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New Math- Youngstown State edition

Author's note- This gets pretty nerdy and long. It should be a lot less long, but probably just as nerdy in the future. Pete posted a very good conventional recap of this game earlier. But if you're looking for something a little different, this might be up your alley.

I think it all started one day when I was reading Joe Posnanski, and started to get jealous of baseball's various sabermetrics. Which is weird, because I don't even like baseball. And then I started thinking about Ken Pomeroy and college basketball's statistical revolution, and well, I was jealous of that too (though I happen to love college basketball).

What was a stat-head college football fan to do when it came to going beyond age old measures like total offense, yards per carry, and touchdowns? How could someone take a game that usually only has about 8-15 possessions per team per game, and compete with basketball's 50-70 possessions, or baseball's hundreds of at bats? I was pretty confident the internet would have the answer.

And it came in the form of one website on the cutting edge of football's advanced stats, and moreover for me, one man who may or may not be a robot sent back in time to definitively figure out our game of college 'foot ball' before it kills us all: Football Outsiders, and Bill Connelly.

The solution? Play-by-Play data. By heading over to those simple, charted, lists of each play's data, housed on team websites or next to ESPN box score tabs, people can look at football past the 'game' level (of which there are only 12-13 data points per year), past the 'drive' level (maybe 100-150 data points) and get to the 'play' level (thousands of data points).

After a couple weeks of reading, poking around, and tinkering, I think I'm ready to try and apply some of their work. Using the power of this amount of raw data, and a number of clever and illuminating statistics, this approach can help us greater understand what went right (and wrong) in the average football game, what a team is good at, and what it lacks. It allows us new measures of efficiency and explosiveness. I'm a sports nerd and a stat nerd, and this was very exciting for me.

Follow me after the jump for more and a breakdown of the YSU game using these tools...

It's a rotten thing to do, to talk about a new stat or concept without properly defining it first. With that in mind, I've tried to compile some good explanations of these new concepts from the keyboard of Mr. Connelly himself, with little notes of my own where I thought they'd be helpful.


"I enjoyed having Jerome "2 carries, 3 yards, 2 TDs" Bettis on my fantasy team that last year of his career, but let's be honest: Just about anybody could have come in and plunged in from the 1. Getting the ball to the 1 was the much bigger accomplishment, no? In this way, touchdowns are basically the Runs Batted In of football -- get enough of them, and it's damn impressive, but you need quite a bit of help racking up a big number.

Case in point: November 10, College Park, Maryland. Tight end Jason Goode catches two touchdown passes (of ten and seven yards) from Chris Turner as Maryland upsets No. 8 Boston College, 42-35. Good for Mr. Goode. However, what contributed more to Maryland's touchdowns -- Goode's two receptions or the 43-yard catch by Darrius Hayward that set up the first score and the 45-yard catch by Isaiah Williams that set up the second? What if we could apply a point value to all four catches?

So that was the goal. I determined the points scored on every possession of every game and assigned those points to each play of the possession. From there I was able to assign a 'point value' to every yard line based on the average number of points you could expect to score from there. And with that I was able to assign an Equivalent Point Value (EqPt) to every play."

This stat confused me a bit, until I ran across the table on this page and it made much more sense. Each play's EqPt value is determined by subtracting the yard line the play started on from the yard line the play ended on.


PPP = EqPts/plays. In the way that high numbers in yards per attempt, or yards per carry, usually indicate explosiveness, PPP does the same. Simple, powerful.

Success Rate:

Success Rate: A common Football Outsiders tool used to measure efficiency by determining whether every play of a given game was successful or not. The terms of success in college football: 50 percent of necessary yardage on first down, 70 percent on second down, and 100 percent on third and fourth down.


The idea behind Success Rate is simple: every play is deemed successful or unsuccessful based on down, distance and yardage gained. Plays on first, second and third downs (and fourth, for that matter) all have as close to the same success rate as possible (between 40% and 45%).


As a frame of reference, the average success rate for FBS teams from 2005-10 was 41.6%

Another simple, intuitive tool. Everyone loves 3rd down %, this helps expand that concept to all downs and distances.


One of the more common and telling stats in baseball is OPS (On-base percentage Plus Slugging average). It measures both efficiency/consistency and power/explosiveness. Well, if PPP equals explosiveness, what equals efficiency?... Success Rate.

...So if we have Success Rate playing the on-base percentage role and PPP as slugging average, then combining them would give us an OPS-style number, no?

This way, teams like Navy, who eat a lot of clock between plays and would therefore never be as high in total yards as some hurry-up offenses, get credit for being as dangerous as they were last year.


On an individual player basis, S&P can show flaws that simpler figures like Total Yards or Yards Per Carry/Catch would not. Before Mizzou played Arkansas in last year's Cotton Bowl, I was analyzing the Hogs' offense and found a chink in Darren McFadden's armor: While his 1,700-plus yards and 5.6 yards per carry were certainly impressive, his 0.81 S&P (keyed by a pedestrian-for-such-a-star-RB 46.8 percent success rate) was not. It would have ranked No. 13 among running backs in the Big 12. To be sure, a lot of this was because defenses focused on him so much (his counterpart Felix Jones managed a 1.17 S&P due in part to preoccupation with McFadden), but his 0.34 PPP were rather unimpressive. And this is, in part, why a theoretically explosive offense like Arkansas ground to a halt against a lot of good defenses like Auburn (they lost 9-7) and Missouri (38-7). The offense was perceived as better than it actually was, and its low overall success rate (44.6 percent) and S&P (0.81, the same as stagnant Texas A&M) betrayed it throughout the season.

In other words, there's a reason why Darren McFadden didn't deserve the Heisman, no matter how good he looks in the open field. It wasn't his fault that the Arkansas passing game was four shades of terrible, and it wasn't his fault that defenses did whatever they could to force other players to beat them, but you have to be more than simply a threat to win the Heisman. You have to still produce as well. And while McFadden obviously produced quite a bit (LSU and South Carolina come to mind), he was held in check a few too many times.

Success Rate & Points Per Play (or rather, Success Rate + Points Per Play).

Standard downs:

Standard Downs: First downs, second-and-6 or less, third-and-4 or less.

Passing Downs:

Second-and-7 or more, third-and-5 or more,

and 4th-and-5 or more when such situations come up.

Line Yards:

Adjusted Line Yards (ALY): Statistic which attempts to, even to a small extent, separate the ability of a running back from the ability of the offensive line. Adjusted Line Yards begin as a measure of average rushing yards per play by running backs only, adjusted in the following way:

  • 0-4 yards: 100% strength
  • 5-10 yards: 50% strength
  • 11+ yards: not included
  • runs for a loss: 120% strength

'Strength' here just means how much you multiple the 'lineman yards' by (those bullets break up the 'tiers' of a carry. So if an RB gains 11 yards, the first tier, the first 4 yards are assigned 100% value. The second tie, yards 5-10 of the carry, are assigned half their weight, or divided by two. The final tier, the 11th yard of the eleven yard carry, is ignored, the thinking going that by then, the RB has outran his linemen).

So if a running back gets a 3 yard gain the line yard value is 3 (1(3)=3). If he gets a 7 yard gain it's 5.5 (4+.5(3)=5.5). If he gets a 17 yard gain it's 7 (4+.5(6)+0(7)=7). If he gets hit for a three yard loss it's -3.6 (1.2(-3)=-3.6).

Yards Per Play:

Total Yards/Total # of Plays. Another measure of explosiveness, this one much more quick and dirty to figure out than PPP. If you are gaining a lot of yards but need many plays to do it, you might be worse off than your opponent who has gained almost as many yards in fewer plays. I kinda can't believe this one hasn't caught on with ESPN yet.

Yards per Point

Total Yards/Total Points Scored. Another measure of efficiency, this one as well, is quite easy to calculate, but obviously is also less precise than play-by-play measures. I find it works well to think of this as a indicator of whether or not a defense is 'bending, but not breaking'. A high number means offenses may be going on lengthy drives but not finding paydirt. A low number means they're finding ways to score touchdowns in a relatively cheap fashion. It also helpfully incorporates concepts of field position and special teams (teams who start every drive on their own 20 will probably have higher YPP than teams who start every drive on their own 40)

Big Plays:

Explored here. [(Runs of 20+) + (Passes of 30+) + (PRs of 30+) + (KRs of 50+) + (Fumbles) + (INTs) + (return TDs) + (Def. TDs) + (Blkd Kicks) + (50+ FGs) = total big plays.


# of running plays / total # of plays. Determines how many plays a team runs the ball on offense compared to how often they pass it.

'Close' game:

Sometimes to weed out plays made in 'garbage time', plays are only considered while the game is 'close'. The definition of a 'close game' changes as the game nears its finish. Defined as:

when the score is within 28 points in the first quarter, within 24 points in the second quarter, within 21 points in the third quarter, and within 16 points (i.e. two possession) in the fourth quarter.

The percentage of how long the game was close is defined by (Total # of drives - drives while the game wasn't close) / (total number of drives).


(Number of passing downs/total number of plays)

If your team can move the ball down the field, without getting in a lot of plays where they have to convert a long 2nd or 3rd down that's good (a high percentage of leverage). If they can't, and are facing many long 2nd and 3rd down yardage situations, that's bad (a low leverage number). If you can get a high percentage on offense and a low percentage on defense, you put a lot of pressure on your opponents.

Enemy Territory:

# of plays run past the 50 yard line / total plays. Does what it says, generally lets you know how much of the time you are pinned back, and how frequently you're threatening.

Okay, I think that covers the definition section. Now let's put these concepts to work, and take a look at our new box score and our 'new math':

MSU 28, YSU 6


Close % 87.50%
Enemy Territory % 41.38% 44.78%
Success Rate 60.53% 32.43%
Leverage % 87.93% 78.57%
PPP 0.357 0.100

S&P 0.967 0.410

EqPts 25.272 13.322
Close Success Rate 55.77% 36.84%
Success Rate 55.00% 38.71%
Close PPP 0.467 0.212
PPP 0.612 0.351
Close S&P 1.025 0.580
S&P 1.123 0.774

EqPts 13.405 6.803
Number 1 1
Close Success Rate 58.06% 40.00%
Points off turnovers 7 6
Close PPP 0.432 0.192

Close S&P 1.013 0.592
Line Yards per carry 2.934 2.847
Q1 S&P 0.468 0.524

Q2 S&P 1.364 0.741
Q3 S&P 0.944 0.509
EqPts 11.867 6.519
Q4 S&P 0.948 0.321
Close Success Rate 52.38% 33.33%
1st Down S&P 0.758 0.316
Close PPP 0.565 0.234
2nd Down S&P 1.338 0.654
Close S&P 1.089 0.567
3rd Down S&P 0.982 0.765

Big Plays 5 2
Yards Per Point 14.1 42.5
Yards Per Play 6.8 3.6
Penalties 8 for 55 yrds 4 for 32 yrds
Run-Pass 60.34% 49.28%


1. Standard Downs

MSU went a long way towards winning this game by doing just two things: being unbelievable at stopping YSU on first down, and being really, really good at beating YSU's defense on second down. My data had YSU facing 27 first downs on offense. How many times did they gain 50% or more of first down yardage (i.e., usually at least 5 yards, unless penalties come into play)? 6 times. This meant YSU was constantly facing 2nd and long and they didn't deal with it especially well. Furthermore, their low success rate on first downs was also extremely non-explosive, averaging only .093 PPP.

The fact that YSU converted most of their third downs is probably not a huge deal. First off, third down conversion rates over 50% are unsustainable for the vast majority of offenses. Second, giving up 10 yards on a 3rd and 8 is bad, but not as bad as giving up 10 yards on 3rd and 2 (also, see MSU's sizable advantage in 3rd down S&P despite a lower conversion %, further showing YSU wasn't doing much more with those conversions than living to die another day).

On offense, MSU gained 70% or more of first down yardage on a little over 77% of 2nd downs (17/22) meaning they often set themselves up with short third downs or no third down at all (or, at the very least, turned a penalty aided 2nd and 20 into something more manageable like 3rd and 6).

This is a performance I can get behind. If MSU's defense remains this strong on standard downs for most of the year, eventually the type of success on passing downs we saw on Friday should regress to the mean.

2. Yards between the thirties

I'm convinced Pat Narduzzi gives zero damns about conceding these yards. Like every defensive coordinator, obviously his goal number one is three and outs (or turnovers). But let's say he can't get that. His next goal is to let teams waste away gathering useless yards until they screw up and turn the ball over or have to punt. Mission accomplished.

I probably wouldn't classify this performance as 'bend but don't break' because that phrase implies the offense is actually bending the defense. I was never worried that YSU was going to score on our defense (they did, as it turns out, but in a way that was more, 'huh, that was weird', than 'that's concerning'). YSU was allowed to walk around and inspect various parts of our defensive wall, but the minute push came to shove, the wall wasn't bending, much less breaking.

The vanilla 4-3 and 3-3-5 schemes held YSU to:

YSU Plays

5+ yrds 10+ yrds 20+ yrds 30+ yrds
# of Plays 24 9 2 0

YSU had only six plays inside of the MSU's 30 yard line, and only 3 plays inside of our 20. So, if it's essentially impossible for a team to pull off a one play touchdown, because you aren't letting them enter the part of the field that puts them in that range, and they can't move the ball well enough to sustain drives past your 30 yard line, how do they score points?

The answer to this puzzle is, they don't. Well, okay, as it turns out, if you commit 20 yards worth of defensive penalties and muff a punt, you can give up a single touchdown, but how often will both those things happen in the same drive?

I know a lot of State fans don't like Narduzzi, and I think the offense has clearly been the better of the two sides of the ball during Narduzzi's tenure, but this is not the game to jump on the guy. Penalties aside, just based on production from play to play, this was a good performance, probably a very good performance.

If that's how the defense plays the rest of the year (not in terms of giving up six points, because like, duh, but in terms of keeping teams not only from gaining 30+ yards in a single play, but from gaining 20+ yards or even 10+ yards) then MSU is probably going to win double digit games again.

3. Using possessions effectively

This was a really 'short' game. Each team got basically 2 drives per quarter, which, is not a lot. What did the teams do with this?

8 drives for MSU while the game was close: 4 touchdowns, one missed 27 yard field goal.

8 drives for YSU while the game is close: 1 touchdown, one missed 39 yard field goal.

Both teams threw their best punch in the 2nd quarter, but as expected our A game was much better than their A game, and only some pretty big errors kept us from blowing the game open before halftime.

The only reason MSU didn't score the 'expected' number of points was that they didn't have a reasonable amount of drives to do that. Unless they were going to score touchdowns on 75% of their drives (to get to forty) or score at least 7 touchdowns and a field goal on their eight drives (to get to 50), it wasn't in the cards. In most games, scoring touchdowns on half your possessions will get you to break 30 points. And in most games, the clear statistical advantages held by MSU in nearly every metric would've lead to a more comprehensive victory. I wouldn't worry about it too much.

4. Penalties

So, yuck. But overall, penalties were a big deal, and yet not a big deal. Last year in our opener against WMU, we had more penalties for more yards, yet won the game by a greater margin. On the other hand, YSU probably kicks a field goal if MSU doesn't jump offside on a 3rd and 5 that initially goes incomplete, and maybe MSU scores another touchdown or field goal if they lead off a drive on their own 23 with 6 yard run, 23 yard run, instead of what actually happened which was: false start, 6 yard run, false start, holding, 23 yard run.

8 penalties for 55 yards is rough, but also not that unexpected for the first game, and almost exclusively confined to the first half. Let's try to do better this next game, huh?


I'd say that was probably a better performance than we'll ever get credit for (see: lack of movement/fall in polls). I'm excited to see what can happen if this team can cut its penalties in half or so, win the turnover battle, and get some better field position. Because the other metrics are all looking good (keeping in mind, of course, the non-Division 1 factor) .

We probably don't play consistently enough and at a quick enough pace yet to consistently break 50 points against these types of teams like some people expect/hope, but we're also probably good enough to make sure these games are never really in doubt (unlike, say, 2 years ago). In a 'short' game like Friday, a three touchdown lead might as well be five.

Luckily, the Spartan's get another chance to flex their muscles, against what appears to be a dreadful FAU team. I'd take a performance better than last year's game against them, please.

Finally, sorry this was late. I know that on Thursday's people expect more previews than they do reviews. The glossary and revisions took me an extra day or two, and thus, I should have this out quicker next week.

If there is anything you don't understand, please feel free to ask questions in the comments and I'll do my best to answer. It took me quite a bit to get a handle on some bits, and I'm still not completely confident to be truthful, but it's making more and more sense.

In addition, as I get more of these 'boxscores' done, I'll be able to better ascertain what is and isn't a 'good' performance. I know some of you might be like, "Okay, 1.364 is bigger than .741, but why and how much?" I can give explaining the importance of a specific number a shot in the comments, if you're curious. Otherwise, in the mean time, Mr. Connolly does quite a few of these at the website's below for comparison's sake.

If you're interested in more of this type of thing, check out Football Outsiders website, the SBN website Football Study Hall, and the SBN website Rock M Nation (Missouri Tigers).

Hope this interests you as much as it did me!


And by request, here's the Northern Colorado game from last year for comparison:

MSU 45, N. Co 7


Close % 46.43%
Enemy Territory % 44.07% 18.64%
Success Rate 60.47% 34.29%
Leverage % 83.05% 76.27%
PPP 0.632 0.182

S&P 1.236 0.525

EqPts 37.06 13.180
Close Success Rate 63.33% 29.63%
Success Rate 50.00% 29.17%
Close PPP 0.772 0.103
PPP 0.618 0.284
Close S&P 1.406 0.399
S&P 1.118 0.575

EqPts 16.055 4.325
Number 1 4
Close Success Rate 57.89% 41.67%
Points off turnovers 24 -24
Close PPP 0.570 0.164

Close S&P 1.149 0.581
Line Yards per carry 4.06 3.1
Q1 S&P 1.269 0.264

Q2 S&P 1.568 0.784
Q3 S&P 1.220 0.564
EqPts 21.001 8.855
Q4 S&P 0.348 0.656
Close Success Rate 66.67% 20.00%
1st Down S&P 1.158 0.463
Close PPP 1.029 0.054
2nd Down S&P 1.255 0.443
Close S&P 1.695 0.254
3rd Down S&P 1.247 0.838

Big Plays 7 3
Yards Per Point 11.82 38
Yards Per Play 9.02 4.51
Penalties 11 for 121 yrds 4 for 30
Run-Pass 59.68% 54.10%

What you see is a remarkably similar performance by MSU's defense (aside from turnovers forced), but (as you'd expect when they scored 17 extra points,) a better performance by MSU's offense, particularly keyed by a very strong passing game. Get a load of those penalties though... yikes.