Sorensen: Unlocking statistical key to '05 success

STATISTICS DON'T LIE, the old saying goes. But which stats you look at can make all the difference in what you learn. The Sporting News just devoted a cover story to numbers in sports and how they can be dissected to reveal keen insights about the games we play.

So here, with the kickoff of 2005 just hours away, I engage in a little comparative Cougar analysis, looking to find out what separates a 10-win season from a 5-win campaign.

I'm no sabermatician like those employed to great effect by the Oakland A's and Boston Red Sox, but I did steal a page from their playbook for the purposes of my analysis. In other words, no looking at the standard old numbers, like total yardage, points and the like.

I looked at the more obscure stats --- stats that, to me, dig deeper and tell you more about what's happening. These are stats that paint such a vibrant picture you don't even need to know the final outcome to know what transpired.

As such, I focused my crunching to seven categories.

On offense, they were 3rd-down conversion rate; average yards per play; and time of possession. On defense, it was quarterback hurries; and average yards surrendered per play. I also used two stats that combine offense and defense: turnover ratio; and penalties.

Among my observations after comparing all those numbers from the Cougars' 10-win seasons of 2001, 2002 and 2003 with the 5-6 campaign of 2004 is that the margin of difference between the out house and the penthouse is thin. Maybe not as thin as the hair on the back of Mike Levenseller's head, but thin nonetheless. While the Cougars of 2004 ranked last (or tied for last) in four of the seven categories, the margins were generally pretty close.

Still --- and I want to emphasize that, STILL --- there were some dramatic differences, especially in time of possession and quarterback hurries, that were very illuminating. Here's the complete rundown:

3rd-down conversions:
The 2001 Cougars converted 39 percent of their third-down plays to lead the way. The 2003 team was next at 36 percent. Both the 2004 and 2002 teams were at 34 percent. A difference of three percentage points from top to bottom may not sound like a lot, but it's actually huge. In 2004, for instance, it easily was the difference between what would have been a solid Cougar victory over Oregon vs. the nail-biting loss that we actually saw.

Time of possession:
The 2004 Cougs held the ball an average of 27 minutes, 13 seconds per game --- a full three minutes less the season before and four minutes less than in 2001. Interestingly, TOP between the Cougars' Pac-10 championship team of 2002 and the 2004 club was almost identical, but my sense is that it had more to do with the quick-strike offense the Cougars had in '02. The 2004 number also goes a long way in explaining the 5-6 season when you consider that Bill Doba came into the season saying it was imperative to operate a ball-control offense in order to take stress off the Cougars' young defense. Go back to the second half of that Oregon game to see the frightful results on both sides of the ball when it doesn't happen.

Offensive yards per play:
The 2004 Cougars averaged 5.1 yards per offensive snap, down slightly from 5.2 in 2003, but way down from the glossy 6.2 yards per play in 2002 and 5.7 in 2001. That spread between best and worst comes out roughly to 70-plus yards per game. Do you think that could have been the difference in that maddening 20-12 loss to Colorado?

Measured in yards lost per game, this was the only one of the seven categories where the 2004 Cougars had the best showing. Not sure if this is a reflection of the offensive line getting more comfortable with Coach Yarno's system or perhaps a lack of overall aggressiveness. They were flagged for an average of 65.7 yards per game, way down from 94.6 the season before. The 2002 number was 67.1 and 2001 was 70.3. For my money, all those numbers are too high.

Yards surrendered per play:
Not surprisingly, the 2003 team, led by seniors Erik Coleman, D.D. Acholonu, et. al., set the pace here. They gave up an average of 4.2 yards per play. The championship team of 2002 was next best, at 4.5, followed by last season's club at 4.8 and 2001's at 5.2. While those numbers may not seem all that far apart, consider that each team gets about 70 offensive snaps in a typical college game. Add up the difference between 4.2 and 4.8 over the course of a game and you're talking 30 yards --- 30 yards that, for instance, could have prevented the three Stanford field goals that gave the Card a 23-17 victory over the Cougs last season.

Quarterback hurries:
I picked this category instead of sacks because hurries can create more havoc, in the form of interceptions, grounding penalties and wear and tear on the quarterback's body and pysche. This is where you really see the difference between the 10-win clubs and last season's edition. The 2004 Cougar D tallied 19 quarterback hurries --- down from a whopping 50 in 2003 and 30 in 2002. (I couldn't find the 2001 number). This discrepancy sticks out like sore thumb when looking for answers behind the 5-6 record in 2004.

Turnover ratio:
This is a simple computation --- the difference between all the interceptions and fumbles you give up vs. all the interceptions and fumbles you collect. The 2001 team was a big-time +12. The 2003 club was +6. Surprisingly, the Rose Bowl team of 2002 was -4. Last season the Cougars were -1. Bottom line here is that most teams with a positive number are en route to post-season play.

So what to make of it all?

You can digest numbers until you're blue in the proverbial face. For WSU to get back to a bowl game, I think it boils down to three things.

First, the Cougs need to step up the ball-control in a significant way. My hunch is that's why agile Alex Brink has been named the starter over stronger-armed Josh Swogger.

Second, the defensive line needs to get into the quarterback's face early and often. That push, so glaringly absent in 2004, creates opportunities for the linebackers and defensive backs and knocks opponents out of the comfort zone.

Third, keep the penalty total down.

Come December and we see notable improvement in those areas, I can almost guarantee you'll see better numbers in every one of my Big Seven stats. And that will mean it's time to start making room on our holiday calendars.

About the author: Paul Sorensen was a first-team All-America safety for Jim Walden's Cougars in the early 1980s. He played professionally in the USFL and NFL before becoming a long-time color commentator on Cougar radio broadcasts.

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