Inside the numbers: The Citadel’s 2015 run/pass tendencies, per-play averages, 4th-down decision-making…and more!

A few other football-related posts from recent weeks:

Updating history: Attendance at Johnson Hagood Stadium, 1964-2015

What teams will the Bulldogs’ opponents play before (and after) facing The Citadel?

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

Also, of course, there are the much-discussed TSA “watch lists” for the upcoming league campaign. See if your favorite SoCon football player (or coach) made one of the lists!

TSA watch lists for the SoCon — Offense
TSA watch lists for the SoCon — Defense
TSA watch lists for the SoCon — Special Teams
TSA watch list for the SoCon — Coach of the Year

For the past two years, I have written about tendencies in playcalling by the then-coach of the Bulldogs, Mike Houston (and his offensive coordinator, Brent Thompson, who of course is now The Citadel’s head coach). I compared what Houston had done while at Lenoir-Rhyne to Kevin Higgins’ last two seasons at The Citadel, along with Houston’s initial season at The Citadel in 2014.

Now I’m going to take a look at what Houston and Thompson did last year at The Citadel, and contrast some of those statistics with those from the 2014 season for the Bulldogs, along with the 2013 campaign under Higgins. I decided not to include 2013 Lenoir-Rhyne stats in my comparison this time, though if anyone wants to see those numbers, they are contained in my previous posts on the subject.

My focus is on down-and-distance run/pass tendencies, fourth-down decision-making, situational punting, and assorted other statistical comparisons. This year, I also took a look at the coin toss (?!), after spotting a trend late last season.

Almost all of the statistics that follow are based on conference play, and only conference play. It’s easier and fairer to compare numbers in that way. Ultimately, The Citadel’s on-field success or failure will be judged on how it does in the SoCon, not against the likes of North Greenville or North Carolina (though beating South Carolina in non-conference action is always a plus).

The conference slates looked like this:

  • The Citadel played seven games in 2015 against SoCon teams. The conference schools competing on the gridiron last year: Western Carolina, Wofford, Samford, Furman, Mercer, VMI, and Chattanooga.
  • The Bulldogs played seven games in 2014 versus SoCon opposition. The teams in the league last year were the same as the 2015 opponents: 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.

Oh, before I forget: this year, I put most of the numbers on a spreadsheet. It’s a bit involved (there are seven different sub-sheets), but if anyone wants to peruse the numbers, go for it. Individual game statistics in various categories are included.

I’m fairly confident in the accuracy of the statistics, though I will admit that averaging the time of possession numbers gave me a bad headache. I may be off by a second or two on the quarterly TOP averages. If so, it’s too bad — no refunds are available.

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 2015. Next to that, in parenthesis, is the run percentage for The Citadel in 2014, and that will be followed by the Bulldogs’ 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): 89.1% (88.9%) [77.1%]

Thus, The Citadel ran the ball on first down 89.1% of the time last year, while the Bulldogs ran the ball in that situation 88.9% of the time in 2014 (basically, there was no difference). The Citadel ran the ball 77.1% of the time on first down during its 2013 campaign.

Overall, the Bulldogs ran the ball 86.5% of the time, after rushing on 84.3% of all offensive plays in 2014.

Here are the rest of the down-and-distance categories (in terms of rush percentage):

– 2nd-and-short: 89.2% (84.0%) [95.8%]
– 2nd-and-medium: 89.8% (90.2%) [87.8%]
– 2nd-and-long: 89.2% (82.2%) [75.0%]
– 3rd-and-short: 93.1% (95.5%) [85.7%]
– 3rd-and-medium: 82.4% (90.3%) [90.9%]
– 3rd-and-long: 66.0% (57.4%) [54.0%]

A caveat to these numbers is that there were a few called pass plays that turned into runs. However, if the result of a play was a sack, that counted as a passing down even if a pass wasn’t thrown. There were four such plays in conference action in 2015 for The Citadel.

When compiling NCAA statistics, lost yardage on sacks counts against rushing totals, which may strike the casual observer as counter-intuitive. The NFL, on the other hand, considers sack yardage as passing yardage lost.

I don’t think there is a lot to be surprised about in those numbers, not for anyone who has watched a Brent Thompson offense over the last few years. It is true that the Bulldogs’ passing percentage on 3rd-and-medium is slightly higher than one might expect, but we’re only talking about three pass attempts on seventeen such down/distance situations; subtract one pass attempt, and the average would have been almost exactly the same as it was the previous two seasons.

There were three games in which the Bulldogs threw the ball a bit more often than normal on third-and-long: Wofford, Furman, and Chattanooga.

The Citadel was 4 for 6 passing versus Wofford on 3rd-and-long for 41 yards, including a 24-yard completion. At Furman, the Bulldogs were 1 for 2 (and also suffered a sack).

However, the one completion on third-and-long against the Paladins was a big one, a 50-yard pass from Dominique Allen to Reggie Williams that set up a TD. It was probably the biggest play of the game.

In the game versus Chattanooga, The Citadel was 2-3 for 20 yards (and a sack) on third-and-long. Trailing throughout the contest undoubtedly had an effect on the play-calling.

Prior to the 2015 season, I wrote:

[In 2014], 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.

Well, The Citadel attempted four passes on 2nd-and-short in 2015, too. The results? An interception, a 36-yard gainer that led to a touchdown, a 24-yard TD strike, and a 22-yard completion.

Not bad. The pick came in the red zone, though. I guess you can’t have everything.

– The Citadel’s offense in 2013 in SoCon action: 69.6 plays per game, 12.0 possessions per game
– The Citadel’s offense in 2014 in SoCon action: 75.4 plays per game, 11.0 possessions per game*
– The Citadel’s offense in 2015 in SoCon action: 70.7 plays per game, 11.9 possessions per game**

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

**I don’t count a drive as an actual possession when it consists solely of a defensive TD via a return, or when it is a defensive turnover that ends the half or game (or both, like Tevin Floyd’s pick-six against VMI). I also don’t count a drive as a possession when the offensive team does not attempt to move the ball forward (such as a kneel-down situation). That’s how I interpret the statistic, regardless of how it may be listed in a game summary.

The Citadel had a time of possession edge in SoCon play of almost four and a half minutes (32:13 – 27:47). That was actually slightly less of a TOP edge than the Bulldogs had in 2014 (32:40 – 27:20).

The offense generally took control of the ball, however, as games progressed. Average time of possession for The Citadel, by period: 6:59 (1st quarter), 7:47 (2nd), 8:31 (3rd), 8:56 (4th).

– 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
– 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
– The Citadel’s offense in 2015 in SoCon games: 6.09 yards per play, including 5.57 yards per rush and 9.7 (!) yards per pass attempt

The Bulldogs’ offense improved in all three per-play categories listed above for a second consecutive season. Last year, I suggested a benchmark:

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).

Mission accomplished, especially those yards per pass attempt. The Citadel threw 63 passes in seven SoCon games, and gained 609 total yards passing. Three of those tosses were intercepted, which is not a terrible ratio.

How did the yards per play numbers for the defense shake out? Quite nicely, thank you very much:

– 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
– 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
– The Citadel’s defense in 2015 in SoCon action: 5.07 yards per play, including 3.69 yards per rush and 6.7 yards per pass attempt

That will work. After a less-than-stellar 2014 campaign, the defense improved markedly last year. Check out that yards per rush allowed stat — exactly two yards less per play from one year to the next. The defense against the pass was excellent, too.

In 2014, The Citadel allowed more than seven yards per rush in four of seven league contests. In 2015, the Bulldogs allowed fewer than three yards per rush in four of seven conference games. It helped that The Citadel averaged 4.3 tackles for loss (not including sacks) per game in SoCon action.

– The Citadel’s defense in 2013 in SoCon action: 12 sacks, 26 passes defensed in 204 attempts (12.7% PD)
– The Citadel’s defense in 2014 in SoCon action: 8 sacks, 14 passes defensed in 176 pass attempts (8.0% PD)
– The Citadel’s defense in 2015 in SoCon action: 20 sacks, 33 passes defensed in 212 pass attempts (15.6% PD)

Passes defensed is a statistic that combines pass breakups with interceptions.

After a trying season in 2014, everything worked well for the defense in 2015. I don’t think it is too surprising that the PD numbers improved with an increase in sacks, and the Bulldogs were harassing opposing quarterbacks even when they weren’t sacking them (increasing their “hurries” totals in league play from eleven to seventeen).

Big plays! Big plays! Big plays! Big plays! Big plays!

In seven conference games in 2014, The Citadel’s defense allowed 47 plays from scrimmage of 20 yards or more — 21 rushes and 26 pass plays. In 2015, that number dropped to 23, nine rushes and fourteen pass plays.

That’s a huge improvement, obviously. It isn’t exactly a shock that big plays lead to points, either directly or later in the drive. Preventing those long gainers is a key to keeping teams off the scoreboard.

For example, of those 23 big plays allowed by the Bulldogs, 14 led to touchdowns (either on the play itself, or later on the same drive). That’s 60.1% of the time.

That percentage is actually lower than what SoCon opponents allowed against The Citadel’s offense on big plays, however. In league action, the Bulldogs had 30 plays of 20 yards or more on offense last year (19 on the ground, 11 in the air). Twenty of those thirty plays led directly or indirectly to touchdowns (66.7%).

– The Citadel’s offensive 3rd-down conversion rate in SoCon action, 2014: 46.3%
– The Citadel’s offensive 3rd-down conversion rate in SoCon action, 2015: 50.0%

– The Citadel’s defensive 3rd-down conversion rate in SoCon action, 2014: 41.5%
– The Citadel’s defensive 3rd-down conversion rate in SoCon action, 2015: 33.7%

In all games last season, the Bulldogs had an offensive 3rd-down conversion rate of 49.4% (second-best to Chattanooga among SoCon squads), and a defensive 3rd-down conversion rate of 36.5% (which was the best mark among league teams).

The Citadel was 3 for 8 on 4th down in conference play (37.5%). In this case, the percentage may not be as significant a story as are the total attempts. In 2014, the Bulldogs had twenty 4th-down tries in SoCon games, converting twelve (60%).

League opponents were 8 for 13 (61.5%) on 4th down against the Bulldogs last year. It’s definitely a small sample size, but it wouldn’t hurt the defense to knock that percentage down a bit in 2016.

First known football usage of “red zone” in print, per Merriam-Webster: 1983.

First known claim that the red zone does not in fact exist: 2013.

– The Citadel’s offensive Red Zone touchdown rate in SoCon action, 2013: 60.0%
– The Citadel’s offensive Red Zone touchdown rate in SoCon action, 2014: 66.7%
– The Citadel’s offensive Red Zone touchdown rate in SoCon action, 2015: 56.3%

– The Citadel’s defensive Red Zone touchdown rate in SoCon action, 2013: 66.7%
– The Citadel’s defensive Red Zone touchdown rate in SoCon action, 2014: 60.0%
– The Citadel’s defensive Red Zone touchdown rate in SoCon action, 2015: 52.2%

The Bulldogs’ offensive Red Zone TD rate would have been better if you didn’t include the VMI game, in which The Citadel somehow managed to go 0 for 5 in scoring touchdowns once inside the 20-yard line. That was a disappointing performance, though on the bright side Eric Goins got to pad his stats.

I always like to take a brief look at fumbles. There really isn’t much to say about them as far as last year was concerned, other than the defense recovering seven of eight opponent fumbles was against the odds. Usually, recovering fumbles is a 50-50 proposition.

– The Citadel’s offensive fumbles in SoCon action, 2014: 10 (lost 6)
– The Citadel’s offensive fumbles in SoCon action, 2015: 12 (lost 8)

– The Citadel’s defensive forced fumbles in SoCon action, 2014: 14 (recovered 7)
– The Citadel’s defensive forced fumbles in SoCon action, 2015: 8 (recovered 7)

When it comes to the SoCon, there are two things on which you can rely with absolute certitude: 1) The Citadel’s gridiron opponents won’t get called for many penalties, and 2) no one associated with The Citadel will ever make the league’s Hall of Fame.

– Penalties enforced against The Citadel in SoCon action, 2014: 37
– Penalties enforced against The Citadel in SoCon action, 2015: 42

– Penalties enforced against The Citadel’s opponents in SoCon action, 2014: 22
– Penalties enforced against The Citadel’s opponents in SoCon action, 2015: 29

– Punts by The Citadel while in opposing territory in 2013, SoCon action: 6 (in eight games)
– Punts by The Citadel while in opposing territory in 2014, SoCon action: 6 (in seven games)
– Punts by The Citadel while in opposing territory in 2015, SoCon action: 6 (in seven games)

In the spreadsheet I linked earlier (and located on sub-sheet 6), I described the scenarios for each of the punts by the Bulldogs in opposing territory during the 2015 season. Of the six, the most questionable was almost certainly the first of two such punts in the Mercer game.

Trailing 10-0, and facing 4th-and-1 on Mercer’s 40-yard line early in the second quarter, Mike Houston elected to punt. I’m still not sure it was the right decision, but it worked out. Mercer punted the ball back on the next drive, and The Citadel would eventually regroup and take a halftime lead it barely deserved (well, Isiaha Smith deserved it, at least).

There were also three punts by the Bulldogs on 4th down from midfield in conference play. Two of them were inconsequential, but the third (and last) was a different story. After going for a 4th-and-short on The Citadel’s 40-yard line (and making it), Houston was faced with another decision three plays later.

On 4th and 2 from midfield, trailing 24-14 early in the 4th quarter, he elected to punt. Chattanooga scored on the ensuing possession, essentially wrapping up the victory for the Mocs.

I think the coach probably should have gone for it in that situation, but I’m just a guy with a computer. I do wish the Bulldogs hadn’t burned a timeout before punting, though.

Let’s talk about 4th down…

Defining some terms (courtesy of 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 sub-sheet 7 of the aforementioned spreadsheet, I’ve categorized each fourth down situation for The Citadel in conference play.

The Bulldogs punted on 4th down every time they were in the Deep Zone or Back Zone. In the Mid Zone, The Citadel punted ten times on 4th down, and went for it three times.

Two of the three were late in the UTC game, so they were “desperation” attempts. I tend not to focus on those types of fourth down attempts (or “garbage time” tries, either). The other 4th-down attempt in the Mid Zone, however, was early in the second quarter against Samford:

  • With 14:12 remaining in the half and the game tied 7-7, The Citadel faced fourth-and-1 on the Samford 40. Mike Houston elected to go for it, and Dominique Allen kept the ball for a 13-yard gain. The Bulldogs eventually scored on the drive, taking a lead they would not relinquish.

In the Front Zone, there were two punts on 4th down (both somewhat justifiable decisions), and four field goal attempts (two were made, two were missed). Three times, Houston kept the offense on the field on 4th down in this zone. One was a “desperation” attempt. The other two occasions were as follows:

  • On The Citadel’s first drive of the game against Western Carolina, the Bulldogs faced 4th-and-2 on the WCU 22-yard line. It didn’t work out for The Citadel, as Vinny Miller was tackled for a loss of four yards.
  • Midway through the fourth quarter versus Mercer, The Citadel went for it on 4th-and-2 from the Mercer 30-yard line, clinging to a 14-13 lead. Cam Jackson gained seven yards to pick up a first down. Three plays later, the Bulldogs scored a TD.

In the Red Zone, The Citadel faced 4th down eight times. Here is a quick review of all eight situations:

  • Ahead 36-12 midway through the 4th quarter against Wofford, the Bulldogs reached the Terriers’ 6-yard line. On 4th and goal, Eric Goins made a 23-yard field goal. (This is close to a “garbage time” decision, admittedly.)
  • On 4th-and-6 at the Mercer 19-yard line, leading 14-10, The Citadel lined up for a field goal. The snap was botched, and the result of the play was an incomplete pass.
  • Early in the second quarter, with a 4th-and-goal at the VMI 16 (the Bulldogs were pushed back by a holding penalty), Eric Goins converted a 33-yard field goal.
  • With a 17-7 lead midway through the second quarter, The Citadel faced fourth-and-goal at the VMI 2-yard line. The Bulldogs went for it, but only gained one yard, turning the ball over on downs.
  • Midway through the third quarter, now leading 20-14, the Bulldogs again had the ball deep in VMI territory. They were unable to punch it in for a TD, though, and on 4th-and-goal from the Keydets’ 3 yard-line, Eric Goins trotted back on to the field to kick another field goal (of 20 yards).
  • On the Bulldogs’ next possession, ahead 23-14, they drove the ball inside the VMI 10-yard line for the umpteenth time, yet still could not get in the end zone. This time, on 4th-and-1 from the VMI 6, Goins made a 23-yarder.
  • Early in the second quarter, trailing 14-0, The Citadel faced 4th-and-2 from the Chattanooga 5-yard line. The Bulldogs went for it, but only picked up one yard.
  • Late in the game versus UTC, with a 4th-and-goal on the Mocs’ 10-yard line, Mike Houston elected to try a field goal. Eric Goins converted the try, bringing the Bulldogs to within two touchdowns (at 31-17).

I was a little surprised when I realized that the Bulldogs did not convert a Red Zone 4th down situation into a touchdown in league play all of last season. Of course, part of that has to do with the lack of opportunities. If you’re scoring touchdowns on 1st or 2nd or 3rd down, then what you do or don’t do on 4th down doesn’t matter as much.

Incidentally, in 2014 The Citadel had five Red Zone 4th down situations in conference action. On only one of those occasions did the Bulldogs convert a 4th down into a first down. That was a big one, though (and a big call to make), as it came in overtime against Furman and led to the eventual game-winning TD.

I am inclined to believe that Mike Houston was slightly more conservative (just slightly) in his 4th-down decision-making in 2015 than he had been the previous season, primarily because he could afford to be. His team was often in the lead, or within a score of being in the lead.

Houston also knew that he had a good, clutch placekicker, and a solid “directional” punter capable of consolidating field position.

Will Vanvick must have shaken his head when great punts in the Samford game went unrewarded (after having the ball downed at the 1- and 2-yard lines, Samford scored touchdowns on the ensuing drives anyway). He’ll always have the punt against South Carolina to remember, though.

Earlier in this post, I wrote that I had spotted a trend involving the coin toss. To be honest, I don’t know if I really spotted it, or if I just read or heard about it somewhere. I have a vague idea that the subject of the coin toss came up during the weekly coach’s radio show hosted by Mike Legg. It could have been a note in a Jeff Hartsell story, too. Alas, I don’t remember.

At any rate, I wanted to elaborate on the decision-making surrounding the coin toss. I’m not talking about whether or not to call “heads” or “tails”, but rather the idea of deferring the option to the second half after winning a coin toss.

Last year, The Citadel won the coin toss five times (four in SoCon play). Each time, the Bulldogs elected to defer, and wound up kicking off to open the game.

The military college also kicked off three times after losing the coin toss, as three of The Citadel’s opponents (Mercer, South Carolina, and Coastal Carolina) elected to receive the opening kickoff.

The Bulldogs did not automatically defer the option in 2014 when they won the toss, actually electing to receive the opening kickoff three out of the five times they won the flip that season. Therefore, it appears the deferral concept was instituted between the 2014 and 2015 seasons.

I don’t know if Bill Belichick was the inspiration for deferring the option whenever possible, but there are worse guys to emulate when it comes to on-field strategy. As a story in The New York Times pointed out:

Two recent New England games illustrate the advantages of deferring. On Nov. 2, on a cold and windy afternoon, the Patriots won the toss against the Broncos. The Patriots deferred and got the ball to start the second half. When the Broncos elected to receive to begin the game, the Patriots then chose the end that would guarantee the wind would be at their back in the first and fourth quarters. The Patriots won, 43-21.

Sunday against the Lions, the Patriots again deferred. New England scored 10 points in the final three minutes of the second quarter. The Patriots then got the kickoff to open the third quarter and drove deep into Detroit territory before Brady threw an interception.

In the same article, Herm Edwards noted that if “the possessions go about as you think they’re going to go, then maybe you end up with the ball at the end of the game. At the very least, you have the ball to start the second half. And that’s a critical time of the game.”

That piece was written in late November of 2014, just after the Bulldogs’ season had ended that year. I suppose it’s possible that Mike Houston read the story and altered his approach. The timing could also have been coincidental, of course.

Absent other factors, I think deferring the option is usually the right decision. It gives a team the chance to score to end the first half, and then put more points on the board in the second half before the other team gets the ball. It also prevents the opponent from having that same opportunity.

By the way, The Citadel lost six of seven coin tosses last season on the road. As a general rule, one of the visiting team’s captains calls the toss. The Bulldogs obviously need to work on their “heads” or “tails” coin-toss calling technique.

 —

Whether or not Brent Thompson will stay the course when it comes to deferring the option is an unknown at this point. He will be in a position to put his personal stamp on that, along with such matters as fourth-down decision-making. Those are just two of the many items of interest for the new gridiron boss.

I suspect that things like run/pass tendencies will not radically change, mainly because Thompson himself called the plays the past two years. If there is an adjustment in that area (for example, if The Citadel passes more often), it won’t be due to a change in philosophy, but will instead simply be a function of his personnel, both in terms of talent and experience.

Summer is crawling along, but the season is getting closer…

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