Inside the Numbers, Part 2: The Citadel’s 2017 4th down decision-making, plus much more (Red Zone stats! 3rd down conversion info! Big plays! Coin tosses! Game length data!)

This is Part 2 of my annual “Inside the Numbers” post. This year, it is in two parts because, well, it got too cumbersome for just one post.

If you happened on this part of the writeup first, you may want to first go to Part 1 for the introduction. You can read Part 1 right here.

Referenced throughout this post will be The Spreadsheet.

Let’s start this part of the post with the Red Zone, which was a crimson-colored house of horrors for The Citadel last season:

  • The Citadel’s offensive Red Zone touchdown rate in SoCon action, 2015: 56.3%
  • The Citadel’s offensive Red Zone touchdown rate in SoCon action, 2016: 64.5%
  • The Citadel’s offensive Red Zone touchdown rate in SoCon action, 2017: 43.3%

In case anyone was wondering whether or not 43.3% was bad, the answer is yes, it was bad. Very bad. Last in the league, in fact (the Red Zone average TD rate in SoCon play was 61.7%).

The Bulldogs were throwing away points inside the 20. There was a three-game stretch (UTC, VMI, WCU) where The Citadel only scored touchdowns on 3 out of 13 trips to the Red Zone, which is abominable.

Also, while scoring rate isn’t as big a deal as TD rate in the Red Zone, the Bulldogs were last in the league in that category as well, and last by a huge margin. The Citadel only scored 50% of the time in the Red Zone (either field goals or TDs), which is simply miserable (the league average RZ scoring rate was 79.6%).

When all games are taken into account, The Citadel ranked only 90th (out of 123 FCS teams) in Red Zone TD rate, with the Bulldogs faring better in the statistic in out-of-conference play (leading to a 51.2% rate for all games).

I believe The Citadel should have a goal of converting at least 70% of its red zone opportunities into touchdowns, something that was done by fourteen FCS teams last season. I would have said 75% (in fact, that was the benchmark I suggested last year), but only five FCS teams accomplished that, so it may be a tough goal. Those five teams, incidentally, were Monmouth (which scored touchdowns on 80.9% of its Red Zone possessions), South Dakota State, Incarnate Word, Princeton, and North Dakota State.

Three of those five teams had good-to-great seasons. On the other hand, Incarnate Word was 1-10; the key to the Cardinals’ Red Zone stats wasn’t as much the TD rate, but the lack of total opportunities (24 in 11 games). Charleston Southern was sixth nationally in the category, but like UIW also struggled to drive inside the 20 (only doing so 26 times last season).

Sam Houston State and James Madison finished 1-2 in Red Zone opportunities (77 and 72, respectively). At the other end of the spectrum was VMI, which only had 13 chances inside the 20 in 11 games.

In general, Furman and Wofford fared the best in offensive Red Zone statistics among SoCon teams.

In 2016, Navy led all FBS teams in Red Zone TD rate. Last season, Army finished first in the category (at 82.4%). The Midshipmen slipped to 26th overall (at 68.6%). Air Force was 11th, Clemson 14th, and Georgia Tech 15th. Some teams that need to improve offensive Red Zone efficiency in 2018 include South Carolina (93rd), Georgia Southern (109th), and Kent State (last).

In terms of total Red Zone opportunities among FBS teams, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma ranked 1-2. UCF, Alabama, and Ohio State rounded out the top 5. South Carolina was tied for 116th, and UTEP was last (no place to go but up, Jim Senter).

  • The Citadel’s defensive Red Zone touchdown rate in SoCon action, 2015: 52.2%
  • The Citadel’s defensive Red Zone touchdown rate in SoCon action, 2016: 66.7%
  • The Citadel’s defensive Red Zone touchdown rate in SoCon action, 2017: 81.8%

Oof. The Bulldogs were the worst Red Zone defense in the league, and by a considerable margin. The one positive was that opposing teams didn’t get inside the 20 quite as often as the league average (about half a possession per game difference).

The best defensive team in conference play in the Red Zone was Western Carolina, though truthfully the league did not have a dominant team in this category.

Villanova topped FCS in defensive Red Zone TD rate (34.4%), with St. Francis University and South Carolina State tying for second. Towson was 35th and Charleston Southern 37th. The Citadel finished 117th.

Wisconsin led FBS in defensive Red Zone TD rate, allowing touchdowns just 31.4% of the time. Notables in the top 30: Troy (2nd), TCU (3rd), Virginia Tech (4th), Clemson (5th), Alabama (9th), Georgia (11th), South Carolina (26th). UTEP finished last.

Make no mistake, The Citadel’s difficulty in making positive plays in the Red Zone was a huge factor in the team’s overall struggles. In fact, I feel confident in saying that finishing drives (on both sides of the ball) was the #1 problem for the Bulldogs in 2017. That aspect of the game has to get significantly better this season if The Citadel wants to contend for a conference title.

  • The Citadel’s offensive 3rd-down conversion rate in SoCon play, 2015: 50.0%
  • The Citadel’s offensive 3rd-down conversion rate in SoCon play, 2016: 50.4%
  • The Citadel’s offensive 3rd-down conversion rate in SoCon play, 2017: 38.7%

For all games, The Citadel actually finished 24th in FCS in offensive third-down conversion rate (42.2%); the Bulldogs were 21 for 32 on third down attempts against Newberry and Presbyterian, upping the percentage, though a 4 for 17 performance versus Clemson had the opposite effect.

The league average in conference play was 38.8%, so the Bulldogs were fair-to-middling in the category. Obviously, you can’t be fair-to-middling in too many things (especially important things like 3rd down conversions) and still expect to compete for a championship.

Furman (51.4%) and Wofford led the SoCon. In all games, the Paladins had an offensive 3rd-down conversion rate of 48.6%, which ranked 4th nationally.

The top three in FCS were Princeton, Youngstown State, and Kennesaw State. Wofford was 8th, Towson 32nd, Western Carolina 33rd, Samford 41st, Mercer 55th, Presbyterian 59th, Charleston Southern 87th, ETSU 94th, Chattanooga 101st, South Carolina State 110th, VMI 118th, and Georgetown 123rd and last.

Army topped FBS in offensive third-down conversion rate, at 55.2%. Air Force was 3rd, Clemson 7th, Georgia Tech 13th, Navy and UCF tied for 15th, South Carolina was 85th, and Charlotte last (at just 26.0%).

  • The Citadel’s defensive 3rd-down conversion rate in SoCon action, 2015: 33.7%
  • The Citadel’s defensive 3rd-down conversion rate in SoCon action, 2016: 33.3%
  • The Citadel’s defensive 3rd-down conversion rate in SoCon action, 2017: 33.3%

That’s solid, and also extremely consistent. In conference play, Furman and The Citadel ranked 1-2 in this category.

The Bulldogs finished 42nd nationally in defensive 3rd-date conversion rate, with a number slightly higher (35.8%) than their league stats. McNeese State led FCS (with a very impressive 23.8%), followed by North Carolina Central and North Dakota State.

You’ll notice that NDSU, Jacksonville State (9th) and James Madison (10th) tend to rank at or near the top of many of these categories. There is a reason those teams won a lot of games.

A few others worth mentioning: Towson (17th), South Carolina State (22nd), Charleston Southern (68th), Florida A&M (last). New head coach Willie Simmons is going to have to whip the Rattlers’ D into shape; allowing a 53.4% 3rd-down conversion rate to opponents is not a recipe for success.

For the second consecutive season, Michigan led FBS in defensive 3rd-down conversion rate, at 26.1%, finishing just ahead of Virginia Tech in that category. Texas, Washington State, Wisconsin, and Clemson followed (in that order). Alabama was 30th, South Carolina 76th, and Oregon State was last (allowing third down conversions at a 53.2% clip).

  • The Citadel’s defense in 2015 in SoCon action: 20 sacks, 33 passes defensed in 212 pass attempts (15.6% PD)
  • The Citadel’s defense in 2016 in SoCon action: 21 sacks, 29 passes defensed in 211 pass attempts (13.7% PD)
  • The Citadel’s defense in 2017 in SoCon action: 13 sacks, 24 passes defensed in 205 pass attempts (11.7% PD)

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

The lack of sacks is noticeable, though it is also true that the Bulldogs increased their “hurries” totals in league play for a fourth consecutive season (garnering 26 last year). I’m a little leery of hurries as a statistic, though — it reminds me a little too much of trying to define errors in baseball, in the sense that one person’s idea of an error is not necessarily someone else’s.

The Citadel’s “havoc rate” was 19.4%. The definition of havoc rate: tackles for loss, forced fumbles, and passes defensed, all added together and then divided by total plays.

I am unaware of any site that compiles havoc rates at the FCS level, but Football Outsiders does track the statistic for FBS teams, so that can be a little bit of a measuring stick. A havoc rate of 19.4% would have been good enough to tie for 18th nationally in FBS.

To be honest, I was a little surprised The Citadel’s havoc rate would be that high, given the relatively modest totals that went into compiling the stat. Then I realized I was forgetting about the relatively low number of total plays and how that affected the numbers.

In terms of total tackles for loss, the Bulldogs were not ranked that high in FCS, tying for 50th nationally. However, The Citadel’s tackles for loss rate was 20th-best in the subdivision.

The top 5 “havoc rate” teams in FBS in 2017: Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio State, Alabama, and Clemson.

East Carolina finished last in havoc rate, which isn’t all that surprising. Next-to-last, though: Nebraska. Scott Frost needs to find some top-shelf Blackshirts in a hurry.

Since I mentioned tackles for loss rate, and I’ve already gone into “overkill” mode with the numbers, here are some rankings for tackles for loss rate in FCS. As mentioned previously, The Citadel was 20th (this is for all games, not just conference matchups).

Others: North Carolina A&T (1st), McNeese State (2nd), Yale (3rd), Jacksonville State (4th), Morgan State (5th), North Dakota State (12th), Charleston Southern (17th), South Carolina State (26th), Samford (38th), James Madison (44th), Presbyterian (120th), Dayton (123rd).

In this section, I’m going to discuss “big plays”. There are a lot of different definitions of what constitutes a big play. My methodology is simple; I define “big plays” as offensive plays from scrimmage resulting in gains of 20+ yards, regardless of whether or not they are rushing or passing plays.

  • The Citadel’s offensive plays from scrimmage resulting in gains of 20 or more yards, 2015: 30 (19 rushing, 11 passing)
  • The Citadel’s offensive plays from scrimmage resulting in gains of 20 or more yards, 2016: 26 (15 rushing, 11 passing)
  • The Citadel’s offensive plays from scrimmage resulting in gains of 20 or more yards, 2017: 36 (21 rushing, 15 passing)

In 2015, 20 of the 30 big plays by the Bulldogs’ offense in conference play either resulted in touchdowns or led to touchdowns on the same drive. In 2016, that was the case for 19 of the 26.

In 2017? Just 17 of 36. That reflects The Citadel’s struggles in the Red Zone.

There may be a perception out there that the Bulldogs were unable to break long gainers for TDs last season. All too often, it seemed like a Bulldog would break away for a 30- or 40-yard gain, only to be stopped around the 20-yard-line, and then the team couldn’t punch the ball in for six.

The problems in the Red Zone seemed to accentuate this issue. However, the truth is a little more complicated.

In 2017, The Citadel’s offense actually had just as many touchdowns from 40+ yards out in SoCon action as it did in 2016 — four. The difference? Last year, only one of those four long scores occurred when the game was still in doubt. All four long TDs in 2016 were consequential (as were the Bulldogs’ two defensive scores in league play that season).

  • Plays from scrimmage of 20 yards or more allowed by The Citadel’s defense, 2015: 23 (9 rushing, 14 passing)
  • Plays from scrimmage of 20 yards or more allowed by The Citadel’s defense, 2016: 28 (9 rushing, 19 passing)
  • Plays from scrimmage of 20 yards or more allowed by The Citadel’s defense, 2017: 32 (10 rushing, 22 passing)

In 2015, 14 of the 23 big plays allowed by the Bulldogs either resulted in TDs or led to them on the same drive. In 2017, 18 of 28 big plays given up led directly or indirectly to touchdowns.

Last year, 25 of the 32 big plays allowed resulted in immediate TDs or led to touchdowns on the drive they occurred. That is a higher percentage than was the case in the prior two years.

  • The Citadel’s offense on 4th down in league play in 2015: 3 for 8 (37.5%)
  • The Citadel’s offense on 4th down in league play in 2016: 8 for 16 (50.0%)
  • The Citadel’s offense on 4th down in league play in 2017: 8 for 19 (42.1%)

  • The Citadel’s defense on 4th down in league play in 2015: 8 for 13 converted against (61.5%)
  • The Citadel’s defense on 4th down in league play in 2016: 5 for 9 converted against (55.6%)
  • The Citadel’s defense on 4th down in league play in 2017: 3 for 7 converted against (42.9%)

The 4th-down conversion rate for SoCon teams in league play was 49.5%.

I need to note here that the official league totals for The Citadel in these categories (both offense and defense) are a little different than what I have listed above. That is because I don’t count certain 4th down plays.

Against ETSU, The Citadel was officially 0-for-2 on 4th down. Those two “attempts” were A) a botched punt snap recovered by the Buccaneers, and B) the final play of the game, when Dominique Allen ran backwards before going down, in a successful effort to run out the clock.

I didn’t count either of those plays as fourth down attempts in my stats package. I also don’t count a fumbled punt by VMI as a 4th down attempt by the Keydets.

Whoa, nellie! Fumble!!!

When evaluating fumble stats, keep in mind that teams generally have a 50-50 chance at the recovery. The only other observation worth making about fumbles is that fumbling is bad.

  • The Citadel’s offensive fumbles in SoCon action, 2015: 12 (lost 8)
  • The Citadel’s offensive fumbles in SoCon action, 2016: 12 (lost 5)
  • The Citadel’s offensive fumbles in SoCon action, 2017: 17 (lost 7)

  • The Citadel’s defensive forced fumbles in SoCon action, 2015: 8 (recovered 7)
  • The Citadel’s defensive forced fumbles in SoCon action, 2016: 13 (recovered 8)
  • The Citadel’s defensive forced fumbles in SoCon action, 2017: 9 (recovered 5)

On average, SoCon teams lost 5.78 fumbles in league play.

  • Penalties enforced against The Citadel in SoCon action, 2015: 42
  • Penalties enforced against The Citadel in SoCon action, 2016: 45
  • Penalties enforced against The Citadel in SoCon action, 2017: 43

For a third consecutive season, the number of penalties per game against the Bulldogs declined (there was one fewer conference game in 2015). The average total number of penalties per team in SoCon play was 44.

  • Penalties enforced against The Citadel’s opponents in SoCon action, 2015: 29
  • Penalties enforced against The Citadel’s opponents in SoCon action, 2016: 33
  • Penalties enforced against The Citadel’s opponents in SoCon action, 2017: 26

No team had fewer penalties enforced against its opponents than The Citadel in league play, and it wasn’t particularly close. This has been an ongoing tradition in the SoCon for many years, as long-time fans of the Bulldogs are all too well aware.

  • Punts by The Citadel while in opposing territory in 2015, SoCon action: 6 (in seven games)
  • Punts by The Citadel while in opposing territory in 2016, SoCon action: 1 (in eight games)
  • Punts by The Citadel while in opposing territory in 2017, SoCon action: 5 (in eight games)

I think a couple of these punts were debatable decisions. Some of them were understandable (the punt near the end of the first half against Mercer, for example).

It is possible Brent Thompson may have second-guessed himself for the punt late in the fourth quarter against Chattanooga, and also the punt in the first half versus Furman. Then again, the coach really doesn’t have time to second-guess himself. He has to make a call, and move on.

  • Punts by The Citadel’s opponents while in Bulldogs territory in 2016, SoCon action: 1 (in eight games)
  • Punts by The Citadel’s opponents while in Bulldogs territory in 2017, SoCon action: 5 (in eight games)

Three of the five punts in 2017 came in one game, as UTC coach Tom Arth was quite conservative, maybe overly so. The Citadel scored 10 points on two of the ensuing drives after the Mocs punted.

ETSU’s short-range punt didn’t work out for the Buccaneers, either, as the Bulldogs put together a 66-yard touchdown drive after getting the ball back.

4th down is just the downiest of all downs, isn’t it?

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 the spreadsheet I’ve categorized every fourth down situation The Citadel’s offense had in conference play (see the “4th down decisions” tab).

The Citadel punted all four times it had a fourth down in the Deep Zone. In the Back Zone, the Bulldogs punted 23 times (counting the “botched snap punt” in the ETSU game) and went for it in two late-game situations (against Wofford and Western Carolina).

In the Mid Zone, the Bulldogs punted 10 times and went for the first down six other occasions, successfully converting four times. I would characterize only one of those fourth down conversion attempts as something other than a “desperation” situation (that being the first of two attempts in the Mid Zone versus WCU).

In the Front Zone, The Citadel had two punts (both mentioned in the section above on punting), three field goal attempts (making one of those), and went for it five times. Only one of the five tries was successful, a 4th-and-1 play against Mercer in the second quarter.

Then there was the Red Zone, where all too often the Bulldogs wound up red-faced.

There were six missed (or blocked) field goal attempts, and two field goal tries that were made — but one of the made field goals came after the Bulldogs lined up to go for it on 4th down, then committed a false start.

The Citadel went for it on 4th down in the Red Zone five times, but only converted once, on the opening drive of the game against Wofford.

Over the last four seasons, The Citadel has had 32 4th-down situations in the Red Zone during SoCon regulation play. The Bulldogs have gone for the first down and/or touchdown on 4th down eight times, making it twice:

  • On the opening drive versus Wofford in 2017 (two-yard run for Brandon Rainey on 4th-and-1 from the Wofford 11-yard-line)
  • In the fourth quarter against VMI in 2016 (a 17-yard TD run by Jonathan Dorogy on 4th-and-3 from the VMI 17-yard-line)

(Note: there was a key go-for-it play that occurred in an overtime session during that four-year period, specifically the OT against Furman in 2014. In that situation, Aaron Miller picked up the first down on 4th-and-1 from the Furman 4-yard-line, and later scored what would prove to be the game-winning TD.)

For the second straight year, I’ve also tabulated what the Bulldogs’ league opponents did on 4th down versus The Citadel.

In the Deep Zone, conference opponents punted nine times on 4th down, but on one of those punts The Citadel committed a penalty that resulted in an automatic first down. There was also a late-game “desperation” attempt to go for it in the Deep Zone by VMI that was unsuccessful.

In the Back Zone, there were 19 punts and three fourth down tries. Wofford picked up a first down, ETSU failed to convert on its attempt, and VMI kept a drive alive after the Bulldogs jumped offsides on 4th down.

In the Mid Zone, The Citadel’s opposition punted all thirteen times a 4th down was faced. Well, there were actually 12 punts, as VMI bobbled a snap on one of its attempts to boot the ball away.

In the Front Zone, there were two punts (both by UTC, as detailed above) and four field goal attempts (two were made). Furman made both of its fourth-down attempts in the Front Zone, while VMI was 0-for-1.

There were two field goal attempts by The Citadel’s opponents in the Red Zone. Both were converted. The sole go-for-it situation faced by the Bulldogs’ D in the Red Zone came against Chattanooga, when the Mocs needed a TD late in the game. A pass attempt on 4th-and-10 was intercepted by Aron Spann III.

Three years ago, The Citadel began what appeared to be a policy of deferring the option to the second half every time it won the coin toss. The Bulldogs won the coin toss 4 times in SoCon play in 2015, and deferred on each occasion.

In 2016, The Citadel won the coin toss 6 times in 8 league games. In five of the six games in which the Bulldogs won the toss, they deferred, just as they had done in 2015. The exception was at Western Carolina, where The Citadel elected to receive after winning the toss.

That is the only time in the last three seasons of conference play in which the Bulldogs did not defer the option after winning the coin toss. In 2017, The Citadel was 5-3 in coin toss contests, and deferred all five times it won.

The “defer” gambit, which was undoubtedly influenced by Bill Belichick, has become a league-wide movement, with seven of the nine schools deferring on every occasion after winning the coin toss (at least in SoCon matchups). Bucking the trend are Western Carolina and VMI, both of which elected to receive every time after winning the coin toss (in conference action).

There is a tab on the spreadsheet that lists game-by-game attendance (home and away) and game length (in terms of time). Home games at Johnson Hagood Stadium took on average 11 minutes longer to play than contests the Bulldogs played on the road.

I suspect that is a direct result of The Citadel being one of two teams that have instant replay review capability. It did not benefit the Bulldogs in any way last season, of course.

Less than two months before new statistics come to life…

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