A statistical look at the balance of Mike Leach's Air Raid

Balance means something different to Coach Leach - Russ Isabella-US PRESSWIRE

What does offensive balance in the Air Raid look like?

The conventional way to think about balance is as a ratio of running versus passing plays. A "balanced" team runs close to 50 percent of the time. Calling either significantly more running or passing plays means the offense is not balanced, maybe even one dimensional. When we hold WSU to this definition of "balance", we get comical looking graphs by charting the percentage of pass plays compared to everyone else.

This is not how Coach Leach thinks about balance. From an interview after practice back in August, Coach Leach explains his thought process;

"There's a whole myth about balance, and it's really stupid. The notion that you hand it to one guy half the time, and then you throw it to two other guys the other half of the time, and maybe you connect, maybe you don't. There's nothing balanced about it. There's two skill positions left out, ya know? Balance is, whether you run it or throw it, getting contributions from all the skill positions".

Rather than defining balance by play type, Coach Leach assesses balance by positional contribution. To be balanced means to have near equal production from each position on the field.

1_ace_medium

From that interview, Coach Leach said he'd like to see 1400 yards from the running back (F) position and around 1000 from the others (X, H, Y, Z). With the inside receivers (H and Y) needing a bit more touches to get there.

So how balanced was WSU last season?

Yd_touch_postion_medium

Data plotted on two axis. Columns for yardage (black) are on the secondary axis (right)

Only the X position garnered 1000 yards and Z was only 20 yards shy, the other positions underperformed. Production from F, which includes both running and passing plays was barely half of what Coach Leach wanted before the season started.

We would expect touches to be near equivalent between the two outside receivers (X and Z), which in turn are slightly less than the inside receivers (H and Y). As the outside receivers will run more deep routes that have the potential to gain more yardage on less touches than the inside receivers. But this is not what happened. The outside receivers both got more touches and gained more yardage, offset in particular by Marquess Wilson and Gabe Marks.

What does this mean for balance?

Considering balance to be defined by positional contribution like Coach Leach, WSU was not a balanced offense last season. With 21 percent of total touches to the X position and 40 percent going to the F, 61 percent of the offense ran through those two positions last season. In an offense that functions by spreading the ball out to numerous receivers, this particular statistic isn't exactly the epitome of balance. Looking at yardage only exaggerates the imbalance even further.

How far off was last season?

Luckily we are given a measuring stick from an interview with Dana Holgorsen (courtesy of footballxos.com) while he was the inside receivers coach at Texas Tech. In the article, Coach Holgorsen details the three major categories the coaching staff focuses on for each position;

  • Touches per game
  • Yards per game
  • Total touchdowns (season)

For each category, Coach Holgorsen gives us the raw count as well as the percentage of the total for that season's Tech team (I tried and couldn't find a specific date on this anywhere; 2000 - 2004). By subtracting the Cougs' percentages from Texas Tech's, we can see a difference in the production at each position, in all three categories (Tabled data is below if you prefer that to figures). We are assuming that these numbers from Coach Holgorsen, while maybe not a perfect gold standard, are indicative of Coach Leach's desired offensive distribution.

Percenttotaltech_medium

Negative values indicate the WSU percentage of total in that category was below Texas Tech. Values for touches and yardage are per game averages while TDs are season totals.

When compared to the standard set by the Texas Tech team, it becomes very clear the inside receiver positions at WSU were underutilized last season. The focus of the Cougar offense went to the outside where X dominates the statistics, while the inside (H, Y) were deficient in their contribution of both touches and touchdowns.

The Y position displays the greatest negative difference in the graph, which snagged a touchdown per game at Tech and not a single one during the entire season at WSU. Instead of each position scoring equally, touchdowns were funneled to X, giving it the largest positive difference in the graph.

If WSU wants to correct the imbalance from last season, H and Y appear to be the positions most neglected.

(NOTE - F includes rush attempts and pass completions...sacks and QB rushes contribute to a game's rushing average, that is why this "touches" number is less than the 21 rush attempts you would expect)

TOUCHES PER GAME


TECH WSU


Touches/game Touches/game

Position Count %Total Count %Total diff COUNT diff %TOTAL
X 8.5 14 9.1 20.6 0.6 6.6
H 10.6 16.5 5.3 12.1 -5.3 -4.4
F 21.5 34 17.8 40.4 -3.7 6.4
Y 7.3 11 4.3 9.6 -3.1 -1.4
Z 7.6 13.5 7.6 17.2 0.0 3.7

YARDS PER GAME


TECH WSU


Yardage/game Yardage/game

Position Count %Total Count %Total diff COUNT diff %TOTAL
X 122.3 21 130.9 34.5 8.6 13.5
H 104.1 8 41.7 11.0 -62.4 3.0
F 148 25.5 72.7 19.1 -75.3 -6.4
Y 86 14.5 53.3 14.0 -32.8 -0.5
Z 111 19 81.3 21.4 -29.8 2.4

TOTAL TOUCHDOWNS


TECH WSU


Total TDs Total TDs

Position Count %Total Count %Total diff COUNT diff %TOTAL
X 14 19 12 41.4 -2.0 22.4
H 11 15 4 13.8 -7.0 -1.2
F 21 29 7 24.1 -14.0 -4.9
Y 12 16.5 0 0.0 -12.0 -16.5
Z 10 13.5 6 20.7 -4.0 7.2

The H Position

When we look at yardage, the difference at H is really obvious. Coug H got five fewer touches and 60 fewer yards per game, than Tech H. While Brett Bartolone was nothing short of outstanding last season as a freshman, adding Rickey Galvin to the rotation and allowing the two to share reps could greatly improve production at H. The lack of touches weren't entirely caused by a lack of attempts as H was the second most targeted position behind X, sadly the completion percentage to H was around 59 percent (the number of drops between positions are statistically negligible).

In a balanced Air Raid, H should be the most targeted receiver position, which should result in the most touches per game and neither statistic should be dramatically more than any other position. Next season the completion percentage to H needs to improve if that position will be as reliable for WSU as it was for Tech. Simply not having a freshman carry the load will make that position a greater, more consistent threat.

The Y Position

Gino Simone was a hard working Y receiver for WSU last season but wasn't necessarily a big playmaker (all due respect to his clutch Apple Cup performance). It will be exciting to see if some combination of Bobby Ratliff, barn-burner Robert Lewis, and possibly River Cracraft (if he doesn't RS) can turn that position into a dynamic, +85yd / TD per game type spot. For Tech, Y wasn't exactly a big yardage position but did have a great deal of success finding the endzone. Look for increased production at Y next season to come from the redzone, the touchdown differential at this position is just too astounding.

The X Position

WSU was extremely reliant on X, and probably for good reason. Say what you will about how Marquess Wilson left the program, while he was here he was phenomenal. Replacing his production will be a difficult task for Dominique Williams, who had more than a few flashes of brilliance last season. Helping him will probably be Kristoff Williams, a very physical receiver who, like fellow RS JR Bobby Ratliff, seems right on the edge of becoming a force in the PAC-12.

X had the highest amount of touches and yardage per game, and was very nearly the only position to find the endzone. Contrary to what that may say about balance, touches to X shouldn't decrease a whole lot next season, rather the touches at every other position need to increase to that level. The challenge will be maintaining the yardage output with the same (or fractionally less) touches than last season.

The Z Position

Gabe Marks was a stand-out freshman that is now poised to become a breakout PAC-12 star this year, in addition to being one of the most likable characters on the team. Marks had 560 yards last season, second only to Wilson, and had the highest completion percentage (near 70 percent) of all receivers. Isiah Myers is currently behind him, having put up a nice 418 yard season himself.

Production from Z was close to where it needs to be, the difference being only around three yards per touch which could effectively boil down to one more explosive play a game. Marks admitted in an interview he wasn't quite ready for the physical demands of a college football schedule fresh out of high school. An off-season with Midnight Maneuvers and a full year under strength coach Jason Loscalzo should have him primed and ready to assert himself as a top receiving threat in the PAC-12.

Incoming receiver Vince Mayle could immediately have an impact on the outside. Whether he goes to X or Z, he makes the three deep at either position insanely talented. Between K. Williams, Mayle, Myers, D. Williams, and Marks the Cougs have the ability to create just about any match-up they want to either side of the field on the outside.

When Coach Leach can rotate receivers, especially when there's little drop off in ability -- tempo can be faster, routes will be quicker, the attack pressure will be relentless. This opens the field and generates production from every position.

The F Position

The woes of the running game really stand out. Coug F had half the yardage on only four fewer touches (83 percent of the total) than Tech F. WSU was historically bad at running the ball, I wouldn't expect Coach Leach and Coach Mastro to let an offseason go by without correcting that. Also, three of those touchdowns came in the Apple Cup, that leaves four touchdowns in 11 games and only one receiving touchdown all season. Yikes.

The running backs weren't targeted a ton in the passing game either, only a handful of times per game for a season total of 49 receptions (13 percent total). Conversely the Tech F position typically hauled in the second or third most receptions on the team during Coach Leach's tenure, which was always around 95 a season (21 percent total receptions). The F really needs to be a consistent source of passing yardage by being both a reliable outlet when things are covered and viable option for sure thing short yardage gains. The completion percentage to F was 67 percent, highest of any position on the field but not nearly high enough for such a relatively "easy" attempt. In reality, this pass needs to be completed +75 percent of the time.

Raising targets (+3 - 5), completion percentage (+~10%), and yard per carry rushing average (+2.0, WSU was at 1.4, not adjusted for sacks), should greatly increase production from this position. Doubling the yardage output would require both a better average rush and a few explosives out of the ground game, something that rarely opened up for WSU last year.

Final thoughts on balance

By examining Coach Leach's offense at Tech and how the production differed here at WSU last season, we can identify some areas that need attention. Or at the very least, see where WSU was deficient in its attempt at balancing the Air Raid. It's important to note this is a case study, we could only get these numbers from one of the Tech seasons (unless otherwise stated) so it's probably not as accurate a depiction as a 10 year average, but it's what we have and corresponds with what Coach Leach has been saying.

On a per game basis, touches and yardage were very well distributed throughout the positions at Texas Tech but what really jumped out of the data were the touchdown totals. Aside from the shear number of touchdowns at Tech (holy crap, over five a game), the ratio of TDs is nicely distributed, almost a perfect 1-to-1 across the receivers and 2-to-1 with respect to the F. WSU does not have this similar distribution.

Defending four receivers with an equal likelihood of finishing the drive is much more difficult than keying one position in the redzone. If the Cougs can get a more equal touchdown production across each position, perhaps it also means less drives end in Andrew Furney field goal attempts.

With regards to yardage, only WSU X produced in the ballpark of where it should be. The yardage deviation between Tech's receiver positions is significantly less than WSU, all are around 100 yards each game with X and Y being at the top and bottom of the range, respectively. If Coach Leach's 1000 yard season prediction would've held true for the Cougs, each position would be around 85 yards per game, with F around 115 yards per game for a 1400 season total.

Coach Leach's goals were well short of what was done at Tech, indicating very realistic team expectations. At the beginning of the season Coach Leach didn't anticipate the same kind of yardage totals, but wanted to replicate Tech's rather staggering capacity for balance.

In essence, it looks like the inside receivers need to double their per game production with twice as many touches and the running game just needs to be average for that to happen.

Connor Halliday's increased familiarity with the offense, if he is indeed to be the starter, should allow him to distribute the ball more to the inside receivers, since his (and Jeff Tuel's) favoritism toward outside receivers undoubtedly played some role in the decreased contribution of H and Y last year. Additionally, boosting the completion percentage to above 65 percent, around a 10 percent bump or an extra five completions for every 50 attempts (WSU averaged 52 att/game) would generate dramatic increases from all positions. The receivers should be more proficient route runners after a year in the system, specifically elevating their ability to get open. Making gains in completion percentage a little easier to obtain than if it were up to the quarterback improving alone.

Targets_qb_medium

The two QBs at Wazzu weren't all that different in who they targeted (inside vs. outside receivers). Tuel favored the left and Halliday favored the right sides of the field. H and Y need to see increased targets next season in order to achieve the balance seen at Texas Tech. (F is pass targets only)

It is not entirely fair (not truthful to the whole situation) to say the lack of touches and production at H and Y occurred solely because the Wazzu QBs weren't targeting inside receivers as often, although it most certainly factored in. Sacks, incompletions and drops all take away from the total touches count at each position and must also be considered.

In a recent video of Dennis Simmons mic'd up at practice, Coach Simmons notes that WSU was a "big catch-and-fall team" last season. Yards after catch is a difficult statistic to find, you have to keep track of it manually and unfortunately isn't included in the data package I used to compile these stats. Going off gut impression, this could be another area WSU lagged Tech rather significantly and where only slight improvement could generate dramatic increases in yards per game. Finding a way to get upfield an extra few yards on every catch could make all the difference in the world when you get around 10 touches per game, and the inevitable missed tackles translate into a higher potential for explosive plays.

WSU was not particularly balanced by anyone's definition last season, but we know how they were imbalanced, and where they need to be under Coach Leach. With the receiver talent returning for the Cougs, and Halliday getting a full, healthy off-season, 1000 yards from each receiver position and 1400 from F looks like it just might be doable to me.

What do you think, is it doable? More importantly, will that be enough to be a winning team?

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