All things defense
I'm going to throw some numbers (and their national rankings) at you right quick: 19.3 points allowed per game (13th), 268 yards allowed per game (8th), 29.3% 3rd down conversions allowed (13th), 60% red zone scores allowed (5th), 6.0 explosive plays allowed per game (14th). That's where we currently stand in the traditional counting stats, and that performance is reflected in PFF grades which have us ranked 7th nationally against the run, 7th against the pass, and 7th overall. Some of those numbers may regress slightly as sample size increases (the best red zone defenses in the country were around 65% last year), but the conclusion here is clear: we're fielding a top 10 defense in America by just about any way you want to slice it.
The folks driving that excellence aren't surprising - the Stills bros have been doing Stills bros things, Tony Fields has been every bit as good as advertised, leading the conference in tackles and flying around with an element of downhill violence that we were missing last year sans David Long, and Tykee Smith has been the three-level playmaker we need him to be at the Spear.
What has been surprising are the contributions we're getting from some of our newcomers and first-time contributors. Alonzo Addae has been outstanding at free safety, ranking 5th in the conference in tackles per game and grading out as one of the top 30 defensive backs in the country per PFF. We've also gotten good performances from corners Dreshun Miller, who appears to finally be coming into his own after an injury-plagued first year on campus, and Nicktroy Fortune, who's picked up where he left off after a strong stretch run in 2019. The most pleasant surprises, however, have come up front where Jalen Thornton, Quay Mays, and Akheem Mesidor have shown themselves capable of spelling and even playing alongside the aforementioned Stills and Jeff Pooler. Mesidor has been particularly impressive, generating 2 sacks, 2 TFL, and grading out in the top 15 in the conference among defensive linemen who've played more than 50 snaps.
Everybody expected the defense to be a strength this year, but few if any expected us to look this good this soon. If we can continue playing at this level it raises our 2020 ceiling significantly.
Running back performance
You'll recall that before the season I highlighted the performance of our running backs last year as as big a factor in our anemic rushing attack as the offensive line. Three games into the season it’s no longer an issue.
Both Leddie Brown and Alec Sinkfield have had a different feeling about them this year right from the former's 36-yard scamper on the season's first play. The best way to describe it is that they're running with urgency, and that's been magnified by marginal improvement along our offensive front. Simply put, they're hitting creases that they didn't hit last year and breaking tackles that they didn’t break last year, and the improvement is evident in their overall production.
Leddie is currently ranked 17th nationally in yards per game with 106.7, 24th in yards after contact with 184 (58% of his total 320!), and 32nd in avoided tackles with 13 (as many as he avoided all of last season!). Sinkfield has gotten fewer snaps and therefore has lower yardage totals, but he's provided an outstanding change-of-pace and is grading out 16th nationally among backs with at least 20 carries per ProFootballFocus.
I realize the sample size is small, but considering that there was no drop off in production against Oklahoma State, which fields one of the best defenses in the conference, I feel pretty good about sustainability. It feels weird to say this considering where we were a year ago, but if the passing game can catch up, or at least get to a point where it's a complimentary piece of our identity and not a hamstring, our offense could end up being pretty effective this year, if not overly explosive.
I've already mentioned defensive standouts Mesidor and Thornton above, but that side of the ball has also received really solid work from bandit Jared Bartlett. Bartlett still has some developing to do as a pass rusher and need to be more consistent, but overall PFF has him grading out as one of the better run defenders and tacklers in the conference. We’ve also seen guys like Daryl Porter Jr, Jairo Faverus, and Tae Mayo get productive snaps, albiet in a rotational capacity.
Offensively the standout has definitely been Fairmont native Zach Frazier. Frazier actually started against both Oklahoma State and Baylor and always seems to be down the field getting a body on somebody. Aside from him, linemen Jordan White and Parker Moorer and wide receivers Reese Smith and Sam Brown have all looked serviceable on limited snaps.
The free season was always going to open up some interesting possibilities here, but even so, I can’t help but be impressed with what we’ve seen out of some of our freshmen so far.
Big plays in the passing game
The TL/DR here is going to be that our passing game hasn't been very good against real teams, and has been particularly bad at creating big plays. There seems to be a combination of factors at play - the line hasn’t provided a consistent pocket, Doege’s rushing things, and our receivers haven’t helped him out by making plays on 50/50 balls down the field.
Let's start with the pass blocking. The o-line had a horrendous showing against a very good Oklahoma State defense (17 pressures allowed), but has been decent otherwise, if inconsistently so. ProFootballFocus actually has us grading out in the middle of the road nationally at pass blocking, and the 7 sacks and 33 pressures we’ve allowed are similarly average, which leads me to conclude that we’ve had some good stretches. The problem has been that the breakdowns have turned into catastrophes. The strip sack scoop-and-score against Oklahoma State gave the Cowboys a 14-0 lead in a game where they’d been otherwise outplayed, while Baylor bailed us out on another strip sack the following weekend by missing the ensuing field goal. The quarterback obviously takes some responsibility there, as well, but it’s not hard to argue that the offensive line still has some growing to do.
If we’re looking for positives, the one thing I’d note is that the majority of these sacks and pressures have come courtesy of blitzing linebackers and safeties, which suggests that the issues are likely the result of communication breakdowns rather than poor technique. And considering that communication is absolutely pivotal along the offensive front, it’s reasonable to assume that we’ll improve over time. The Oklahoma State debacle was our first game with our full rotation available and we were already better against an admittedly worse Baylor group, but hopefully we can continue trending in the right direction and start giving Doege the time he needs to find guys downfield.
As for Doege, to put it simply, we need him to be better under pressure. I understand being a bit rattled from some of the shots he’s taken this year, but that stuff is going to happen, and if you look at the numbers he’s not really seeing all that much heat relative to the rest of the country. His ~30% pressure rate is actually in the bottom half of all quarterbacks with at least 100 drop backs, but his completion rate drops from 73.2% to 39.1% and his PFF passing grade drops from a solid 81.4 to 37.1 when facing pressure, both of which are well below average.
Considering those numbers in combination with his Time in Pocket percentages - 8th best nationally with 75.7% completions when the ball’s out in less than 2.5 seconds, 11th worst with 45.7% when it takes longer than 2.5 - backs up the perception that he’s just much more comfortable right now when he knows the ball’s coming out quickly on timing patterns because he knows he’s not going to get hit. I understand that we need to take shots downfield to keep defenses honest, but if there’s an adjustment out there that will put Doege in a better position to be successful in the short-term, it seems like it would be to dial up more of those possession-based pass concepts, at least until the line shows that it can consistently give him the time he needs to attack vertically.
Finally, the receivers. Coming into the year the position actually had a fairly optimistic outlook. We had Sam James coming off a breakout freshman campaign, TJ Simmons' veteran savvy in the slot, and a whole handful of talented youngsters (Ali Jennings, Bryce Ford-Wheaton, Sean Ryan, Winston Wright, and Isaiah Esdale) who showed promise in 2019. However, their collective performance through three games, and especially over the last two as we’ve gotten into our conference opponents, has left a lot to be desired.
Consider that we've only generated two 20+ yard passing plays in the last two games and that our 8.6% team drop rate is 6th worst in the country. Overall, our receiver groups has graded out 7th worst nationally. We need them to be better. The only positive spin I can find here is that we’ve already played the two best defensive backfields in the conference, so it should hopefully get easier for our guys from here on out.
Staying on schedule
You’ll recall that just before the season I mentioned doing a better job of staying on schedule on 1st and 2nd downs to be of vital importance to improving our conversion percentage on 3rd downs. We’ve definitely improved that 3rd down conversion rate (39.6% this year up from 34.6% last year), but we’re still not quite where we want to be. A big part of that is that we’re still spending too much time in 3rd and long.
Going back to that article, I mentioned that we converted almost 50% of our 3rd and less-than-6 opportunities but just 25% of our 3rd and 7 or longer in 2019. This year those numbers are 57% (13/23) and 15% (4/27), respectively, and honestly they aren’t ever going to change all that much. Let’s just say that there’s a reason that the term “3rd and manageable” was coined. The conclusion, then, is that we need to make a higher percentage of our opportunities meet that criteria.
The running game has definitely held up its end of the bargain, averaging 4.8 and 4.6 yards on 1st down and 2nd down carries respectively this year after managing just 2.95 and 3.10 yards on those same downs in 2019. In theory, that means that if we ran the ball on every play we’d usually be look at a 3rd and 1, which is a cozy thought. Unfortunately, we can’t run the ball every play, and even more unfortunately, our early-down passing game is again lagging behind and putting us in some bad spots behind the sticks.
Consider that our we’re completing 65.8% of our passes at a 6.9 yard clip overall this year, but are averaging just 61.5% and 5.2 ypa on 1st downs. That’s a pretty big drop-off, but while those numbers still aren’t terrible on their face, you also have to consider the number of 0-yard gains (incompletions) and ensuing 2nd and 10’s that are in the mix there. Let’s look at the Oklahoma State game as an example. Here’s how many yards we gained on our 1st down passes: 0, 0, 4, 3, 2, 0, 10, 0, 18, 0, 5, 0, 0, 19, -5, 4, 0, 0, -5.
That means we faced nine 2nd and 10’s against the Cowboys - not exactly a winning strategy. Performing the same exercise against Baylor revealed eight such scenarios. There’s obviously no issue with mixing in early down passes for the sake of balance, but if we’re being honest about ourselves our offense isn’t really built for that this year. Remembering everything that we discussed about Doege earlier, we need to be smarter about when we want to take our shots and when we want to take our 5 yards to set ourselves up for success later in the drive.
It's not even so much the number of giveaways we have this year (though that's not good either), it's the manner in which they've come.
I’ve already gone over this a bit, but simply put, careless mistakes cost us the game against Oklahoma State and nearly cost us again last week against Baylor, when both of their regulation scores were preceded by turnovers. I think we have the makings of a good-to-very good football team this year, but we’ll never reach our ceiling if we don't stop giving teams free points.
Penalties. So many penalties.
Along the same lines, through three games we're averaging 97.7 penalty yards on 10.7 penalties per game. Both of those numbers are predictably among the worst in the country, and both are in the neighborhood of double the 5.9 penalties and 48.9 yards we averaged in 2019. I'm willing to give a pass based on both the previous sentence and the circumstances under which the 2020 season is being conducted (the ‘rona), but still, it's something that we need to fix before it submarines an otherwise promising season.