It’s sometimes hard to learn anything from games like Saturday’s, but here are a few things that I thought were worth mentioning..
The defense has a long way to go
"You think they look bad? It's 42-3!"
This was my friend's incredulous response to my bitching about our defense late in the 2nd quarter. He was not wrong, but before you take his side I encourage everyone to remember that East Carolina is bad. Like, really, really bad. This is not the pesky team that used to give us trouble in the mid-2000’s, this the team that finished 3-9 in Conference USA last year BEFORE losing their best player in a decade. What we did to them Saturday is what any self-respecting football program should expect to do to them this year. And despite that 49-3 halftime score (I'm disregarding our extremely flat, job-was-already-done 2nd half), I saw some things from our defense that I didn't particularly care for.
Let's start with our frustrating inability to stay ahead of the sticks against a crappy team. So first, understand that not every play is designed to pick up a first down, and often times on early downs offenses are just trying to pick up enough yards to make converting the eventual 3rd down manageable. However, if you can prevent them from doing that, you can keep them "off schedule" and get them into obvious passing situations like 2nd or especially 3rd and long. We were very good at this last year, and it was one of the main reasons our defense was so stingy. This year we have not been nearly as good at it, and that’s a big part of why we find ourselves 113th in the country in total yards allowed.
One of the few metrics out there that attempts to measure this kind of thing is Running Back Success Rate, which defines a play as a success if it gains 40% of the yards needed on 1st down, 60% on 2nd down, and 100% on 3rd and 4th down. It stands to reason then that a success for the defense would be preventing that. I went back through our first two games to track our defense's success on 1st and 2nd down. Here are the results:
1st Down: 14 times we were successful/19 times we were not (42%)
2nd Down: 14/9 (61%)
Total: 40/33 (55%)
ECU (1st half only)
1st Down: 11/8 (58%)
2nd Down: 8/5 (62%)
Total: 26/18 (59%)
47/41 on early downs (53% success)
66/51 overall (56%)
Now keep in mind that this metric is meant to measure running back success only so this is not a perfect application, but there's no denying that we’re losing a lot of early downs. Go back and watch last week’s game; it felt like ECU were working with a lot of 2nd and 2, 2nd and 5, 3rd and 3, 2nd and 6. Those are all manageable downs and distances, and that makes it much harder for us to pin our ears back and force mistakes because it’s harder to guess what kind of play the offense might run.
Equally as worrisome is our inability to get off the field on 3rd and/or 4th down. Take ECU's opening drive. 15 plays, 70 yards, 6:30 off the clock. Vintage Steelers circa 2011. Sure we stiffened up inside our 10 and held them to field goal, but this was a methodical drive that included both a conversion on 3rd and 15 and a conversion on 4th and 3. Other ECU drives featured conversions on 3rd and 6 and 3rd and 7, and overall they converted 7/18 for 1st downs. You’ll recall similarly frustrating let-offs against Tech. I don't have any other fancy metrics to use here, but if we're having issues with it against a couple of first-time starters at QB, what do you think Mason Rudolph and Baker Mayfield will do?
I know I’m really nitpicking here, but the point I'm making is that ECU is without question the second worst team on our schedule and they were having a bit more success against us than I was comfortable with. There were definitely plenty of good plays being made by our guys (oh hey Kyzir), but the Pirates also had their share of self-inflicted wounds. I don't think we should expect many of our future opponents to quite so charitable.
Our offense might be so good that it doesn't matter
The part missing from the previous section is that each of those ECU drives were preceded and followed by Mountaineer touchdowns. We scored on our first five possessions and seven of our first eight, effectively ending the game by the middle of the 2nd quarter. Will was Will, the running game was solid, Sills (7 catches, 153 yards, 3 TD), Jennings (4/46), and White (4/49/1) were again fantastic, and Marcus Simms introduced himself to 2017 in style. We finished the game with 614 yards of offense (403 passing, 211 rushing) on 7.6 yards per play without ever really breaking a sweat.
Overall this season we’re averaging 40 points per game (33rd nationally), 216 yards rushing (42nd), 387 yards passing (9th), and 603 yards total (6th) on 7.1 yards per play (21st), while producing 7.5 explosive runs (runs of 10+ yards) and 5.5 explosive passes (20+ yards). And honestly it feels like we’re just getting started. We may take a beating on defense against some of our more talented Big 12 foes, but we’re sure as hell going to return the favor.
Marcus Simms is a difference maker
Simms only ended up with 1 catch, a 52-yard beauty for a touchdown, but his ability to straight up run by people just adds another dimension to our offense. It makes him a threat that opposing defenses have to be cognizant of on every play, which in turn leaves less resources available to defend elsewhere. Another area where he provided some unexpected benefit was in the return game, where he produced a 23-yard punt return and averaged over 30 on his two kick returns. We still need to see it consistently, but it was definitely an improvement over where we were two weeks ago when we ended the Tech game with -3 return yards.
Special teams were maybe sliiiiightly better?
Read: slightly. We still can’t kick the ball into the end zone on kickoffs, we still lost one out of bounds, and we missed a field goal, but at least our punting was slightly better, right? Kinney upped his average to 40 this week, which is still behind where he was last year but definitely a step in the right direction. And as mentioned in the previous section, Simms gives us an added dimension in the return game that Gary Jennings, for all of his considerable talents, does not. Overall though, still probably only a C grade for this week, and definitely not where we need to be.
Honestly, I don't really like easy wins like this because you don’t learn much about yourselves, but I can't judge too harshly after a casual 56-20 beat down. Overall it was a perfect Saturday: maybe the best weather I can remember for an early September game, we went out and handled our business without showing too much, and nobody got hurt. On to Delaware State.