It says a lot about Neal Brown’s brand of football that we were able to win 5 games last year when you consider how flat-out bad we were in certain areas. It was a refreshing change from the “burn down the world statistically only to lose games in the margins” Dana Holgorsen era, but we still need to be much better if want The Climb to go all the way to the mountain top under Real Deal Neal. Here’s a not-so-quick look into some of the metrics that detail the worst parts of the 2019 season, as well as a little dose of optimism regarding how we can turn things around in 2020.
Yards Per Carry (as an extension of line yards, opportunity rate, stuff rate, and yards after contact/elusive rating)
I'm generally more into the advanced analytics than basic counting stats, so while yards per carry as an opportunity for improvement should come as no surprise, I couldn’t help putting a little extra spin on it. Simply put, we were historically, mind-numbingly
shitty bad at running the ball last year, and if we're not any better at it this year then not much else is going to matter. West Virginia averaged just 2.63 yards per carry last year, which was good for 129th nationally and has to be the lowest number in school history. To highlight just how bad that is, we could've averaged 3.63 yards per carry and still ranked 110th. I do think there’s a very reasonable and achievable path to improvement for us, but first there are a few things to unpack.
The first and most glaring, that the offensive line was as bad as it's been in my 32 years of being a fan and absolutely needs to be better, is beyond debate. The horse we’re beating there has literally been reduced to equine soup at this point, but if you’re a sadist (like me) and still want to marvel at how we managed to be last in the country in most meaningful run blocking metrics last year, head on over to FootballOutsiders and play with their interactive table for a few minutes. 130th nationally in line yards, 130th nationally in opportunity rate, and 129th in stuff rate. What a gas.
Actually though, if we’re looking for positives to take into this year is it not kind of encouraging (in an extremely perverse way) to know that we literally can’t be any worse? Let’s dive into those numbers a bit. Line yards gives the offensive line 100% of the credit for rushing yardage between 0-3 yards and 50% credit for yards 4-8. Anything over 8 yards is quantified as a highlight opportunity, and credit goes to the runner, while lost yardage still counts for 125%. Opportunity rate is defined as the percentage of carries that gain at least 4 yards when 4 yards are available (i.e. the percentage of carries in which the line does its job), while stuff rate is the percentage of carries stopped at or before the line of scrimmage. We averaged just 1.72 line yards last year with an opportunity rate of 36% and a stuff rate of 26%. Those numbers probably aren’t surprising to anyone who watched us more than once last year, but it’s still wild to wrap your head around the idea that we only gained 4 yards on about 1 out of every 3 runs, or that 1 out of every 4 runs was stopped at or before the line of scrimmage.
However, as bad as we were, the 2019 national averages for line yards, opportunity rate, and stuff rate were just 2.54, 47.4%, and 19.8%. The gap between us and “average” in opportunity rate is fairly substantial, but the gaps between us and “average” in line yards and stuff rate are much smaller. Hold this thought.
The second major cause of our struggles last year, that a group of veteran running backs wildly underperformed even considering how bad the line was, has been discussed considerably less. Kennedy McKoy was last (!!!) in the conference among backs with 50+ carries last year in average yards after contact (1.86!!!), avoided tackles (just 8!!!), and elusive rating (17.6). Leddie Brown’s 2.68/13/36.8 split was slightly better, but was still near the bottom of the conference across the board. McKoy in particular has never been strong in these metrics, but for him to have by far his worst season as a senior was just massively disappointing. Likewise for Leddie Brown, who was much better across the board as a freshman than he was as a sophomore. When you consider that the league average splits were 3.32/29/76.1, you see just how far off the pace our guys were and realize that while “the line was real bad” is an objective truth, we also need our running backs to do a wayyyy better job of running than they did last year.
Going back to the idea of the gap between us and “average” though, while it’s unreasonable to expect Leddie or Alec Sinkfield to turn into Chuba Hubbard or for our offensive line to match Oklahoma’s, it’s not unreasonable for us to expect them to be somewhere closer those averages this year, right? Say we only lose yards on a fifth of our runs this year instead of a fourth, dropping our stuff rate to about 20% - we should be able to get those line yards up around 2.5, right? Leddie averaged about 3.3 yards after contact as a freshman, so we know it’s not unreasonable to expect him to be better. And if you concede that those respective 0.8 and 1.2 yard gains in line yards and yards after contact are reasonable, then 4.5 yards per carry should be an achievable goal. Here, I’ll do the math to prove it. 2.6 + 0.8 + 1.2 = 4.6. Really though, I’d take anything over 4.0 and we’d be much better for it.
3rd Down Conversions
A second area where just getting back to average would be a nice accomplishment this year is converting 3rd downs. The Mountaineers converted just 34.6% of their 3rd down opportunities last year, good for worst in the Big 12 and 109th nationally.
For my part, I think it’s apparent that a big part of our struggles there were the result of our inability to gain enough yards to stay on schedule on 1st and 2nd down. If you look at our 179 3rd down attempts in 2019, 99 of them were 3rd and 7 or longer (55%), and we converted just 25 of those opportunities (25%). Conversely, we converted nearly 50% (37/80) of the remaining attempts that were 3rd and 6 or shorter. Obvious statement is obvious, but if we can do a better job of putting ourselves in 3rd and manageable in 2020, we’ll have a better chance at converting those opportunities and extending drives.
As for how we can accomplish that, it’s all about small gains in multiple areas. Obviously some of the running game gains described above will help, especially considering that we averaged just 2.95 yards per carry on 1st downs last year, the lowest number in the conference since Kansas in 2015. I don’t have the rankings in front of me, but when you consider that in combination with the aforementioned 26% stuff rate, you have to imagine we were among the national leaders in 2nd and 10+ situations - not exactly a recipe for success.
The uptick in efficiency from Kendall to Doege on short and intermediate passing routes should make things easier, as well, especially on crossing patterns over the middle and passes outside the numbers within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage, where Doege held a 15-point advantage in completion percentage over Kendall last year. Those are passes that you have to complete to both put yourself in good 3rd down situations and convert them.
Again, we’re not going to suddenly morph into world-beaters, but the good news is that we don’t have to. We don’t have to be a lot better at any one thing, we just need to make marginal gains in a number of smaller areas. If we can eat that low-hanging fruit we should have no trouble moving our success rate up into at least the low 40%’s this year, which would be a big win considering where we were a year ago.
Red Zone Success
A third area in glaring need of improvement is our red zone offense. To be blunt, we were bad at getting to the red zone last year (34 trips, 115th nationally) and we were bad at putting points on the board when we did get there (74% scores, 118th; 47% touchdowns, 119th).
The importance here is obvious - it’s hard to win games when you don’t score. We only scored touchdowns on half of our red zone trips last year, and a half of those failures resulted in no points altogether due to missed field goals and turnovers. Compare that to the league averages of 50 trips, 90% scores, and 63% touchdowns and you’ll realize just how many points we left on the field relative to the competition last year. Converting more 3rd downs and extending drives as described above will obviously help create more opportunities, but we still need to do a much better job at converting them than we did a year ago.
The theme again is marginal improvement. If it feels like I’m hammering on that point it’s because I am, because I really don’t think we’re far away from being a pretty good football team. When you compare the red zone numbers from our 5 wins last year (93% scores, 63% TD) to the numbers from our 7 losses (56% scores, 33% TD), it’s clear that our efficiency down there makes a huge difference in our results. Simply put, if we consistently convert the chances that we create for ourselves good things will happen this year.
Explosive Play Differential (10+ yard runs, 20+ yard passes)
If you’ve been following my content on here for any extended period of time you’ll recognize this last one. The idea is pretty simple - how well are you generating explosive plays, and how well are you doing at preventing your opponents from generating them?
The best teams in school history have been known for creating explosive plays going back to Major and Boys in 1988, and for most of this century West Virginia football has been a team that is not only capable of putting up points, but putting them up from anywhere. Last year, that all changed, and the Mountaineers generated just 73 explosive plays (33 runs, 40 passes) while allowing 104 (67 runs, 37 passes). That defensive number is actually pretty decent, all things considered, but the overall differential of -31 is comfortably the worst number we’ve had in the decade since I started paying attention to it. Even the dreaded 2013 season yielded a better result.
The obvious solution here is that we need to create more big plays offensively. They’re the great equalizer - 3rd down and red zone struggles just don’t matter as much when you can score from your own 40. If we can get that number back up in the triple digits, which would only require about 3 extra explosive plays per game, I think this has the chance to be a pretty fun year.