As we enter the stretch run, we figured it might be fun to both take a look at the Pac-12 stats 2/3 of the way through the conference season and take a deeper dive into UCLA stats.
The debate over the personality of the UCLA defense has raged since pretty much the beginning of the Mora era. To recap if you’ve been living under a rock or missed our awesome Colorado game review, UCLA trends heavily towards a bend-don’t-break defensive style, doing a very good job of preventing the big play but a not-so-good job of preventing efficiency. Only two teams all year have broken 5 yards per play against the Bruins (UCLA lost both games), but even lowly Colorado was able to keep the UCLA defense on the field with long, punishing drives. We have long thought that bend-don’t-break is actually a solid strategy in college, where teams are much more likely to make a mistake to not finish a long drive with a touchdown, but what do the numbers say?
To get an answer, we took a look at the top 10 defenses so far this season in terms of Points Allowed Per Drive according to Brian Fremeau’s numbers, then checked what Football Study Hall’s efficiency and explosiveness numbers had to say about those defenses’ personalities.
The top 10 Points Per Drive defenses are:
- 1. Michigan (0.84 PPD)
- 2. Alabama (0.98 PPD)
- 3. Clemson (1.02 PPD)
- 4. Ohio State (1.04 PPD)
- 5. Boston College (!) (1.10 PPD)
- 6. Wisconsin (1.10 PPD)
- 7. Marshall (1.10 PPD)
- 8. Florida (1.19 PPD)
- 9. Toledo (1.25 PPD)
- 10. Iowa (1.25 PPD)
The Bruins are allowing 1.73 PPD according to Fremeau (1.74 according to our own numbers—the discrepancy probably comes from a slight difference in the way garbage time is calculated), good for 37th.
Let’s look at these defenses’ personalities by taking the difference between their efficiency and explosiveness rankings according to Football Study Hall. To do this, we’ll simply subtract the explosiveness allowed ranking from the efficiency allowed ranking (EFFICIENCY ALLOWED RANKING—EXPLOSIVENESS ALLOWED RANKING=PERSONALITY SCORE). A high personality score means the defense focuses on stopping explosiveness, a number close to zero means the defense is balanced, and a low negative number means the defense focuses on stopping efficiency.
- 1. Michigan (#3 efficiency allowed, #65 explosiveness allowed, Personality Score: -62)
- 2. Alabama (#2 efficiency allowed, #54 explosiveness allowed, Personality Score: -52)
- 3. Clemson (#5 efficiency allowed, #81 explosiveness allowed, Personality Score: -76)
- 4. Ohio State (#7 efficiency allowed, #74 explosiveness allowed, Personality Score: -67)
- 5. Boston College (#1 efficiency allowed, #79 explosiveness allowed, Personality Score: -78)
- 6. Wisconsin (#15 efficiency allowed, #45 explosiveness allowed, Personality Score: -30)
- 7. Marshall (#28 efficiency allowed, #21 explosiveness allowed, Personality Score: 7)
- 8. Florida (#9 efficiency allowed, #75 explosiveness allowed, Personality Score: -66)
- 9. Toledo (#39 efficiency allowed, #23 explosiveness allowed, Personality Score: 16)
- 10. Iowa (#12 efficiency allowed, #7 explosiveness allowed, Personality Score: 5)
- UCLA (#64 efficiency allowed, #9 explosiveness allowed, Personality Score: 55)
These numbers stunned us. 7 of the top 10 teams in point prevention are heavily skewed towards efficiency prevention, and the three with positive scores (denoting that they focus on stopping explosiveness) aren’t nearly as far from 0 as the efficiency preventers. Points Per Drive isn’t the final word in defensive rankings, but it’s a biggie and it’s no coincidence that 4 of the top 5 teams in the current College Football Playoff rankings are in the top 10 of fewest Points Allowed Per Drive. From this particular data set, it sure looks like teams that prevent efficiency are much more likely to prevent points.
That’s not the full story, though. Our astute readership will have no doubt noticed that there are zero Pac-12 teams on this list, and given the fact that teams are much better off scheming to win their conference rather than preparing themselves for some Final Four game that may never come, we should take a look at what the Pac-12 defensive numbers look like. Here are the Points Allowed Per Drive rankings in the Pac-12 (Remember, the greater the Personality Score, the more a defense focuses on preventing efficiency):
This is strikingly different from what we see in the national data. In the Pac-12, the top three defenses according to Points Per Drive are all pretty heavily skewed to take away explosive plays, and only one defense in the entire conference (ASU) is heavily skewed to take away efficiency. This focus has not led to a successful season for the Sun Devils, as they are mired in 7th place in Points Allowed Per Drive and must win 2 out of 3 games from Washington, Arizona, and Cal to even become bowl-eligible. The most balanced defenses in the conference are Stanford, Southern Cal, Colorado, and Arizona, but none of them have been particularly good on defense either.
It is pretty clear from this vantage point that Pac-12 defensive coordinators have overwhelmingly decided that preventing explosiveness is the correct way to attack conference offenses. Does this make sense given what we know of the nationally-elite defenses being efficiency-preventers? We look forward to reading the debate on the message board.
UCLA at the Stretch Run
Let’s take a look at the Bruins’ overall stats as we enter the exciting stretch run.
As always, we use:
- Yards Per Stop to measure efficiency
- Yards Per Play to measure explosiveness
- Points Per Drive to measure scoring
- Points Per Trip Inside the 40 to measure drive finishing
- Field Position Margin to measure field position
- Turnover Margin to measure turnovers
One thing jumped out immediately when we began writing this article—the UCLA offense has gotten better despite the loss of Brett Hundley, UCLA’s best offensive player since Maurice Drew and best quarterback since at least Cade McNown. We think it’s safe to say that this is in large part a product of the best offensive line in recent memory, as Adrian Klemm’s crew finally has experience across the board to go with its talent. The offensive line has done a great job of giving Josh Rosen time—a year after giving up a ton of sacks, the UCLA offensive line is #1 in the entire country in Adjusted Sack Rate. That is huge, and is a big part in another interesting shift in the Bruin offense.
For the first three years of his time at UCLA, Noel Mazzone has led an offense predicated on efficiency and keeping the chains moving. Despite playmakers like Hundley, Jonathan Franklin, and Paul Perkins, this was probably a good idea given the offensive line’s struggles in pass protection. However, now that he has a very good offensive line, things have changed significantly for the NZone. While the Bruins are still very efficient on offense (comfortably in the Top 25 tier though actually fifth in the offense-focused league), they have morphed into an explosive big play offense. 6.8 Yards Per Play is at the Top Ten tier level, and is tops in the Pac 12 over even the formidable Stanford offense. Conor McDermott, Kenny Lacy, Jake Brendel, Alex Redmond, Caleb Benenoch, Kolten Miller, and Adrian Klemm: take a bow, you’ve earned it thus far. Oh and the quarterback and skill players have been solid too.
In a year that started with high hopes to be among the most dominant defensive units in the entire country, injuries forced the Bruins to pivot to more modest defensive goals. With over a quarter of the starting lineup out for the season (remember what happened to UCLA basketball when just 20% of its starting lineup—Jordan Adams—went down immediately after beating Arizona in the Pac 12 Tournament semifinals in 2013? Ben Howland does) and various other dings throughout the year, the Bruin defense has regrouped and become one of the top defenses in the league, though not the country.
As we will see in the next section, even though the Bruins aren’t among the national leaders, they are comfortable in at least the Top 3 in the conference in every defensive stat we track. Making it into the Top 25 tier in Yards Allowed Per Play is especially impressive given that approximately 25,000 players have been forced into action among the linebackers and secondary. This level of play isn’t what we hoped for coming into the season, but given the injury circumstances and the offensive surge, it has so far been good enough to put the Bruins in a position to control their own destiny for at least the Rose Bowl.
Conference Statistical Rankings
Next, we’re going to check out the conference-wide stats. Recall that the Z score shows how many standard deviations a team’s stat lies from the conference mean—the further from zero, the more abnormal (for better or worse) that team’s performance has been.
Stanford holds on to a commanding lead in Yards Per Stop, 1.79 standard deviations better than the norm and well into our Top 10 tier. Southern Cal, Oregon, Wazzu, and UCLA are in the next tier, with the Trojans perhaps a bit higher at over 1 standard deviation better than the mean. There are no truly awful offenses in the league—even Oregon State and Washington, while bad, are not historically bad.
Points Per Drive sets up much like Yards Per Stop, with Stanford far ahead of the pack, Southern Cal, Washington State, UCLA, and Oregon good but not elite, and a bunch of mediocre but not horrific teams at the bottom. The Top 25 tier is much more closely bunched in Points Per Drive, which the #2 and #5 ranked teams within .20 standard deviations of one another.
As we noted above, the Big Play Bruins are tops in the conference in Yards Per Play, though Stanford and Southern Cal are also in the elite Top 10 level tier. The air raid offenses of Washington State and Cal are both actually fairly explosive, which is a switch from last season when both teams were a little more efficiency-focused. Colorado and Oregon State are not explosive and are our first Pac-12 teams to hit the bottom tier in an offensive stat.
We worried a bit when Brett Hundley left that the loss of his running ability might hurt the Bruins’ stellar ability to take advantage of scoring opportunities, but that worry has proven unfounded. The Bruins lead the league in PPTI40, even topping stellar Southern Cal and (hey maybe Puntin’ David Shaw finally learned a thing or two about scoring position playcalling) Stanford. The rest of the league frankly hasn’t been particularly impressive at taking advantage of scoring opportunities.
This is decidedly NOT a defense-oriented conference. Despite being pretty clearly oriented to preventing the big play, the UCLA defense actually leads the league with 38 Yards Allowed Per Stop, which is only a Top 50-level number. Washington, Stanford, Utah, and Southern Cal are nearby in that Top 50 level, and the rest of the conference is mediocre-to-bad. Hey remember when all those national analysts picked Arizona to beat UCLA?
Washington, Utah, UCLA, and Stanford are all allowing at least one standard deviation less than the average points per drive. For those interested in how Washington State has been able to turn it around into being bowl-eligible and one manageable field goal away from upsetting Stanford, their defensive metamorphosis into slightly-better-than-average at Points Allowed Per Drive after being just abysmal last year is a big data point. Colorado realllllly missed an opportunity in their loss to Arizona, as a win just might have brought the Buffs out of the Pac-12 South cellar.
This is the lone defensive stat where a Pac-12 team actually broke into the Top 25 tier, as the Bruin defense is doing a very good job of playing to its strengths given the injuries. The usual suspects of Washington, Stanford, and Utah are also over one standard deviation better than the conference average, and Cal and Oregon might have been able to play for something beyond the Las Vegas Bowl if not for their awful Yards Allowed Per Play numbers.
Washington is doing a very impressive job of toughening up and preventing their opponents from taking advantage of scoring opportunities, and it seems that Washington State, Utah, and Southern Cal will all be good tests for UCLA’s very strong scoring offense.
As usual, Stanford bosses this stat, over TWO standard deviations above the conference mean. Further back though still very good is Utah, the team we called Baby Stanford throughout 2014 (can’t say the same this year due to Stanford’s very good offense).The Bruins check in at fifth in the conference, at the bottom of the Top 50 tier though well above the teams in the Top 100 tier.
Southern Cal and Utah lead the conference by a fair amount in turnover margin, while the Bruins finally broke over the 0 mark with last week’s wipeout of Oregon State. It is fascinating that despite their attacking defensive style, Arizona State is dead last in conference turnover margin. Interestingly, if we believe that a team is a 50/50 shot to recover a fumble and a 20% shot to intercept a pass it gets its hands on, the Sun Devils are actually getting a little lucky and should be a little closer to -10.
We really hope you’ve enjoyed this analysis of what has been a very interesting season thus far. With 3 regular season games to go and everything still to play for, things should only get more mouth-watering. It’s November and the Bruins are very much in contention—enjoy it!
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