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WRNL Insights: How 2021 Has Looked So Far

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The expansion into analytics in college football has been hot the past three years. With advanced stats becoming more accepted in the sport it only makes sense to check in on the 2021 Cyclones and their progress through the non-conference slate.

Iowa State v UNLV Photo by Chris Unger/Getty Images

It’s been north of 1,000 days since I last wrote for WRNL. In that time careers expanded, other web sites dissolved, a global pandemic happened, CM Punk returned to professional wrestling, and football analytics started to receive more and more adoption throughout the industry.

Sometime early in 2019 I had a discussion with a member of Iowa State’s staff about how Jon Heacock and the defense used a number of metrics from CFB Analytics to inform their game planning and self-audit of the defense. The discussion was eye opening for me personally as I had yet to hear of a staff using something so novel in such a granular way.

Since that discussion I’ve heard of staffs using every site they can to get an edge and sites like Hudl and PFF have integrated more stat-based analytical work into their film coverage. Not to say anything about the Twitter traffic you see on Sundays that so frequently mentions something more informative than total yards.

In a way, the evolution the past few years has brought me back to where it all started over a decade ago. These first few articles will be on the lighter side as I work the muscles back into shape, but strap in because we’re gonna be talking numbers.

The Offense

SP+: 22nd

FEI: 22nd

Brock Purdy: A lot has been said about Brock this season, but he’s still playing at a level on par or better than he has in the past. Digging into data from Sports Info Solutions, we can see the following:

  • 71.4% completion rate (2020: 66.5%)
  • 87% catchable ball rate (2020: 87.4%)
  • 79.7% on target rate (2020: 76.3%)
  • Pressured on 24.4% of targets (2020: 34.4%)

At worst, Brock is looking a lot like the 2020 version of himself. An argument can be made that he hasn’t progressed enough to take this offense to the next level, but let’s see what he can do if that pressure rate that’s 10 points lower than last year keeps up.

Breece Hall: Similar to his partner above, there’s been scuttle that Breece has taken a step back so far this season and it would be hard to argue that’s incorrect. Through three games Breece is only averaging 79.3 yards per game on the ground and an average 4.0 yards per carry, both significantly lower than last year’s 130.6 and 5.6 yards, respectively.

A big culprit in this is how often Breece is being hit at the line, which is up nearly four points since 2020. In 2020 he was hit at the line 39.8% of the time and that has increased to 43.3% to start 2021. While you may point at the Iowa game as the driver, you’d be wrong. Iowa only hit Breece at the line six times on his 16 carries, compared to 13(!) hits at the line on his 21 carries in Las Vegas. A lot of this has to do with how UNLV attempted to slow Iowa State down with blitzes, and it gives hope that as more teams play their traditional defenses things should open up.

Offensive Line: This line is struggling to find its footing early in the season. One of the ways to show this is through Points Earned per Snap, which is a player’s addition to expected points scaled for the competition level and divided into the number of snaps played. Here is the starting offensive line’s PE per Snap in 2021 vs. 2020:

  • Sean Foster (LT): .048 vs. .032 (improvement)
  • Trevor Downing (LG): .044 vs. .054 (decline - limited snaps in 2020)
  • Colin Newell (C): .032 vs. .039 (decline)
  • Darrell Simmons Jr. (RG): .035 vs. .040 (decline)
  • Derek Schweiger (RT): .010 vs. .042 (decline)

On one hand the line is playing at just a hair below 2020 levels, but on the other we can clearly see their growing pains with Downing coming off injury and Schweiger playing outside. If this was a concern with the coaching staff I would have expected a change in Vegas, but at this point I believe this lineup is here to stay. Let’s hope they can progress past 2020 levels quickly.

The Defense

SP+: 14th

FEI: 9th

Will McDonald: Dude is an animal and accounted for three holding calls at UNLV, all while generating four QB pressures. In the pass rush he’s grading out at .073 points above average per play, slightly ahead of last year’s mark while on pace to play more snaps in 2021. His rush defense stats do not jump off the page, which is more of a system factor than anything to do with him (e.g., the goal is for linebackers and safeties to make the tackle).

Linebackers: Gerry Vaughn quietly had as many pressures (two) as Mike Rose and Enyi Uwazurike against UNLV. He’s not at O’Rien Vance levels of production in the pass rush - Vance grades out 1.49 points above a replacement player, Vaughn slightly below - but he’s a capable replacement when called into action.

Rose is currently saving about .12 points per play in the running game, compared to .08 last season when he won Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year. His points saved per rush (.08) is ahead of last year as well (.06).

I could go on all day about this defense, but the eye test and the stats line up well on this one. It doesn’t mean we won’t have some games where points are scored, but this defense is as good as we think it is.

Special Teams

SP+: 71st

FEI: N/A

The SP+ ranking of 71st comes with a value of 0.0, which makes the special teams unit a net neutral for Iowa State. This number will move around a lot over the coming weeks without preseason weightings baked in. It was -.2 (118th) after the Iowa game and will be prone to changes based on both the return and kicking game.

For the record, Andrew Mevis is one of two Big 12 kickers (OU’s Gabe Brkic is the other) to make a 50+ yard field goal this season. While it was great to see Mevis settle our nerves on kicks, I sure am hoping that last season’s 4th down aggressiveness inside the Opportunity Zone (< 40 yards to the goal line) continues.

Follow of the Week

Parker Fleming (@statsowar) is one of the emerging voices in football analytics and has done a masterful job in both expected points added (a measure of efficiency and quality) and data visualization.

Baylor Preview

SP+: 34th (76th/11th/31st)

FEI: 32nd (53rd/21st)

Dave Aranda is a good coach and a great defensive tactician, so it’s no surprise to see Baylor already performing well on defense early in his 2nd season.

However, FEI points out how an Elite, Great, or Average team would perform against a team’s schedule as viewed through expected losses. To date, those splits for Baylor are .04 expected losses for an Elite team, .17 for Great, and .54 for average. All ranking sub-120 in strength of schedule. For reference, ISU’s split is .32/.62/.99 - not great, but ranging from 52nd to 84th in SoS.

In short, Baylor ain’t played nobody.

Final Thoughts

Two thoughts have come to mind while writing this article.

First, it takes a few games for teams to find out who they are each season and stats typically reflect that. Both the SP+ and FEI models keep some weighted preseason ratings in the model until about Week 6, and we did similar at CFB Analytics in the past. Do not be surprised if Iowa State’s rankings move quite a bit over the next few weeks as more 2021 season data is accrued.

Second, we have yet to give the benefit of the doubt to the offensive coaching staff and their in-game adjustments. The defense has been open about how they feel out an opponent and adjust accordingly, but you can see the offensive staff doing the same - especially against UNLV. This is still an experienced staff with an experienced unit and I have no doubt the fun will come. Let’s never forget to Trust the Process.