used up their good bowl-prep plays in the 1st quarter.

Explosiveness: Alabama’s explosive play rate (XR) this season has generally landed between 9-15%, so the performance vs. the Huskies was on the lower end, though not the season low: that was an 8% overall XR out of the LSU game.

Running and Passing, Alabama (#RTDB)

Not seeing a chart here?

Running: there’s been a lot of chatter from the gump faithful the past 24 hours... and, really, it’s the same chatter after any Alabama game: Lane Kiffin isn’t RUNNING that DERN BALL enough! Well, folks, Alabama did run the dern ball, to the tune of a 73% cumulative run rate (which peaked at 86% during the 2nd quarter). Here are the player-specific numbers:

Rusher Successful rushes Total rushes Success rate Big plays (15+)
Bo Scarbrough 9 19 47% 3
Jalen Hurts 6 16 38% 1
Damien Harris 3 9 33% 0
ArDarius Stewart 1 2 50% 0

This game certainly wasn’t a Derrick-Henry-46-carry special, but Bo Scarbrough alone ran the ball more times than Jalen passed it. Even outside of Bo, we were seeing 37% SRs for the run game, which isn’t bad (sacks are counted as passes here, but Hurt’s bad reads and other stuffs count as rushes). Despite popular opinion—and maybe some weirdness here and there in playcall timing—LFK was indeed running the ball.

That big Tide drive (and rebuttal) in the first quarter really built up the SRs for the rushing game, but things settled as Washington buckled down in the 2nd. The overall run rate never dipped below a solid majority, and it rose back through the 4th quarter in the usual way (Alabama running out clock late in the game). That 4th quarter focus on the run also saw diminishing efficiency returns, which also isn’t unusual given that the opponent knows to dial in on the run at that point in the game.

An obvious storyline is the big man Bo Scarbrough. While the nation finally really noticed him in Saturday’s game, he’s been creeping up in our rushing metrics for the last several games: he made some rare big plays against LSU, then tallied the most successful rushes of any Bama back against Auburn and Florida to finish the regular season.

Passing: Passing actually started out strong: a big 16-yarder to O.J. Howard (it’s the playoffs! Welcome back), then successful strikes to Ridley and Dieter had things looking pretty good at the beginning of the 2nd quarter.

That’s when the rest of the game happened, though: the next 10 passes in a row were all unsuccessful, with only one more 16-yarder to Howard coming up successful in the 4th quarter. That’s putrid... hence the high run rate (and the “yelling of the gumps”). There were only 14 non-sack passing attempts, but here are your receivers:

Receiver Targets Catches Catch rate Successful gains Success rate (from targets) Big plays (15+)
O.J. Howard 7 4 57% 2 29% 2
Gehrig Dieter 3 1 33% 1 33% 0
Calvin Ridley 2 1 50% 1 50% 0
ArDarius Stewart 1 0 00% 0 00% 0
Josh Jacobs 1 1 100% 0 00% 0

In an echo from last season, O.J. Howard has shown up again. Whether it was the game plan, a safety blanket for Hurts, or something in Washington’s coverage, O.J. was a sight for sore eyes in his handful of good receiving moments. It was needed during this bad passing game. Hopefully this particular trend will keep up and we’ll see more O.J. Howard in Tampa.

Running and Passing, Washington

Not seeing a chart here?

Washington was pass-first pretty much all night, but they maintained balance into the 4th quarter by continually sprinkling in runs. Rushing seemed like a fool’s errand, but interestingly, their rushing success rates were slightly above average for most of the first half, and they were more successful at running than passing for most of the game. Those successful rushes are mostly the short-yardage variety, where a 2-yard run can be considered successful; the Huskies only had 6 rushes all night (out of 24 total) that gained 5+ yards. Most were 0-2.

Similar to the efficiency curves for Alabama’s offense, Washington’s SRs for both running and passing fell though the second half. By the time the game was over, both were below league averages.

Parting thoughts

The efficiency numbers tell a scarier story than the scoreboard here... Alabama definitely leaned on its defense to gather some points. In some games this season, these metrics have uncovered hidden successes: e.g., Alabama’s solid performance throughout the game against Ole Miss despite the scoreboard, and the general outperformance of LSU in that close game in Baton Rogue.

This game was the opposite, though: the media is calling it a smothering, decisive victory, an inevitable defeat for the Huskies... but damn, Washington played only slightly less efficiently than Alabama throughout this game. This one was much closer than it looked, whether or not you believe that there were points left on the table.

Here’s to hoping that the offense can rebound with a big game in Tampa for the national title: we’ll likely need both units to fend off what appears to be a fully-functional Clemson Tigers team. Roll Tide and see you then.