Game Week: ASU Statistical Analysis

SEP. 23 -- The Sun Devils' statistical breakdown shows a struggling defense and a successful offense, albeit against easy opponents and with Taylor Kelly...

The game with the 15th-ranked Arizona State Sun Devils sneaks a little under the radar nationally as it isn’t a traditional rivalry game and hasn’t had quite the stakes of Stanford-Oregon or the glamour of Stanford-Southern Cal, but for our money there hasn’t been a more exciting series in the Pac-12 era.

In 2011, a 6-2, nationally-ranked Sun Devil team led by human redwood Brock Osweiler and human ID personification Vontaze Burfict came to the Rose Bowl and missed three field goals in a loss to the Bruins. UCLA converted a key 3rd-and-29 to Nelson Rosario and scored a late touchdown to send Arizona State spiraling into a season-ending five-game losing streak.

In 2012, with each team sporting a new coach, a back-and-forth shootout culminated in Brett Hundley taking the Bruins 60 yards in a minute and a half to set up a Ka’imi Fairbairn chip shot, with that game providing the margin the Bruins needed to win the Pac-12 South.

In 2013, Arizona State blitzed the Bruins to take a 35-13 lead into the half, only to see Hundley and Co. nearly come all the way back, with two missed UCLA field goals (or missed touchdown opportunities, depending on how you look at it) sending the Sun Devils to the Pac-12 title game. The series continues this Thursday night in what is probably the biggest game of an anemic weekend.

Midseason New QB Analysis

Before we get to the Arizona State overview, we did an analysis on how Pac-12 teams have fared since the beginning of the 2012 season when breaking in a new starting quarterback mid-season against FBS opponents. To do this, we measured the difference in Yards Per Play between the first start and the team’s overall season numbers in passing, rushing, and total offense. We also broke it down by type of opponent and whether or not the new quarterback ended up becoming a Pac 12-level starter. Here are the findings:

The most immediate takeaway from these findings is that it really matters a lot whether the new starter is a Pac-12 level starter or just a short term fill in. A high-level new starting QB can energize an offense, leading to average gains (over the season average) of 1.51 Yards Per Play in total offense, 1.91 Yards Per Play in rushing offense, and 0.73 Yards Per Play in passing offense. Even against teams with winning records, Pac-12 level rookies brought a total offense increase of 0.57 Yards Per Play.

In contrast, new quarterbacks who did not end up proving to be Pac-12 level starters brought their offenses down. In their first starts (all of which came against opponents with winning records), those players led offenses that saw decreases of 0.22 Yards Per Play in total offense, 0.08 Yards Per Play in rushing offense, and 0.03 Yards Per Play in passing offense.

The upshot: a lot of this game is riding on whether Mike Bercovici is a legit starter in this league or just a stopgap. If he can be effective at this level, the Sun Devils might actually see a bounce in their offensive stats, but if he can’t, they’re in trouble.

Arizona State Statistical Overview

If you need a quick refresher on the stats we’re using, please take a look at the first article in this series. In a nutshell: Yards Per Stop measures efficiency, Yards Per Play measures explosiveness, Points Per Drive measures how well you score, Field Position Margin measures how well you win the field position game, and Turnover Margin measures how well you win the turnover battle.

Color Code:

So far this year, Arizona State’s offense has been clicking on all cylinders (albeit against Weber State, New Mexico, and Colorado), while the defense has actually struggled some. The Buffs ran a whopping 31 more plays than the Sun Devils (to give you some context, the average range on plays a team runs per game is usually around 60 on the low end to 90 on the high end). The difference in that game was the big play -- Arizona State averaged over a yard more per play than Colorado and had two 50+ yard touchdown runs, a 45 yard pass, and a 38 yard touchdown pass. Looking at the 2013 stats, ASU was best offensively at scoring points and being efficient (based on Yards Per Stop), with its explosiveness not quite as high. It will be interesting to see if the big play is still there for the 2014 Sun Devils against a UCLA defense that has lost its best safety.

Even without taking the low quality of competition into account, the Arizona State defense hasn’t played well this year, with mediocre numbers in the efficiency measure Yards Per Stop and the explosiveness measure Yards Allowed Per Play. They have done a pretty good job at preventing the other team from scoring. Assuming Hundley takes the field on Thursday, this will be a huge step up in competition for the Sun Devils, so their defense had better have improved a lot over the bye week if they hope to stop the Bruins.

The Computers

On the message boards, BROs have been clamoring for an overview of how the myriad statistics-based ranking systems look at this match-up, so here you go.
The Massey College Football Ranking Composite, taking 58 different rating systems into account, has UCLA as the #9 team in college football, while Arizona State is #18. The Bruins’ rankings range from #1 (taking over the top spot in the Welch Ratings from Auburn) to #41 with a standard deviation of 8.8, the second highest among top ten teams (behind a suddenly chaotic Florida State). Over the next three weeks, expect that standard deviation to fall precipitously as we get a better grasp on just how good the Bruins are. The Sun Devils’ rankings range from #6 to #53, with a standard deviation of 10.3—fourth-lowest among the teams ranked 11-20.

Using a Simple Ratings System (solid descriptive article here), we see the following: Using’s numbers, UCLA has a SRS of 52 while ASU has an SRS of 51.2, meaning that when we take +3 for home field into account, Football Perspective predicts a 2 point ASU win. Using’s numbers, UCLA has an SRS of 20.21 while ASU has an SRS of 12.08, meaning that Sports Reference predicts a five point UCLA win.

Everywhere you look, from the recent history of the series to the various ratings systems, the signs point to a close game. Even the betting line, which takes into account the Kelly injury, only has the Bruins as 5.5 point favorites. Escaping the valley of the sun with a win is all that matters, but if UCLA can win impressively, they can start to win over people still skeptical about the Bruins’ nonconference effort.

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