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2021 Defensive Review: Part Two - Advanced Stats

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West Virginia v Kansas State Photo by Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images

In Part One of the series, we looked at the aggregate stats for the defense, including total yards, passing yards, rushing yards, etc. A few years ago, when I did this series, I had access to Bill Connely’s SP+ which was done on Football Study Hall, but unfortunately for us, Bill has moved onto greener pastures at ESPN and Football Study Hall has not seen an update in a couple of years. This hinders our ability to look in depth at these totals but we can try and break down the defense using some more rate stats and see if we can gleam any additional information.

Passing Defense

It wasn’t long ago that the Big 12 was where quarterbacks and wide receivers came to show their moxie and their talents on just how well they could sling the ball all over the field. In 2018, three Big 12 quarterbacks were top-10 nationally in passing yards. In 2019, two Big 12 quarterbacks were. Even last year, the Big 12 had a top-10 national passer. They do not this year. In fact, they do not even have a top-20 or top-25 passer.

2021 West Virginia Passing Defense

Statistic Total Conference Rank National Rank
Statistic Total Conference Rank National Rank
Pass Attempts / Game 28.9 4 38
Completions / Game 18.8 4 60
Completion Percentage 64.84 4 100
Pass Yards / Game 224.2 5 60
Pass First Down / Game 9.3 3 35
Passer Rating 140.9 5 81
Sack Percentage 6.97 3 57
Passing Play Percentage 46.98 4 62
Passing Yard Percentage 60.34 4 58
Sacks Per Game 2.2 5 68
Yards Per Attempt 7.8 6 88
Yards Per Completion 12 5 55
West Virginia Passing Defense Jake Lantz | TeamRankings.com

What I see when I check out the full breadth of the statistics is a defense that was good and was going to be tough but was not good enough to change games. The conference rank is pretty consistent, ranking in the upper portion but near middle of the pack. The average ranking across all of those metrics is 4.3 and if I had guessed coming into this exercise, that actually is better than I would have thought. As a whole, West Virginia had the fourth best passing defense in the conference.

Something that really jumps out at me is Pass Attempts Per Game versus the Yards Per Attempt and Yards per Completion. While the defense did a good job (or maybe bad?) job of limiting the passing attempts, when teams went to throw, they were throwing deep. Teams averaged nearly 8 yards per attempt and when they completed the pass, they got over 12. That is a function of the lack of a pass rush and a lack of pass defense in my book. The team that failed to generate turnovers and failed to affect the quarterback when he dropped back, gave teams time to scan the field and pick apart the defense.

Despite the fact that teams averaged over 12 yards per game and completed 18 passes a game, the defense finished 3rd in conference and top 40 nationally in passing first downs. That seems like a strength that should and could be a big factor.

Rush Defense

My first thought when I began to look into these was that West Virginia was very good against the run. I think once you look at these stats you’ll see both a team that was stout against the run and once again, not good enough against the run. It surprises me how well the entire conference defended the run this year.

2021 West Virginia Rushing Defense

Statistic Total Conference Rank National Rank
Statistic Total Conference Rank National Rank
Rush Attempts / Game 35.1 7 36
Rush Yards / Game 147.3 7 48
Rush First Down / Game 7.8 6 38
Rush Yards / Attempt 4.2 6 68
Rushing Play Percentage 53.02 6 69
Rushing Yards Percentage 39.66 6 73
Jake Lantz | TeamRankings.com

One think you may note is that the rush yard totals are different from what I listed in the previous article. That is because of the sites required to gather this data. CFBStats.com uses an aggerate of all the games played by a team but TeamRankings.com, as best I can tell, filters out FCS competition. Unfortunately that does alter the look of the landscape a bit, but that appears to be the difference between the rankings.

Looking at this, you can see a team that didn’t let teams run much but did allow teams to gain yardage when they did run. 4.2 yards per carry really hurt the team as they seemed to wear down throughout the year. This is a problem for a team with a supposed stout defensive line but without the linebackers necessary to fill gaps and create havoc. Additionally you can see a defense that while good in areas, still falls into the lower half of the conference. Ranking Top 40 in several categories but finishing 7th in conference feels like an SEC achievement, not a Big 12 achievement.

I do think it is interesting that teams ran the ball over 50% of the time against West Virginia, but only gained 40% of their yardage. Eight first downs a game doesn’t feel like much and seeing the defense finish top 40 in that category seems like it would be a good thing yet they were still sixth in conference.

Thoughts and Comments

Looking through these two sets of data, you have to come to the conclusion that the defense is more than capable of affecting the outcome of the game but lacks the playmakers necessary. I’ve long thought that building a good defense comes from the defensive line first and that would seem to be the case with West Virginia. The defensive line is good and has the ability to both rush the passer and stifle the run game, but the lack of playmakers at linebacker and defensive back mean that opposing offenses scheme ways to avoid the defensive line or aren’t afraid to take their chances since those 50/50 balls that would become interceptions fall either as incomplete passes or land in the hands of the receivers.

Being able to run the ball also has a detrimental affect for the defense since they should be a stone wall given the pedigree of the defensive line, yet teams don’t fear running the ball. Chipping away at the stone wall gives way to an easy play and as we saw throughout the year, teams were able to gash and break runs when they got past the first line.