K J.J. Molson (Photo by Steve Cheng)

UCLA vs. BYU Statistical Preview

Sep. 16 -- Check out our statistical preview of the UCLA vs. BYU game...

These are desperate times. After the first two games of the season, the UCLA offense has been inconsistent and the defense has been mediocre, leading to a 1-1 record going into the final game of the nonconference. Things are feeling a little heated in Provo as well, with inconsistent efforts on both sides of the ball leading to a 1-1 record against the Pac-12 South and just 18.5 points per game. The Cougars just managed to lose a rivalry game in which they forced 6 turnovers, and this is their home opener. These will be two teams heavily motivated to finish the first quarter of their schedules on a high note.

Given that BYU had a whole new coaching change and UCLA has a new offensive coordinator and (ostensibly) new defensive philosophy, we’re going to wade into small-sample-size territory and show the 2016 stats thus far. There have been over 40 drives and over 260 plays in BYU’s games and over 50 drives and over 300 plays in UCLA’s games so there’s still some data here, but we do still caution that you should take these numbers with a grain of salt (many analytical rating systems are not fully reliant on the current season’s stats until the midway point of the season or beyond). So what to those stats look like?

As in previous years, we track the following stats:

  • Yards Per Stop: A measure of efficiency
  • Yards Per Play: A measure of explosiveness
  • Points Per Drive and Points Per Trip Inside the 40: A measure of scoring proficiency
  • Field Position Margin
  • Turnover Margin

UCLA Offense/BYU Defense

It took three quarters for the UCLA offense to find its sea legs this season, but from the start of the fourth quarter in College Station, the Bruins have gone three-and-out once and scored touchdowns on eight of their fourteen drives (57% of the time). Coach Mora has even gone for it on fourth down twice in each game (converting on three of four occasions), potentially a welcome sign of an improved sense of risk management in UCLA’s in-game tactics. It is a little concerning that the big plays have yet to materialize for the Bruins, with a Top 50-level 5.9 Yards Per Play and only 3 plays of 30 or more yards (tied for 84th) on the season. Using Bill Connelly’s IsoPPP measurement of explosiveness, the Bruins are 103rd in the country. There have been several instances in which Bruin receivers have broken free and either dropped the ball or had to deal with a bad pass from Josh Rosen, so it would be nice if those bombs could start to be completed.

The BYU defense has a pretty funky statistical profile. They have been ok (Top 50-level) at preventing efficiency, mediocre (Top 100-level) at preventing explosiveness, and absolutely elite (Top 10-level) at preventing points. Football Study Hall ranks the Cougars a mediocre 78th in Success Rate allowed even after playing the traditionally weak Utah offense. We don’t normally see this kind of rainbow in our statistical comparisons on one side of the ball (normally if a team is not that good at preventing efficiency or explosiveness, they won’t be good at preventing points), but it is not hard to find the reason the Cougars were so good at keeping Arizona and Utah off the scoreboard—turnovers. BYU has turned their opponents over eight times over the first two games, good for second in the entire country.

We expect around 22% of passes defensed to be intercepted and 50% of fumbles to be recovered by the defense, so the Cougars have been a little lucky. They have intercepted 42% of their passes defensed and recovered 75% of the fumbles they have forced, so over a long enough time period we would expect those numbers to fall back to the mean. 8 of 22 opponent drives thus far have been stopped by a turnover—it will be important for Josh Rosen, who threw multiple bad interceptions against BYU last season in the friendly confines of the Rose Bowl, to take care of the ball.

BYU Offense/UCLA Defense

If BYU’s offense had been merely ok so far this season, they would be 2-0 with a win over Utah. Unfortunately for the Cougars, the offense has been inefficient, not explosive, and awful at scoring points. BYU has been even less explosive than UCLA, with fewer Yards Per Play, just as many (few?) plays of over 30 yards, and an IsoPPP ranking of 123. The men from Provo are a little better at running the ball than they are at throwing, ranking 36th in the country in rushing Success Rate and 65th in passing Success Rate, so it’s probably a good bet that BYU will attempt to employ a run-heavy game plan against the Bruin defense.

This is certainly a case of the resistible force facing the movable object, as UCLA’s defense is 94th in the country in Success Rate Allowed at 43.7% (the national average is 40.2%). Dialing in further, the Bruins are a horrific 101st in Rushing Success Rate Allowed and a still-pretty-weak 73rd in Passing Success Rate Allowed. Perhaps most concerning this season for the Bruins is their capitulation to teams once they get within scoring position, with an astounding 6.5 Points Allowed Per Trip Inside the 40. As we said in the UNLV review, this is not a bend-don’t-break UCLA defense, it is bend-then-break. With this being the final game before back-to-back-to-back challenges against the high-powered Stanford, Arizona, and Arizona State offenses, the Bruins must do something to reverse their current defensive woes.


We have already discussed turnovers at length above—the Bruins cannot allow BYU to continue its turnover luck if they want to get a win in what looks to be a relatively evenly-matched game.

It would be nice for the altitude to get UCLA some cheap touchbacks on kickoffs—JJ Molson has only forced one touchback all season. Neither team has returned a punt or kickoff for a touchdown yet, though this could be a game where Ishmael Adams makes an impact—BYU was 110th in the country last season in opponent punt return average 12 12.38 Yards Per Return.

The Computers

The Massey College Football Ranking Composite, taking 62 different rating systems into account, has UCLA as the #38 team in college football, while BYU is #40. The Bruins’ rankings range from #14 to #69 with a standard deviation of 12.27. This standard deviation is about the same as teams with similar ranking levels, meaning there is a fair amount of agreement on where UCLA belongs. The Cougars rankings range from #2 to #62, with a standard deviation of 9.82. This standard deviation is lower than most teams with the same ranking level, meaning there is a strong amount of agreement that this is where BYU belongs.

Using Brian Fremeau’s FEI ratings, FEI predicts a 27-23 BYU win. Bill Connelly’s S&P+ predicts a 35-31 Bruin victory.

Your Saturday TV Schedule

9 AM Slot: The day starts off strong as Florida State travels to Louisville (average Massey rating: 8).

Noon Slot: Alabama tries to stop a two game losing streak against Ole Miss in this time slot (average Massey rating: 9). Last season, Ole Miss got incredibly lucky with turnovers (and Alabama got incredibly unlucky), causing everybody to immediately overrate Ole Miss and underrated the eventual national champs. Ole Miss is one of the very few teams that can say with a straight face that they believe they can beat Alabama, so this should be an interesting game.

Early Evening Slot: There are a bevy of interesting games to whet your appetite for the Bruins. The Texas A&M-Auburn game may not have the most intriguing Massey rating (average rating: 23.5), but a big Texas A&M win would help ease some concerns about the Bruins’ opening loss (just as a big Auburn win would amplify those concerns). Michigan State at Notre Dame is another interesting game, among two teams that have faint title hopes (average rating: 19). Stanford-Southern Cal (average rating: 15.5) will be a good look at two future Bruin opponents.

#Pac12AfterDark Slot: The Bruins inhabit this slot, though keep an eye on that Texas at Cal game as well in case the UCLA game finishes early.

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