FanPost

To Kick Off or Receive?

Back in the days when I played a ton of NCAA Football on the PS2, after winning the coin toss the decision to receive or defer wasn't even a question. In the words of Matt Hasselback, I wanted the ball and I was gonna score. But in an actual football game, should the question of whether to defer to the second half be given more thought by the MSU staff than I used to give it? Maybe not. Well, at least not according to a season's worth of data. Unlike Marty Mornhinweg in overtime, MSU probably should take the ball.

I chose to look at drive data for Michigan State's first offensive and defensive drives at the start of the 1st half, and their first offensive and defensive drives at the start of the second half.

Curiously, we only got into this favorable situation of our offense starting the first half and our defense starting the second, a third of the time in 2010. Either our coaches were choosing to defer (I can't remember, nor does there seem to be a particularly good way to find that information) or Coach Narduzzi's proclamation that "Stats are for losers" includes the stats behind coin flip probabilities as well.

Table Time!

Let's first look at the 1st offensive possessions of the half for MSU when they kick off.

 

Offense First Possession of the 1st half (MSU Kicks Off)

Plays Yards Touchdown Field Goal Punt Turnover
WMU 2010 2 36 1 - - -
ND 2010 3 7 - - 1 -
Wisc. 2010 9 33 - 1 - -
Mich. 2010 9 65 - - - 1
Iowa 2010 3 9 - - 1 -
Minn 2010 6 80 1 - - -
Purdue 2010 9 72 1 - - -
Bama 2010 12 35 - - - 1
Total

3 1 2 2







Offense First Possession of the 2nd half (MSU Kicks Off)

Plays Yards Touchdown Field Goal Punt Turnover
WMU 2010 7 80 1 - - -
ND 2010 2 74 1 - - -
Wisc. 2010 5 -1 - - 1 -
Mich. 2010 5 68 1 - - -
Iowa 2010 3 3 - - - 1
Minn 2010 10 47 - 1 - -
Purdue 2010 3 6 - - 1 -
Bama 2010 3 6 - - 1 -
Total

3 1 3 1

Now let's look at Michigan State's first defensive possessions in the same situation:

 

Defense First Possession of the 1st half (MSU Kicks Off)

Plays Yards Touchdown Field Goal Punt Turnover
WMU 2010 3 -13 - - 1 -
ND 2010 8 19 - - 1 -
Wisc. 2010 3 4 - - 1 -
Mich. 2010 7 24 - - 1 -
Iowa 2010 12 80 1 - - -
Minn 2010 7 38 - - - 1
Purdue 2010 3 2 - - 1 -
Bama 2010 13 79 1 - - -
Total

2 0 5 1







Defense First Possession of the 2nd half (MSU Kicks Off)

Plays Yards Touchdown Field Goal Punt Turnover
WMU 2010 9 60 1 - - -
ND 2010 6 74 1 - - -
Wisc. 2010 3 47 1 - - -
Mich. 2010 7 58 - - - 1
Iowa 2010 3 2 - - 1 -
Minn 2010 6 31 - - - 1
Purdue 2010 11 69 1 - - -
Bama 2010 4 79 1 - - -
Total

5 0 1 2

Now how about offensive data for when we receive?

 

Offense First Possession of the 1st half (MSU Receives)

Plays Yards Touchdown Field Goal Punt Turnover
FAU 2010 7 41 - 1 - -
Ill. 2010 6 10 - - 1 -
NW 2010 3 9 - - 1 -
PSU 2010 9 71 1 - - -
Total

1 1 2 0







Offense First Possession of the 2nd half (MSU Receives)

Plays Yards Touchdown Field Goal Punt Turnover
FAU 2010 1 80 1 - - -
Ill. 2010 4 -1 - 1 - -
NW 2010 3 48 1 - - -
PSU 2010 3 -3 - - 1 -
Total

2 1 1 0

And defensive?

 

Defense First Possession of the 1st half (MSU Receives)

Plays Yards Touchdown Field Goal Punt Turnover
FAU 2010 3 7 - - 1 -
Ill. 2010 13 66 - 1 - -
NW 2010 3 -13 - - 1 -
PSU 2010 8 65 - 1 - -
Total

0 2 2 0







Defense First Possession of the 2nd half (MSU Receives)

Plays Yards Touchdown Field Goal Punt Turnover
FAU 2010 8 35 - - 1 -
Ill. 2010 5 18 - -
1
NW 2010 3 -3 - - 1 -
PSU 2010 4 26 - - 1 -
Total

0 0 3 1

Alright, now finally, let's see if we can't take that detailed data and put it in a way that's easier to compare and quantify the difference.

 

MSU Receives

Total Drives Scoring Drives Non-scoring drives Touchdown Field Goal Punt Turnover
Offense Both halves (receives) 8 5 3 3 2 3 0
Defense Both halves (receives) 8 2 6 0 2 5 1








MSU Kicks Off

Total Drives Scoring Drives Non-scoring drives Touchdown Field Goal Punt Turnover
Offense Both halves (Kicks Off) 16 8 8 6 2 5 3
Defense Both halves (kicks Off) 16 7 9 7 0 6 3

Now at first, MSU Receives looks like a runaway winner, right? Better Offensive Efficiency, better Defensive Efficiency, way less points given up on defense, better offensive output, less turnovers. Unfortunately, it's not so easy to confirm that. Why?

Noise

There are a few objections we have to take care of first.

To start, you might be asking: could that disparity in drives be affecting the conclusions here? Maybe, but it doesn't seem like it. For one, despite having half the opportunities, on games in which MSU received they put up pretty close 'positive numbers' to games in which they kicked off. You'd have to expect a pretty big downturn in their next eight drives to not exceed the numbers put up in the 'MSU kicks off' games. I think it's reasonable to assume the difference in effectiveness isn't just in the difference in sample sizes.

The second objection is about the difference in strength of opponents in the games. Clearly there are bigger names in the Kick Off category. Wisconsin, Alabama, Iowa AND Notre Dame in one group? Could the existence of most of the bad teams on our schedule (West. Mich, Minn, Purdue, Michigan) offset that? Well, no. Opponents win loss records in the Kick Off category were 57-44. The records in the Receive category were 25-26.

So this leads us to a much stronger objection: does the existence of this strength of schedule gap hurt our initial conclusion? Yes, it does, actually. But probably not to a devastating degree. How can we investigate further? Let's try breaking the 16 drives of the MSU Kicks Off into two categories: Top Comp (ND, WIS, IOWA, ALA) and Worse Comp (WMU, PUR, MINN, MICH).

 

MSU Kicks Off Against Top Comp

Total Drives Scoring Drives Non-scoring drives Touchdown Field Goal Punt Turnover
Offense Both halves (receives) 8 2 6 1 1 4 2
Defense Both halves (receives) 8 5 3 5 0 3 0








MSU Kicks Off Against Worse Comp

Total Drives Scoring Drives Non-scoring drives Touchdown Field Goal Punt Turnover
Offense Both halves (receives) 8 6 2 5 1 1 1
Defense Both halves (receives) 8 2 6 2 0 3 3

Ugh. As you can see, against the top comp who went a very strong 37-15 combined, MSU did badly.

But the better comparison and the one that makes me go with the Receive option in the end, is the Worse Comp Data. These four teams, who went 20-29, and included what I would argue were four of the worst five teams on our schedule didn't end up producing numbers that were that much better than those gained by the Receive group against tougher competition.

Is it unreasonable for me to think that the Receive option, who put up similar numbers against better competition, would manage better against the schedules 'Top Comp' than the Kick Off scenario did? I don't think so.

In Conclusion

This was a question that frankly got tougher to answer the more I looked at the limited data, not easier. I could probably be convinced by a good argument that we should have chosen to defer more, but was ultimately persuaded by the teams very good production against mostly middle of the pack big ten teams than I was by its bad-to-very good performance against both the best and worst of our schedule. If you disagree with my conclusion feel free to voice your counterargument in the comment section.

I think these sorts of football meta-questions are interesting and often left unexplored by traditional analysts. I'll keep looking for ways to bring some different methods of analysis to this blog in the future. Thanks in advance for any feedback!

This is a FanPost, written by a member of the TOC community. It does not represent the official positions of The Only Colors, Inc.--largely because we have no official positions.

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