The 2013 and 2014 seasons each had a game that I choose to believe does not exist. If I’m looking for a pattern, the 2013 installment was the last game of the season, 2014’s was the exact mid-point of the season and 2015’s version was the first game. Hopefully that pattern holds true and we got the game of denial out of the way early.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at some 2014 data as our Cougs prep for our "opener" vs Rutgers this Saturday. Last year’s Cougars saw great improvement in total offense going from 54th in 2013 to 7th in the country, picking up more than 6,200 yards, and saw a solid move in the right direction in Offense S&P+ (comprehensive advanced metric that adjusts for opponent strength) from 51st to 39th. With all of that production, how does WSU finish 46th in points per game, in the same ball park as a team like Florida who finished 96th in total offense and 72nd in S&P+?
The disclaimer here is that there are so many factors that go into any drive, let alone an entire game, and it might be a fools errand to try and distill it down to one thing that can help turn all those yards into more points. However, I think it's interesting to compare two teams like WSU and Florida that were on opposite ends of the offensive production spectrum but scored about the same amount per game to see where the differences lie.
While Urban Meyer was at Florida he had four main staples that if delivered on, he felt would create too steep of a hill to climb for their opponent, consistently putting their team in a place to take advantage and win. One of his assistants referred to it as "titling the field." Last season, WSU saw the field tilt in the wrong direction all too often and Florida, even with Meyer long gone from The Swamp, is a great example of how tilting the field via great defense, scoring in the red zone, winning the turnover battle and coming through in the kicking game can help a team overcome an anemic offense.
You may fairly be wondering what I mean by tilting the field. In this case I’m looking at what percentage of a team's drives are short drives and how they’re creating them. Football Outsiders defines a short drive as any drive that starts at the 50 or in your opponent’s territory. Last season WSU was dead last among the Power 5 with only 3.6 percent of their drives qualifying whereas Florida landed at third with short drives making up 19.3 percent of their possessions. The below box plot looks shows how poor of an outlier WSU was last season.
In case you were wondering, WSU had one "short drive" that started in Portland State territory after a Tavares Martin Jr. kickoff return and PSU face mask penalty. It led to the Cougars' second touchdown. Portland State also had one "short drive" -- after Kyrin Priester's punt fumble. It also led to a TD.
This scatter plot shows points per game and percentage of short drives for the Power 5. WSU, Cal and Texas Tech were the only Power 5 teams to average over 30 points a game that didn't go bowling. Excuse me while I sob into my keyboard.
The Cougs could move the ball last year, there is no doubt about that, but I think a big issue with the lack of scoring was how far they had to drive each time to get in scoring position and how few times they got the ball in easier areas to put points on the board. Florida did not have a great season by their standards, but it's interesting to look at how they may have titled the field in their favor.
Below you can select the Y-Axis to flip between turnovers, punt return average and points. Florida was 11th in forced turnovers, 17th in the country in average punt return, and 19th in points given up. WSU was 127th, 73rd and 117th in the same categories. If you're really want to cringe you can select "opponent punt return average" from the drop down and see how the Cougs let their opponent's tilt the field against them by popping 17 yards a punt return.
The encouraging thing pre-Portland State, as Brian Anderson wrote about in his excellent piece on Takeaway Ball, is that we don't need to see WSU enter the top 20 in a bunch of categories to see success and our points per game go up.
If we use the example of seeing WSU land around 80th nationally in scoring defense (select "Points Per Game Given Up" from the drop down), you'll see UCLA and Arizona (77th and 80th in total defense in 2014) make a nice jump to 7 percent and 10 percent of their total drives starting in their opponent's territory. Looking at red zone conversions, Arizona and WSU were equally poor last year, scoring only 80 percent of the time and WSU got to the red zone just as often as Arizona did with 7 percent fewer short drives.
I think it further illustrates we have an offense that can put pressure on the opponent, but needs help from special teams and the defense to shorten the field to generate more scoring opportunities. Whether or not improvements in those areas will tilt the field in our favor remains to be seen, but hopefully Alex Grinch and Eric Mele can improve defense and special teams enough that we'll see Cougar national tilt toward somewhere warm this winter.