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Graphing the Tide vs. Cincinnati (CFP 2021 Semifinal): They ran, and ran

Well, we finally got our #RTDB

Playoff Semifinal at the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic - Cincinnati v Alabama Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

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Top Rushers

I’m gonna cut straight to the chase: after a relative “down month,” it was an absolute blast seeing redshirt senior Brian Robinson Jr. — aka “B-Rob” — tear up this defense and rack up some stats on New Year’s Eve. Yes, there’s important context here: it was a question of matchups and game-planning, with the Bearcats defense “giving up the run” to protect against the Jameson Williams and the long pass. Regardless, B-Rob showed up big after exhibiting his patience yet again after gutting through a hamstring injury late in the season. His 77% SR in this game is excellent, and those 5 explosive runs (for another excellent 19% rushing XR) were the most he’s recorded in a game in Crimson. Roll B-Rob.

But Trey Sanders showed up to play, too! The same game-planning context stands — and the O-Line deserves credit for putting together a solid game — but Sanders quietly put together a solid 57% SR, including an explosive rush, on 14 attempts. That is also his highest attempt count and, as far as I can tell, his best success rate in a game to boot.

From the other sideline, Tide transfer Jerome Ford actually put together a respectable and surprisingly efficient game, with 67% SR on 15 attempts. QB Desmond Ridder did a nice job keeping a few drives alive with scrambles, too. More on Cincinnati’s rushing efficiency later.

Team Success Rates over time (cumulative)

For the game overall, the efficiencies aren’t terribly surprising: Alabama’s offense held 10+ point advantages in both SR (55% to 44%) and XR (15% to 5%) over the Bearcats’ unit. Cincinnati put up enough of a fight in the first quarter to keep things interesting and somewhat tense, but the gaps (both for the scoreboard and these efficiency metrics) widened in the 2nd half and stayed that way.

That said, this chart is kind to Cincinnati when talking about Success Rate: for something labeled as a “blowout” (or near that), Cincinnati stayed decently close and ended up with an above-league-average 44% SR for the game. Sure, this was no SEC Championship game, where the Tide’s “blowout” looks a lot more like a close game when you look at play-by-play results. But I’d posit that both of Alabama’s last two opponents were at least slightly “closer” than the final scoreboard admits.

In the Bearcat’s case, the real gap was that explosiveness number: their 5% XR (rate of “explosive plays gaining 15+ yards” is the lowest I can remember seeing, even in cupcake games! The Tide’s 15% XR is respectable—especially given that it was carried by the run game—but relative to the other team (triple the rate!) it was likely the number that primarily influenced that scoreboard gap.

Success and Explosiveness by Play Type

Wow! Neither of these teams wanted to let the other one pass, but these Rushing numbers are popping. Cincinnati’s 70% is profound and surprising, but with the caveat that they really were not rushing very much: only 20 attempts on the game (vs. the Tide’s 45 rushes). Despite the apparent efficiencies of both rush offenses, that real gap is, again, in explosiveness ... especially in the run game (0% rushing XR for the Bearcats). I’d easily take the Tide’s line here over Cincinnati’s. Good thing I root for the Crimson team!

Passing was muted on the day, perhaps unsurprisingly, with both teams delivering below-NCAA-average success rates. The explosiveness was low as well, with Heisman winner Bryce Young only putting up a 13% passing XR. Let’s just say that it’s pretty unusual having your Rush XR outperform your Passing XR!

Good thing we weren’t the other guys, though: Desmond Ridder and co. put up a pretty terrible 29% Passing SR to pair with their single-digits passing explosiveness rate. Kudos to the banged-up Tide defense (and, yes, some Bearcat drops and derps) for making that trend stick.

Rushing and Passing Success (cumulative)

Drawing these out over the course of the game, it just makes the Tide rushing performance even more pronounced. Coach O’Brien did some fan service by opening the game with ten rushes in a row, with only a single one being unsuccessful. Now that is some #RTDB attitude! We strayed a bit from there, sprinkling in some (largely unsuccessful) passes just to ... keep things interesting? But we righted the ship again in the 2nd quarter, with a 6-of-7 rushing performance (86% rushing SR) in that frame.

Flipping over to the Cincinnati chart is oddly similar in theme and look — especially given the scoreboard gap we all witnessed in this one. But it’s all about the frequency: Cincinnati’s rushing SR was propped up throughout the game, but the attempts were so seldom as to be considered a “change of pace” (and that’s including some largely successful, but surely unplanned, scrambles by Ridder). Cincinnati had a few nice streaks of rushing success in their own right, but were generally not turning those into successful scoring outcomes.

That Bearcat passing line, though? Ouch! That first drive started nicely for Cincinnati, including two explosive catches to pair with three successful passes to open the game, but every other pass attempt in that half was unsuccessful. In the second quarter, Desmond Ridder threw fourteen unsuccessful passes in a row! That is a thing of beauty to see from a 2021 Tide defense that has not had a consistent reputation for pass defense.

Rushing rate (cumulative)

What a week to finally be on the other end of this chart! Practically all season we’ve been watching our opponents out-rush (or at least out-attempt) the Tide in this chart. We’ve been leaning on Bryce Young and our receivers to pick up the slack and define the offense.

But maybe things have changed. Maybe it was just this game. But B-Rob and co. enjoyed 50%+ Rushing Rates throughout the game, settling in at ~60% cumulatively for the game.

On the Cincinnati side, they seemed to think that Passing was the answer, especially when they had some catch-up to do. Despite their profound rushing efficiencies, they didn’t get past a 40% Rushing Rate after the first drive. This looks a lot more like what Alabama has been doing in 2021 up until this game.

Success and Explosiveness by Quarter

The quarters chart is plagued by a similar effect that we see in Cincinnati’s high Rushing Rates: the samples are a bit low to tell a very robust story. That said, the larger trends speak for themselves: the Tide won out on SR in 3-of-4 quarters, and won easily (or tied) on XR in every quarter. Despite a slight performance slip from the offense, Alabama’s defense absolutely constricted in the 2nd quarter, creating a gap that the Bearcats would never come back from.

That 3rd quarter was disappointing, but not ultimately important: it mostly represents a single Bearcats drive coming out of the locker room that ended in another field goal. More on that in the Drives (!) chart in a moment.

Play Map: Yards and Result by Play

The Play Map is much “spottier” than I’ve seen in recent games: each team had these blips of success where everything was working for a handful or two of plays. This was especially (obviously?) so for Alabama’s offense, which put together strong series of plays in every quarter except for the 3rd (which still had two explosive plays).

The Extra Yards Average line shows an interesting contrast to the last game vs. Georgia, in that we didn’t have many long plays to lift that average. Sure, we can be happy that the Extra Yards Avg. stayed positive throughout (most of) the game, but this was a story of efficiency much more than explosiveness. I suppose you could chalk part of that up to Cincinnati’s “don’t get blown out (too much)” defensive strategy and personnel.

On the Bearcats side of the chart, you get a preview of the Drives chart: it really was just a few strong drives throughout the game — plus some essentially garbage-time efforts — that have the Bearcats looking respectable coming out of this one. Their Extra Yards average bumped up after a few explosive passes early, but then lulled well into negative territory for the remainder of the game.

SR, XR, and Play Count by Drive

Hey, a new chart! I was inspired by some of the work that RBR’er MCurve7 has been putting together after each game this season. In it, MC7 breaks out all kinds of things, but my favorite is the Drives chart: I think it breaks down efficiencies (and explosiveness) in a way that’s both familiar (drives) and insightful to tell how a game went. So I made my own, if in less detail than the source material (long story, I’ll get there eventually): but we’ve got the Success Rate (SR) and Explosiveness Rate (XR) by drive, accompanied by the number of plays in the drive.

And this game is another example of how insightful it is! See the Tide’s chart here, and how many drives were north of a 50% SR, and/or had more than a handful of plays in them. This was an efficient game from the offense across several quarters, not just a flash in the pan.

Speaking of flashes and pans: Cincinnati’s chart (press the button below the chart) is a case in point of that kind of game. We’ve been looking at the Bearcats’ “averages” this entire time, but really they had about 3 and a half “good drives” in this game to accompany six pretty terrible ones. Their first drive was pretty great — kind of scary, if you had asked me then during it — and then they came out of halftime with a similar excellent (probably scripted?) drive. After a few more 3-and-outs, they had some good, if essentially garbage time, drives that still ended in 4th down failures.

Given the occasional excellence that their offense had against the Tide, I can’t help but attribute it to some solid coaching: Cincinnati’s first drive in each half was great (and ended in scores, if only field goals), and they took scheme advantages late to put together some respectable drives. Fortunately for us, coach Pete Golding and co. apparently made adjustments quickly and always brought things back into 3-and-out territory.

Pete seems like an increasingly popular guy around here!

Success and Explosiveness by Down

In a lot of ways, this game played out very differently than what we’ve seen from the 2021 Tide offense so far. We’ve already discussed the Rush Rate and RTDB, but efficiencies by Down is another (perhaps related) departure. Bryce Young and co. have been surviving all year on strong 3rd down rates — per much discussion in this here column — by converting often-long 3rd downs with successful passes. It’s been successful, but also stressful.

In this game, we saw a much more “traditional efficiency” approach, with strong early downs followed by a below-average efficiency on 3rd downs. I suppose part of that was on the running game — getting 4-to-9 yards on every early down rush is a good way to boost those early downs efficiencies — but the 3rd down lull also speaks to the relative weakness of Alabama’s passing effort in this one. Fortunately, we made up for a few of those 3rd down lapses with 4th down conversions for a 100% 4th down SR (probably another feather in the cap for a rushing game that could get us into 4th-and-short).

Another silver lining was that 3rd down explosiveness rate, which has been solid all year and made up for some of the lacking efficiency otherwise.

Success and Explosiveness in the Red Zone

Once again with a large point differential, the Red Zone rears its ugly head. The Tide was more efficient (and explosive) than the Bearcats anyway, but they vastly outperformed them in the Red Zone. That stuff adds up quickly on the scoreboard.

I actually had to check to see if this Cincinnati line was for “zero attempts” or “a 0% Success Rate,” and it’s the latter. They had 5 attempts in the Red Zone, and they all went poorly (the last one ending in a sack). Those were the two long drives — 1st quarter and 3rd quarter — that they put together coming out of the locker room each half.

Success and Explosiveness by Distance to go

You know, for a game that had so many storylines about “the line of scrimmage,” the Bearcats mostly kept up with the Tide on short yardage situations! It hasn’t been a huge trend, but this year’s Tide front seven hasn’t exactly been snuffing out the opposition in short yardage.

Otherwise, Alabama took the other 3 categories. That *7-9 yards category — the weird “tweener” one that hints at unsuccessful previous plays — was an especially dominant one for Alabama: the Tide had a 50% SR on 8 attempts from that range, while the Bearcats went 0-for-4.

*Yep, just realized I’ve had a typo in this chart for weeks: it’s actually 7-9 yards, not 6-9. It makes sense that it’s relatively difficult to achieve successful plays in these situations. The data all still stands.

Top Passers

It’s rare to get down to this Passers chart and not have ample room to sing Bryce Young’s praises. He has been the dominant factor in our offensive success this year, but this game-plan (and maybe his own performance woes, to some extent) wasn’t kind to his stat line. His 39.2% SR is just below league average, and that 1 interception was a rough one (though fortunately not a back-breaker).

You didn’t notice it because B-Rob and the rushing game were so good, but this statline is actually worse than Bryce’s Iron Bowl performance (!), which is a hilarious exercise in “context is important.” Part of that context is that the oft-discussed Desmond Ridder had a really similar game, with one fewer INT but several more incomplete passes.

Alright Bryce, the next opponent probably isn’t going to sell out to stop the pass, so can we get back into Georgia mode (or, even better, Arkansas mode) for that one, please? Thank you in advance.

Top Receivers

The receivers chart looks vaguely familiar, except for, um, a few key things:

  • No more John Metchie III doing a sneaky domination of this chart. Instead, this young fella named Ja’Corey Brooks made a respectable amount of noise in his first start, including an explosive catch.
  • Jameson Williams is the leader, but with about half of the usual targets, and without his recent trend of “explosive near perfection.”
  • No B-Rob out of the backfield (though Trey Sanders did get a target)
  • Slade Bolden continues to be very much not horrible (and got a TD grab early!).
  • There aren’t as many Tide receivers as we like to see in this one.
  • Finally, there are a bunch of Cincinnati players in this chart!!?! (Just kidding: I combined the player charts now, instead of dividing by team, to simplify things and give additional game context).

So, that one’s in the bag. I’ve got to admit, I didn’t know which version of the 2021 Tide would appear in this one — we’ve seen a few flavors by now — and I was (often pleasantly) surprised at the version we did. It was a different approach, but a relief that we didn’t see history unfold with the first G5 victory in the playoffs.

Now we’re on to one more, even if the colors are already familiar to us. Rest up, Roll Tide, and Happy New Year.