2013 Football, The Citadel: some thoughts, themes, and theories before the season begins

Hey, last season ended well!

Looking back on the spring game

What teams will The Citadel’s opponents play before facing the Bulldogs?

If you know some people with a lot of money, tell them The Citadel wants to endow the head football coach position

There is always great anticipation at The Citadel when football season rolls around, but this year it is amplified by the belief that the Bulldogs could be a very good team, one capable of contending for the Southern Conference championship. The Citadel has not won a league title (or seriously challenged for one) since 1992, which arguably adds to the interest.

There are plenty of SoCon previews online; I’ll link to most (if not all) of them when I write about the season opener against Charleston Southern. What follows isn’t really intended to be a standard preview. Instead, I’m going to concentrate on a few specific elements of the Bulldogs’ play, primarily from a statistical perspective.

First, though, I want to point out that this could be a season of what-ifs rather than the big-win campaign that is the hope for Bulldog supporters. As always when it comes to the gridiron, the margin for error at The Citadel is small. To illustrate this, think of the task the team faces this year from what might be called the most negative point of view:

– The Citadel will play four opponents that are either FBS or transitioning to FBS (and thus will have more scholarship players). Three of those games will be on the road.

– The Citadel will play two other opponents that defeated the Bulldogs last season by a combined score of 66-17. Both of those teams return most of their key players.

– One opponent hasn’t lost to the Bulldogs during Kevin Higgins’ tenure as head coach of The Citadel, while another has beaten The Citadel four times in the last five meetings.

– Of the remaining four opponents, last season The Citadel trailed one of them midway through the third quarter; was in a one-point game late in the third quarter to another; barely held off a late rally from a third; and was tied at halftime with the fourth.

That is why most prognosticators, including the SoCon media and coaches, believe The Citadel will finish fourth in the league (or sixth, if like the SoCon office the organization ranking the teams made the mistake of including ineligibles Appalachian State and Georgia Southern). Personally, I think the Bulldogs have the potential to be better than that, but improvement from last season’s solid effort must be significant in order to achieve major goals, such as making the FCS playoffs and winning the league.

Before the first game of last season, I wrote the following:

 It appears The Citadel does plan to throw the ball a bit more often this season. If the idea is to average 10-12 pass attempts per game (the Bulldogs averaged a shade under 7 attempts [in 2011]), then I think The Citadel needs to average around 8.0-8.5 yards per pass attempt at a minimum (preferably it should be above 9 yards per attempt). [In 2011] that number was 4.7 ypa, an awful average.

As for interceptions, I am inclined to think the goal should be no more than one per 25 attempts, though that number could fluctuate based on overall total offense production and the number of possessions per game. [In 2011] the Bulldogs threw seven interceptions in only 75 passing attempts, which is very poor.

The Citadel, in fact, averaged 10.6 pass attempts per game in 2012, about what was expected. The Bulldogs averaged 7.7 yards per attempt, which wasn’t great but did keep defenses relatively honest.

Bulldog quarterbacks threw 117 passes, of which five were intercepted, or one every 23.4 attempts. I think that was an acceptable result. There were also four touchdown tosses, which was certainly better than 2011 (when only one touchdown pass was thrown by The Citadel all season).

The efficiency of the passing game must continue to improve. As part of that progression, the Bulldog coaching staff appears to be adding to the team’s repertoire of offensive formations:

The Bulldogs showed off an ever-evolving offense, showing I-formation and shotgun sets in addition to the bread-and-butter triple option formation. The Bulldogs could lineup with one back and four receivers on one play and the TO the next.

This seems promising, but I think that it’s important the offense doesn’t lose its identity as a run/run/run-some-more type of operation. With that in mind, I wanted to take a look at run/pass playcalling from the 2012 campaign.

I went back and compiled statistics from the eight SoCon games the Bulldogs played. Some of the numbers are interesting. Keep in mind, this is for league contests only.

First, some definitions:

– 2nd-and-short: 3 yards or less for a first down
– 2nd-and-medium: 4 to 6 yards for a first down
– 2nd-and-long: 7+ yards for a first down
– 3rd-and-short: 2 yards or less for a first down
– 3rd-and-medium: 3 to 4 yards for a first down
– 3rd-and-long: 5+ yards for a first down

On first down, The Citadel rushed 85.5% of the time. The Bulldogs ran the ball in other down-and-distance situations as follows (by percentage):

– 2nd-and-short: 86.7%
– 2nd-and-medium: 93.6%
– 2nd-and-long: 80.9%
– 3rd-and-short: 100%
– 3rd-and-medium: 86.3%
– 3rd-and-long: 49.1%

Of course, some running plays were originally pass plays that turned into running plays, and a few were run/pass options. Occasionally a would-be pass play on 3rd-and-long turned into something like this: Link

Taken as a whole, though, I think these numbers give an accurate view of how the coaches called plays in particular situations. In general, I like what the statistics show.

I have a minor quibble with the run/pass ratio on 2nd-and-medium, but it’s not a big deal. There were 47 2nd-and-medium plays in SoCon action; the Bulldogs ran the ball on 44 of them. Maybe there could have been 2 or 3 more pass plays in that group, but again, that’s very minor.

The one area of playcalling I do wonder about, however, is on 3rd-and-short. The Citadel ran the ball in all 21 of those situations in league play. I don’t think it would be a bad idea to throw the ball once or twice per season on 3rd-and-short, partly to try for a big play, and also to “loosen up” opposing defenses.

Ideally a 3rd-and-short pass play would come around midfield or so, because then the Bulldogs might have the chance to go for it on fourth down even if the pass were to be incomplete. That brings me to my next topic…

One of the things that interests me most about football is game theory, including when to go for it on fourth down. I decided to take a look at how Kevin Higgins approached things last season.

I didn’t include fourth down “desperation” situations (like those on the game-winning drive against Georgia Southern) or “accidental” fourth down tries (like the botched punt snap/catch against Chattanooga). I also tossed out a couple of “garbage time” fourth down plays (i.e. punting while up 31 points on Appalachian State in the fourth quarter). Again, all statistics are from SoCon games only.

Terms (as defined by Football Outsiders):

– Deep Zone: from a team’s own goal line to its 20-yard line
– Back Zone: from a team’s own 21-yard line to its 39-yard line
– Mid Zone: from a team’s own 40-yard line to its opponent’s 40-yard line
– Front Zone: from an opponent’s 39-yard line to the opponent’s 21-yard line
– Red Zone: from an opponent’s 20-yard line to the opponent’s goal line

– On fourth down and two yards or less to go: The Citadel went for it all four times it was in the Front Zone or the Red Zone. The Bulldogs punted all three times they were in the Mid Zone.

– On fourth down and three to five yards to go: the Bulldogs attempted four field goals in the Front and Red Zones, and went for a first down once (in the Front Zone). The Citadel punted all four times it was in the Mid Zone.

– On fourth down and six or more yards to go: The Citadel attempted two field goals in the Red Zone, two field goals in the Front Zone, and went for a first down twice in the Front Zone. The Bulldogs punted all five times they were in the Mid Zone.

It’s a relief to know that the Bulldogs did not punt on fourth down from inside the opponent’s 40-yard line. However, it is mildly surprising to see the conservatism in the Mid Zone.

It’s one thing to punt on fourth-and-10 from your own 40-yard line, as The Citadel did against Chattanooga. However, it may have been in the Bulldogs’ best interests to go for it on 4th-and-1 on their own 43 (versus Georgia Southern), or on 4th-and-2 at midfield (against Furman).

I did not track complete totals for Deep Zone/Back Zone fourth-down decisions, most of which (obviously) resulted in punts. It is worth noting, however, that The Citadel actually went for it on fourth down no fewer than five times in the Back Zone last season versus SoCon opposition in non-desperation situations.

Four of those plays were 4th-and-1 (or shorter). One was on 4th-and-4 from the 30; that was Cass Couey’s run off a fake punt against Furman.

On all five of those Back Zone fourth down conversion attempts, The Citadel was successful.

Occasionally going for it on fourth down in the Mid Zone section of the field might be worthwhile. For one thing, it may open up playcalling, as it changes third-down options if there is a chance the Bulldogs would attempt (if necessary) a fourth-down conversion.

I also believe that going for it more often on fourth down is an appropriate strategy for a run-heavy triple option team, due to the fewer number of possessions in a game. All you have to do is look at the 2007 season, the Bulldogs’ last winning campaign prior to the switch to the triple option.

In 2007, The Citadel averaged 5.9 yards per play, much like the 2012 squad (which averaged 6.0 yards per play). However, there are fewer plays in a game when one of the teams runs the ball 83% of the time, as the 2012 Bulldogs did. Despite the similar yards per play numbers, the 2007 Bulldogs ran 117 more plays over the course of the season than did their 2012 counterparts.

In 2012, the Bulldogs averaged 11.9 possessions per game, while the 2007 team averaged 13.3 possessions per contest. That’s a significant difference, and something to consider when deciding whether or not to maintain possession by going for it on fourth down.

One of the primary areas of concern for The Citadel this season, at least to me, is punting. The aforementioned Cass Couey was an outstanding performer, and will be hard to replace.

In eight SoCon games last year, only three times did an opponent even return a punt, for a total of 25 yards (24 of those on one punt return in the Samford game). Couey boomed four punts of 50+ yards in league play (averaging 42.8 yards per punt in those contests), and had eleven punts downed inside the 20-yard line in conference action (versus only two touchbacks).

However, finding Couey’s successor is far from the only thing that needs to be done when it comes to The Citadel’s punt units. One of the things that becomes apparent when going through the game summaries is that while the punt cover unit outperformed its expectations in terms of field position, the Bulldogs’ punt return unit did not.

If you go by raw yardage totals, including returns/touchbacks/penalties/etc., the Bulldogs came out ahead in the punting battle by a little over one yard per punt. That doesn’t take into account field position at the time of the punt.

By my reckoning (and I could be wrong), using field position point expectancy tables, The Citadel’s edge (combining both units) had a total value of less than half a point. That’s not per game — that’s over all eight SoCon contests.

Note: that doesn’t count two plays. One was that punt snap/catch snafu against Chattanooga, which cost the Bulldogs an expected 50 yards in field position on the ensuing Mocs drive. The other was the blocked punt/TD in the Appalachian State game.

Between those two plays The Citadel came out ahead by about 3 points in terms of average expected points per drive start. In actuality, it wound up being 7 points, since Carson Smith did pick up that blocked punt and run into the end zone for a touchdown, while the Mocs eventually missed a long field goal after getting the ball at the Bulldog 28-yard line.

Also, I used points expectancy numbers based on FBS data; it is possible the correlation to FCS games isn’t exact.

At any rate, I think it is clear that The Citadel must do a better job of creating better field position via its punt return game. In 2011, the Bulldogs blocked nine punts during the season, including one in four consecutive SoCon games. There wasn’t a major concern about the return aspect because, well, those blocked punts essentially were the returns.

If The Citadel won’t be able to rely on the punt block threat as much in the future (rule changes may have had an effect there), then it is important to pick up yardage after receiving the punt. Perhaps the insertion of Ben Dupree as a punt returner will help, though I worry about putting the starting quarterback at risk for injury (or rather, putting him at additional risk for injury).

As the Bulldogs began preseason practice, run defense was on the mind of the head coach:

The Citadel’s defense was good to average in most categories last year, ranking fifth in the SoCon in total defense and scoring defense, and second in pass defense. But the Bulldogs struggled to stop the run, ranking seventh while allowing 221.7 rushing yards per game.

During a string of four losses in five games, the run D was gashed for an average of 273 yards per game.

Those games coincided with injuries to linebackers Carl Robinson and Rah Muhammad, both of whom begin this season healthy. The emergence of sophomore linebacker James Riley also should help.

“We’re going to be more fundamental in what we do,” [Kevin] Higgins said, “and just make it a huge emphasis.”

The Citadel also allowed a considerable number of rushing yards in the two games that preceded the five-game stretch referenced by Jeff Hartsell. Beginning with the second half of the game against Wofford, the Bulldogs seemed to turn the corner on stopping the run, though they showed a bit of frailty in the season finale against Furman.

The depletion of the linebacking corps due to injury was almost certainly the reason The Citadel struggled to stop the run. That’s why the loss of Carson Smith for the season is doubly frustrating.

If the Bulldogs can make strides in their run-stuffing, that should also help in red zone defense situations. Last season, The Citadel allowed a TD rate of 70.2% in the red zone, slightly higher than the TD rate for the Bulldog offense inside the 20 (69.4%).

The other emphasis on defense is in creating turnovers. If stopping the run can force opponents to the air against The Citadel in less-than-optimal situations, perhaps the Bulldogs can finally have a year in which they intercept a lot of passes.

The Citadel had five interceptions in SoCon play in 2012, which almost matched the total number of picks for the Bulldogs in the previous two league campaigns combined (6). Despite that, The Citadel finished tied for next-to-last in overall interceptions among Southern Conference teams.

The simplest way for the Bulldogs to intercept more passes is to successfully defend a higher percentage of throws. In 2012, The Citadel was credited with 24 passes defended in SoCon games. The five picks that resulted from those passes defended meant the Bulldogs had an interception rate of 20.8% on passes defended, right at the national average (21.9%).

The Bulldogs either broke up or intercepted a pass on 12.4% of its opponents’ throws in league action. For comparison, the FBS leader in passes defended per game, Ohio State, broke up/intercepted 19.2% of its opponents’ passes.

Incidentally, The Citadel’s conference opponents had a similar interception per pass defended rate (21.4%) against the Bulldogs.

One thing I hope Kevin Higgins did during the off-season was evaluate the clock management at the end of games. Twice last year (against Western Carolina and VMI), The Citadel’s offense ran multiple plays at the end of a game when a series of kneeldowns would have ended the contest.

By repeatedly running the ball (including a pitch play in the WCU contest), the Bulldogs risked being on the wrong end of a “Miracle at the Meadowlands” situation. For the 2013 season, I would like for there to be a de facto “time management coach” who can assist Higgins in this aspect of the game.

I remember that Bill Parcells did this when he was the head coach of the New York Giants. He had an assistant, Ray Handley, specifically tasked to help with end-of-half/game clock strategy. Handley later replaced Parcells as head coach of the Giants, proving conclusively that understanding clock management does not guarantee someone will be successful as a head coach.

For anyone interested (or still reading)…for this season, I think the blog posts will work something like this:

I’ll usually post a game preview on Thursday night/Friday morning, then an occasional game review on Sunday or Monday. Not every week will include a game review. Most of them will be relatively short anyway; I’ll probably include gameday pictures with those posts, and then go into more depth about the just-played contest as part of my preview of the following game.

I’ll still be posting an FBS/FCS TV schedule on either Tuesday night or Wednesday morning. Anything else I post will depend in large part on my personal schedule, which will be somewhat challenging at times. There are at least three weeks during the season that will be problematic. I’ll figure out something, though.

I’m ready for some football.

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