One of the most discussed storylines coming into 2017 was Dana Holgorsen's decision to hand the reigns of his offense over to his old buddy Jake Spavital. Through 6 games it's hard to find too much at fault with that decision, with the Mountaineers ranked 5th nationally in both scoring and total offense, but I want to take a closer look some of the differences between this year and last year.
Let's start with the basics. The most obvious place to look for year-to-year differences in a team’s offense is its run/pass ratio. Run/pass ratio is simply the ratio of running plays to passing plays that a team runs throughout the year, and looking at it can give you a very superficial idea of a team's personality. Over the last few years, Holgorsen's play calling has been notably gravitating away from his Air Raid roots towards something much more run-oriented, with that trend peaking in 2015 and 2016 when we ran the ball 59% and 58% of the time, respectively.
This year with Spavs, however, we've been much more balanced. So far we've run it 228 times and thrown it 247 times for a run/pass ratio of 48/52. The change is not totally unexpected with the addition of Will Grier, and I'm certainly not making a case for either tendency being right or wrong (the best play call is the one that works), just making an observation.
Generating explosive plays has been a point of emphasis here ever since Dana's arrival, and we’ve become particularly good at it over the past two years - we finished in the Top 20 nationally in both Total Explosive Plays and Explosive Play % in each season. That's been no different this year under Spavital, even if changes in personnel have caused the distribution between runs and passes to be slightly different.
Starting on the ground, we're averaging about 1 less explosive run per game this year (6.7 vs 7.5), but our explosive run % is actually up slightly from 17.1% to 17.5%. I think this can explained by the departure of Skyler Howard, because even though we're running it a bit less frequently this year, a higher percentage of the carries are going to our actual running backs, and not surprisingly they’ve been better at running than the dear Skyler was.
Through the air it's been the exact opposite: our explosive passes per game are slightly up (4 to 4.8) while explosive pass % is slightly down (12.7% to 11.7%). It’s my thought that this one can be at least partially attributed to the departure of Shelton Gibson. Gibson finished Top 5 Nationally in yards per reception each of the last two years, and as of yet nobody has stepped up to pick up that production. Marcus Simms is close, but he doesn’t seem like he’s quite ready for that big of a role yet, and either way, I’m very happy with us continuing to gash teams for 10-15 yards a pop with Sills, Jennings, and White.
Overall, our total big play percentage is down to 14.5% from 15.3%, but don't let those numbers discourage you - we're still firmly in the 80s percentile-wise for explosive play %, and we’re actually averaging the exact same number of explosive plays per game as we did a year ago. It's OK that we've simply maintained the status quo in this case because the status quo was already pretty damn good. And as you'll see in a minute, any decrease in explosiveness, however slight, has been more than offset by big gains in efficiency.
Efficiency represents the area where we’ve seen the most growth offensively. Yards per play are up from 6.4 to 6.9, which suggests to me that our guys are being put in better positions to succeed than they were a year ago. Points per possession are up, as well, from 2.53 last year to 3.15 this year. The area where we have seen the most improvement though, and frankly the area that’s had the biggest impact on our offense’s success, is with regards to our performance in the red zone.
Last year we spent much of the season as one of the worst teams in the country at converting red zone trips into points - we scored touchdowns on 58% of our opportunities (89th nationally) and points on just 80%, meaning we came away with absolutely nothing almost once in every five tries (92nd). This year we're scoring touchdowns on nearly 80% of our opportunities (8th) and are getting points on nearly 90% of our trips, and it's easy to see the difference that's made in the scoring column.
There are a couple of reasons for the improvement, but first and foremost is the personnel. Will Grier is just a massive upgrade over Skyler Howard in almost every conceivable way, but most notably with regards to his accuracy (66% vs 61%), which is crucial for fitting the ball into the tighter windows that generally occur when the field shrinks. Our receiver group is much better suited for red zone work, as well, where David Sills in particular is a much savvier operator than Shelton Gibson ever was.
Another reason for the improvement though is that Spavital has been clever with his play calling. Upgrades in the passing game are great, but Spavital has leveraged those benefits into the running game, as well, where the increased attention to the air has given Justin Crawford and Co more room to operate on the ground. Having good players is nice, but you still have to have a coach who understands how to get the most out of them, and Spavs has continued to come up with unique ways to get our best guys the ball.
Have we gotten worse at anything?
It’s hard to find much regression without really picking nits. We’ve been 4 points worse on 3rd downs (38.9% vs 42.8%), but that’s been offset by a nearly 20 point improvement on 4th (72.7% vs 50%). I also thought about complaining about the running game here, but after sleeping on it decided that idea may have been tainted by some recency bias - we've gone well over 200 against everyone except TCU and Texas Tech the last two weeks, and on the season our Rushing Success Rate (48.7%) is actually up about 6 points compared to last year. And either way, the goal is for our offense to score, not us to average X yards rushing per game, so in that regard it's hard to complain about the results.
Overall, it's hard to say Spavs has been anything other than a rousing success. He's certainly benefited from the players he has at his disposal, but to his credit he's repeatedly put those guys in positions to succeed and has given them the confidence to do so. Can't ask your OC for anything more than that.