Gridiron Countdown: The Citadel’s 2014 run/pass tendencies, per-play averages, 4th-down decision-making, and more

Also in the “Gridiron Countdown” series:

Preseason ratings, featuring The Citadel (and the rest of the SoCon)

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

The Citadel competes to win games — and fans

Link of interest:

Jeff Hartsell of The Post and Courier writes about The Citadel’s quarterback/slotback situation

Last year, I wrote about tendencies in playcalling by the then-new coach of the Bulldogs, Mike Houston (and his offensive coordinator, Brent Thompson), and compared what Houston had done while at Lenoir-Rhyne the year before to Kevin Higgins’ last two seasons at The Citadel. This post will be similar.

This time, I’m comparing what Houston and company did last year at The Citadel with the 2013 season for the Bulldogs, as well as the aforementioned 2013 Lenoir-Rhyne campaign. My focus, as it was last year, is on down-and-distance run/pass tendencies, fourth down decision-making, and assorted other statistical comparisons.

Most of the statistics that follow are based on conference play, and only conference play. That’s where the gridiron success or failure of The Citadel will be judged, not on games against Florida State or Charlotte.

The conference slates looked like this:

  • The Bulldogs played seven games in 2014 versus SoCon opposition. The teams in the league last year: Wofford, Western Carolina, Chattanooga, Mercer, Furman, Samford, and VMI.
  • The Citadel played eight games in 2013 against SoCon foes. As a reminder, those opponents were: Wofford, Western Carolina, Furman, Appalachian State, Georgia Southern, Chattanooga, Samford, and Elon.
  • Lenoir-Rhyne is a member of D-II’s South Atlantic Conference. In 2013, the Bears played seven league games in 2013 versus the following schools: Wingate, Tusculum, Brevard, Newberry, Mars Hill, Carson-Newman, and Catawba.

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

The first number that will follow each down-and-distance category will be the percentage of time The Citadel ran the ball in that situation in 2014. Next to that, in parenthesis, is the run percentage for The Citadel in 2013, and that will be followed by Lenoir-Rhyne’s run percentage for that situation in 2013 (which will be in brackets).

For example, when it came to running the ball on first down, the numbers looked like this:

– 1st-and-10 (or goal to go): 88.9% (77.1%) [92.1%]

Thus, The Citadel ran the ball on first down 88.9% of the time last year, while the Bulldogs ran the ball in that situation 77.1% of the time in 2013. Lenoir-Rhyne ran the ball 92.1% of the time on first down during its 2013 campaign.

Lenoir-Rhyne went undefeated in SAC play in 2013 and had substantial leads in the second half in most of its league games, which probably explains the slightly higher percentage of first down run plays (as compared to last year’s team at The Citadel, which was coached by the same staff). I don’t think the fairly sizable difference between the Bulldogs’ 2013 and 2014 squads in this category is an accident.

Overall, The Citadel passed the ball on 15.7% of its plays last season in league action. As a comparison, Lenoir-Rhyne threw the ball only 10.8% of the time in 2013 SAC play.

Here are the rest of the down-and-distance categories:

– 2nd-and-short: 84.0% (95.8%) [90.0%]
– 2nd-and-medium: 90.2% (87.8%) [87.7%]
– 2nd-and-long: 82.2% (75.0%) [84.1%]
– 3rd-and-short: 95.5% (85.7%) [95.8%]
– 3rd-and-medium: 90.3% (90.9%) [93.1%]
– 3rd-and-long: 57.4% (54.0%) [71.1%]

A caveat to these numbers is that there were a few called pass plays that turned into runs.

There were also six would-be pass attempts in conference play that resulted in sacks. However, those six plays are considered pass attempts in terms of playcalling, even though the yardage lost in sacks is subtracted from a team’s rushing totals (this is how the NCAA does it; in the NFL, sacks go against a team’s passing yardage).

I think the bracketed percentages (from Lenoir-Rhyne’s 2013 season) probably come close to Brent Thompson’s ideal in terms of how often he wants to run the football in those down-and-distance situations. Other than 3rd-and-long, The Citadel’s playcalling last year was very similar to what the Bears did that season. Again, that reflects the difference between a team that was usually in the lead versus a team that wasn’t always so fortunate.

In 2013 conference play, Lenoir-Rhyne only attempted one pass in a 3rd-and-short situation. It fell incomplete. In 2014 league action, The Citadel only attempted one pass in a 3rd-and-short situation; however, that came on the final play of the game against Samford, and shouldn’t really count as a standard down-and-distance playcalling situation.

That 2013 Lenoir-Rhyne squad attempted three passes on 2nd-and-short. Two of them were incomplete; the third try resulted in a sack.

Last year, The Citadel attempted four passes on 2nd-and-short. The first three of them fell incomplete.

In the season finale at VMI, however, the Bulldogs did complete a 2nd-and-short toss, a Miller connection (Aaron to Vinny) that went for 26 yards and set up a field goal to close out the first half of that contest. Upstairs in the Foster Stadium press box, Brent Thompson undoubtedly heaved a sigh of relief after calling his first successful 2nd/3rd-and-short pass play in league action in almost two years.

On a serious note, The Citadel has to convert at a higher rate when it passes the ball in 2nd- and 3rd-and-short situations. The offense must take advantage of having the element of surprise in its favor.

– The Citadel’s offense in 2013 in SoCon action: 69.6 plays per game, 12.0 possessions per game
– Lenoir-Rhyne’s offense in 2013 in SAC play: 73.0 plays per game, 12.1 possessions per game
– The Citadel’s offense in 2014 in SoCon action: 75.4 plays per game, 11.0 possessions per game*

*This does not include the Bulldogs’ overtime possession against Furman

As I mentioned last year, there is occasionally a misconception that under Mike Houston, Lenoir-Rhyne ran a “hurry up” offense. In truth it ran a “no huddle” offense. Indeed, it is hard to imagine too many “hurry up” offenses that only possess the football for eleven drives per game, as The Citadel did last season.

In 2014, The Citadel had a time of possession edge over its league opponents that exceeded five minutes (32:40 – 27:20). Holding on to the football is generally good for offensive production, to be sure, but it also is greatly beneficial for the Bulldogs’ defense. Keeping the other team’s offense off the field is often the best defense.

Incidentally, in 2013 Lenoir-Rhyne had an edge in time of possession versus its SAC opponents of over seven minutes (33:38 – 26:22).

– The Citadel’s offense in 2013 in SoCon action: 5.41 yards per play, including 5.13 yards per rush and 6.4 yards per pass attempt
– Lenoir-Rhyne’s offense in 2013 in SAC play: 6.09 yards per play, including 5.81 yards per rush and 8.5 yards per pass attempt
– The Citadel’s offense in 2014 in SoCon games: 5.56 yards per play, including 5.35 yards per rush and 6.8 yards per pass attempt

Last year, the Bulldogs’ offense improved in all three per-play categories listed above. I think the goal going forward might be for yards per rush to exceed 5.75, and for yards per pass attempt to exceed 8.0 (or at least 7.5). I don’t know what the coaching staff thinks about that, of course (or if they think about it at all).

Now let’s look at yards per play numbers for the defense:

– The Citadel’s defense in 2013 in SoCon action: 5.47 yards per play, including 4.39 yards per rush and 7.2 yards per pass attempt
– Lenoir-Rhyne’s defense in 2013 in SAC play: 4.25 yards per play, including 2.37 yards per rush and 6.2 yards per pass attempt
– The Citadel’s defense in 2014 in SoCon action: 7.02 yards per play, including 5.69 yards per rush and 9.1 yards per pass attempt

Uh, yikes.

This wasn’t a situation where a one-game outlier affected the average, either. The Citadel allowed more than seven yards per play in four of seven league contests. Not coincidentally, it allowed more than nine yards per pass attempt in four of seven league games as well.

The yards per rush statistics wouldn’t be so bad if the totals for the game against Western Carolina weren’t included, but that’s like asking Mary Todd Lincoln if the rest of the play was decent.

Did the Bulldogs consistently put pressure on the quarterback last year? Well, not exactly.

– The Citadel’s defense in 2013 in SoCon action: 12 sacks, 26 passes defensed in 204 attempts (12.7% PD)
– Lenoir-Rhyne’s defense in 2013 in SAC play: 32 sacks, 31 passes defensed in 212 pass attempts (14.6% PD)
– The Citadel’s defense in 2014 in SoCon action: 8 sacks, 14 passes defensed in 176 pass attempts (8.0% PD)

Passes defensed is a statistic that combines pass breakups with interceptions. Averaging only two passes defensed per game isn’t good, especially when opponents are throwing the ball 25 times per contest.

Hard and fast statistics in passes defensed are not easy to find at the FCS level, so I don’t know for certain how The Citadel stacked up on a national basis. Cross-division comparisons aren’t perfect, but I think it’s worth mentioning that Idaho finished last in all of FBS in 2014 in passes defensed per game, with an average of…two.

That isn’t all about the secondary, either. It is very hard to defend the pass when the quarterback has plenty of time to throw the ball (in addition to a measly eight sacks in league play, the Bulldogs only had eleven “hurries” in those seven games).

In seven conference games, The Citadel’s defense allowed 47 plays from scrimmage of 20 yards or more — 21 rushes and 26 pass plays.

Western Carolina had seven of those rushes. VMI’s Al Cobb personally accounted for eight 20+ yard plays from scrimmage against the Bulldogs (seven passes and a run).

Yes, there is a great deal of room for improvement on defense.

During the 2014 campaign, The Citadel’s offensive 3rd-down conversion rate in SoCon action was 46.3%, about in line with its conversion rate for all games (47.8%, best in the league). The Bulldogs’ offensive 4th-down conversion rate was 60% (12 for 20).

On defense, The Citadel held conference opponents to a 3rd-down conversion rate of 41.5%, which is a little better than it did when including all games (45.3%). However, the Bulldogs were not as good stopping opponents on third down as the upper-echelon SoCon squads were. Counting all games and not just league contests, both Chattanooga and Samford held their opponents below 33% for the season.

In 2015, The Citadel’s defense has to do a better job of “getting off the field” on third down. It also would help to pick up a few more stops on 4th down. League opponents converted 52.9% of 4th-down attempts against the Bulldogs.

Fourth-down stops were an issue against Samford (which converted on 4th down during both of its final two possessions, with each drive resulting in a touchdown) and Wofford (which went 4 for 4 on 4th down). Of course, the key to the game against the Terriers was a successful fourth-down conversion by The Citadel that was ignored by the on-field officials.

The red zone isn’t a misbegotten region of communist influence, but instead is a reference to the area of a football field inside the 20-yard line.

In SoCon play, The Citadel’s offensive TD rate in the red zone last year was 67% (18 TDs in 27 trips inside the 20). That was an improvement over 2013 (60% TD rate). Lenoir-Rhyne’s rate in 2013 was 73%.

League opponents successfully converted red zone appearances into touchdowns 60% of the time against the Bulldogs’ defense (15 TDs in 25 trips). Last season, that number was 67%. Mike Houston’s 2013 Lenoir-Rhyne squad only allowed opponents to score TDs in the red zone 46% of the time.

A quick look at fumbles:

In 2014 league play, The Citadel’s opponents fumbled fourteen times, with the Bulldogs recovering seven of them. On offense, The Citadel fumbled ten times, losing six of those.

There wasn’t any real “fumble luck” either way for the Bulldogs last season. When the ball hits the ground, each team usually has a 50-50 shot at getting it.

While there were a few ill-timed fumbles last season, I think it could be argued that The Citadel in general did a better job of not fumbling than might be expected for a triple option team. Aaron Miller has to get a lot of credit for that.

The Citadel was called for 37 penalties in seven league contests last season, an average of 5.3 per game. That is actually a little less than the number of infractions assessed against Lenoir-Rhyne in 2013 (6.1 per league matchup).

However, it was more than fans at Johnson Hagood Stadium had seen in recent years. The program had led FCS in fewest penalties per game for three consecutive seasons. Last year, The Citadel tied for 45th nationally in the category (counting all games, the Bulldogs were whistled for 5.9 penalties per contest).

– Punts by The Citadel while in opposing territory in 2013, SoCon action: 6 (in eight games)
– Punts by Lenoir-Rhyne while in opposing territory in 2013, SAC play: 3 (in seven games)
– Punts by The Citadel while in opposing territory in 2014, SoCon action: 6 (in seven games)

One of the six punts in opposing territory came in the season finale at VMI. Leading 45-25 early in the 4th quarter, the Bulldogs faced a 4th-and-7 on the VMI 33.

The Citadel wound up taking a delay-of-game penalty, moving the ball back to the VMI 38, and punted into the end zone for a touchback. Taking a delay penalty didn’t do anything in terms of taking time off the clock, because the previous play had been an incomplete pass.

Nevertheless, I see no particular reason to question a fairly conservative decision when up 3 scores in the 4th quarter. It’s too bad the net on the punt was only 18 yards (and in effect only 13 yards, taking into account the penalty).

Interestingly, the penalty-before-punt scenario was a part of four of the six punts The Citadel had in opposing territory.

Late in the first half against Western Carolina and holding an 8-7 lead, The Citadel lined up to go for it on 4th-and-2 at the Catamounts’ 39-yard line. The Bulldogs were called for a false start penalty, and wound up punting rather than going for it on 4th-and-7 from the WCU 44.

With less than six minutes remaining in the contest and the Bulldogs trailing 21-15, The Citadel again lined up to go for it in WCU territory. This time it was 4th-and-3 from the Catamounts’ 37-yard line — and once again, the Bulldogs were foiled by a false start penalty. On 4th-and-8 from the WCU 42, The Citadel punted.

Early in the fourth quarter against Furman, the Bulldogs faced a 4th-and-4 on the Paladins’ 43-yard line. The ensuing punt was a touchback.

Three plays later, Furman scored on a 65-yard pass play to take a 35-28 lead (though the Bulldogs would ultimately win the game in overtime).

Against Samford, The Citadel moved the ball to the SU 33 with just under a minute remaining in the first half, but wound up in a 4th-and-10 situation. Like the VMI game, the clock was stopped after an incomplete pass.

The Bulldogs wound up taking a delay-of-game penalty and punted into the end zone. Samford ran out the clock to end the half (with The Citadel trailing 7-0 at the break).

The Citadel’s opening offensive possession of the third quarter in that game resulted in another punt after crossing the 50. This time, the ball was on the Samford 47, and it was 4th-and-7.

None of the decisions to punt were egregious. The issue, of course, is that The Citadel had a limited number of possessions in any given game (as noted earlier, an average of 11). It’s critical to cash in when there are opportunities on a short field.

I don’t know if Mike Houston regrets any of these six decisions. If he didn’t, I could easily understand.

The most questionable of them was arguably the second punt in opposing territory against Western Carolina. Down six points in a game in which The Citadel would likely only get one more possession (and facing an offense that had moved the ball up and down the field all day against the Bulldogs’ defense), going for it may have been worth the gamble, even after the penalty.

Speaking of whether or not to go for it on 4th down, here is a summary of what The Citadel did in those situations in 2014 when the Bulldogs were inside the opponent’s 40-yard line (and also mentioning when the Bulldogs went for it in other areas of the field).

Not included in these numbers: 4th-down “desperation” or “garbage time” situations, and “accidental” fourth down tries. Last season, there were no “accidental” attempts (dropped punts, that type of thing).

I determined there were four “desperation” 4th-down tries, and one “garbage time” attempt. For the record, these five plays were:

– Down 34-7 to Chattanooga very late in the 3rd quarter, The Citadel went for it on 4th-and-3 from its own 49
– Down 29-15 to Western Carolina late in the 4th quarter, The Citadel went for it on 4th-and-6 from the WCU 19
– Down 17-13 to Wofford late in the 4th quarter, The Citadel went for it on 4th-and-4 from the Wofford 31
– Down 17-13 to Wofford very late in the 4th quarter, The Citadel went for it on 4th-and-3 from the Wofford 3
– Down 13-10 to Samford late in the 4th quarter, The Citadel went for it on 4th-and-3 from the Samford 38

Okay, now for some 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

In league play, The Citadel was faced with 4th-and-short in the Red Zone twice. The Bulldogs attempted a field goal (which was missed) late in the game at VMI. The other time the 4th-and-short situation came up was in overtime against Furman, and Aaron Miller ran for a first down inside the 2-yard line (he would score two plays later).

The only two times the Bulldogs had a 4th-and-medium situation in SoCon play in the Red Zone, Eric Goins successfully converted field goals (both against Wofford). I should mention that the decision to kick one of those field goals was influenced by the fact that only 19 seconds remained in the first half of the game.

Goins also kicked a field goal on the one occasion in which The Citadel faced a 4th-and-long in the Red Zone (versus Samford).

On 4th-and-short in the Front Zone, the Bulldogs went for it three times (not counting one of the two false start/punt situations that were discussed in the previous section of this post). The Citadel ran the ball all three times, and picked up the first down twice.

On 4th-and-medium in the Front Zone, The Citadel went for it twice (again, not including one of the false start/punt situations against Western Carolina).

One of those 4th-and-medium tries was a failed rushing attempt at Mercer. The other play, however, was a 32-yard TD pass from Aaron Miller to Alex Glover against VMI.

On 4th-and-long in the Front Zone, the Bulldogs did not have a lot of luck, missing all four field goal attempts in that situation, and also failing on a rushing attempt and a pass play.

The Citadel went for it six times on 4th-and-short in the Mid Zone, and made five of them (all six attempts were rushing plays). There was also a converted first down in this situation that was the result of the defense jumping offsides (that was against Furman).

Incidentally, one of the six attempts could have been considered a “desperation” situation. That came slightly more than midway through the fourth quarter against Samford. Later in the same drive, the Bulldogs were faced with another 4th-down call, and I did consider that one a “desperation” play. Your mileage may vary.

In reviewing all 4th-and-short situations for The Citadel’s offense in league play, it appears there was only one 4th-and-short situation in the Mid Zone in which Mike Houston did not go for the first down. That happened on the Bulldogs’ opening drive of the game against Chattanooga. On 4th-and-2 from its own 49, The Citadel punted.

I think this illustrates Houston’s philosophy on 4th-down decision-making fairly well. In 4th-and-short situations in the Red, Front, and Mid zones, The Citadel lined up to go for it twelve out of fourteen times in SoCon action. The two exceptions were a late, relatively meaningless field goal attempt and an early-game punt from near midfield.

Basically, once the Bulldogs got past their own 40-yard line, they were a threat (if not outright expected) to go for it on every 4th-and-short situation.

I like that. I like that a lot.

As you can probably guess, I’m ready for the season to start. Who isn’t?

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