Week 2: UNLV Recap
Advanced stats review, how the defense turned it around after a tough start, and a deep dive into Jayden Daniels’ performance.
Hey Fellow Smarties,
Thanks for subscribing to The Smart Sun Devil, the weekly newsletter (maybe semi-weekly from now on) that covers ASU football with a focus on advanced stats and analytics, as well as other insights you may not find anywhere else. This week, we’re going to try out splitting the newsletter into two editions: an early-week recap of last Saturday’s UNLV game, and a preview of this week’s game at BYU, which will go out later in the week. Let me know what you all think in the comments. As always, if you haven’t subscribed yet, hit the button below, and you’ll start getting The Smart Sun Devil in your inbox (it’s free!).
Game Summary: ASU Beats UNLV 37-10
As you may be aware, ASU beat UNLV 37-10 on Saturday night. The Sun Devils were favored by 33, according to the Las Vegas oddsmakers, and SP+ projected a 44-12 ASU victory, so Saturday’s result appears to be a little underwhelming. But is it, though? Let’s take a closer look.
Here are the traditional stats:
Clearly, the Sun Devils dominated, but was it as pretty as these stats indicate? Probably not, especially early on. UNLV actually took a 10-7 lead early in the second quarter, and the ASU halftime lead was only 14-10. Remember, this is a UNLV team that lost to FCS Eastern Washington last week, and was the 121st-ranked team in the SP+ rankings. Jayden Daniels’ interception in the end zone on the first possession of the game, and the defense struggling to get off the field, surrendering consecutive scoring drives of 70+ yards, were the primary reasons for the tough start. We’ll get into the details, but first, let’s look at the advanced box score (provided by CFB Numbers).
What additional information does the advanced box score provide? ASU’s EPA/play of .186 falls in between the 75th and 80th percentile - a good performance, for sure, but maybe not super impressive against a team like UNLV (for a primer on EPA, see last week’s post). ASU’s 54% success rate is not a particularly efficient performance against a sub-par opponent, well below their 65% success rate last week. What really jumps out is the EPA/pass of -.142, a really disappointing number against a team that gave up 374 passing yards on 9.6 yards/attempt to an FCS team last week. The passing game started in an EPA hole with the interception in the end zone (a huge negative EPA event), then never made enough plays to dig out of it. However, the EPA/rush of .40, with OL yards of 4.2 more than offsets the poor passing numbers. Altogether, this paints a picture of an offense that struggled to find a rhythm and make plays in the passing game, but whose rushing game kept the ball and the chains moving. We’ll get into the specifics a little further down.
UNLV’s EPA/play represents a pretty impressive performance by the ASU defense, which we’ll get into more later - a negative EPA/play means that on average, each offensive play for UNLV made it more likely that the Sun Devils would be next to score. ASU held UNLV to a success rate of 29.4%, but did give up a few relatively big plays (third down conversions). The Rebels’ EPA/pass of -.568 is horrendous, and the EPA/rush is low as well. They did have a low stuff rate, indicating that while the Sun Devils pretty much shut down UNLV’s run game, they didn’t have many runs that went for zero or negative yards. If we split the defense’s performance into two segments - the first two UNLV possessions, and the remaining nine, the defense’s performance gets even more interesting, as we’ll see below.
On Defense, a Bad Start Followed by Domination
UNLV started the game with two scoring drives of 70 and 75 yards, scoring a field goal and a touchdown, and averaged 5.57 yards/play. On the first drive, they converted two third-and-longs, and one third-and-medium, and held the ball for 16 plays before settling for a field goal. On the second drive, they moved the ball more easily, with three plays over 10 yards, only faced two third-and-shorts, and finished with a touchdown. They also got help from a face mask penalty. The entire remainder of the game (nine possessions), they scored zero points, and gained 10 yards on .62 yards/play.
What changed after the first two drives? First, ASU controlled the UNLV run game, putting them in a lot of passing downs. Specifically, they did a much better job defending UNLV’s read option. On those final nine possession, the Sun Devils only surrendered 19 rushing yards on 17 carries, as opposed to 69 yards on the first 15 UNLV carries. Once they got the Rebels in passing situations, they brought pressure, and very successfully. On the first two possessions, ASU brought five or more rushers on only two of 12 UNLV drop backs (16.67%), and did not blitz on any of their three third-and-longs, playing zone coverage on two of those. On the next seven possessions (I’m leaving out UNLV’s final two possessions, as they were in garbage time, and ASU played more conservatively), the Sun Devils brought five or more rushers on six of 12 drop backs (50%), and blitzed on three of four third-and-long passes. The Sun Devil defensive line also did an excellent job generating pressure when there were no additional rushers. UNLV quarterbacks rarely had a clean pocket in those seven possessions, and were sacked three times. Additionally, Doug Brumfield, the starter, was knocked out of the game on a hard, clean hit by Kyle Soelle in the middle of the third quarter. Defensive Coordinator Antonio Pierce clearly ratcheted up the aggressiveness after the poor start, and it paid off.
Defensive Play of the Game
This isn’t a particularly important play in the game, as ASU was leading by three scores in the fourth quarter at this point, but it’s the play I want to highlight to demonstrate Tyler Johnson’s pass-rushing abilities.
On a second-and-six with about 12:40 remaining in the fourth quarter, Tyler Johnson lined up as the right defensive end in a 9-technique position, well outside the left tackle, in order to maximize outside leverage on his pass rush:
When Johnson makes contact with the left tackle, he immediately extends both arms, using his strength to create distance between him and his blocker. Additionally, he places his right hand under the left tackle’s left arm, and extends his arm upward, preventing the tackle from being able to place both hands on Johnson, and creating space for him to dip under his arm and create a clear path to the quarterback:
Johnson leaves the left tackle in his wake, and arrives at the quarterback just before Michael Matus and Shannon Forman, getting credit for the sack:
This is an excellent example of Johnson using his 6’4”, 280 lb. frame along with some excellent technique to get to the quarterback. Great pass rushers use their hands violently, as Johnson does here, allowing him to overpower a 6’5”, 305 lb. left tackle.
On Offense, an Underwhelming Passing Performance
Many Sun Devil fans were hoping to see Jayden Daniels build upon a good, but low volume and imperfect, performance last week by taking advantage of a UNLV pass defense that gave up 9.6 yards/attempt to an FCS opponent last week. Well, Daniels went 20-29 for 175 yards, for 6.04 yards/attempt, with two touchdowns and one interception, a pretty underwhelming outing. Here’s his advanced box score:
His total pass EPA is quite low - remember that last week, he had a total pass EPA of 7.456 on just 12 passing attempts. This week, on 29 attempts, he had a total pass EPA of just 2.933. He did have a total rush EPA of 10.665, the result of his 125 rushing yards, made up of multiple 10+ yard runs, a couple of which were third-and-long conversions. The eye-popping stat is his EPA lost, largely coming from an interception thrown in the end zone on first-and-10 from UNLV’s 11 yard line, and taking a sack on a fourth-and-short. His EPA/play (which takes into account runs and passes) was a respectable .152 (just over a 60th percentile performance), but somewhat disappointing considering the opponent, with the good rushing numbers compensating for poor passing production.
A closer examination of Daniels’ passing performance shows that the Sun Devils’ production from downfield passing was mostly negligible. Daniels only attempted six passes that traveled more than 10 yards downfield, and was 1/6 for 33 yards with a TD and an INT on those passes, the lone completion being the touchdown pass to LV Bunkley-Shelton in the fourth quarter. Only two of those passes traveled more than 20 yards downfield, meaning Daniels was 0-4 on passes between 10 and 20 yards, downright anemic. Furthermore, 10 of his 29 passing attempts were caught behind the line of scrimmage. It’s clear that some of this was due to scheme - Offensive Coordinator Zak Hill obviously designed a game plan that included a lot of quick, short passes to help get Daniels into a rhythm. However, it’s highly unlikely that the game plan was as devoid of downfield passing as the stats would indicate.
I believe the missing downfield passes are hidden in Daniels’ rushing numbers. He had 125 yards on 13 carries, and all but one was a called pass play. Six of those runs were on plays were there was little-to-no pressure from the pass rush, and on half of those, there were open receivers visible on the TV screen who were in Daniels’ line of sight (on a fourth, Shelton was open on the right side of the field, but Daniels was looking toward his left). On the six remaining runs on called pass plays, Daniels faced varying amounts of pressure (to be clear, I’m not completely letting him off the hook for these, but a reasonable person could determine that Daniels was justified in taking off on these plays).
Let’s look at one instance where Daniels’ lack of patience hurt the Sun Devils. Here, it’s fourth-and-3 from UNLV’s 26 yard line late in the first half. Hill called a sprint out to the left with Ricky Pearsall running a quick out just beyond the sticks. As the play develops, the defensive tackle that Dohnovan West (circled in black) is responsible for blocking gets more penetration than is ideal, but West maintains contact, and is able to push him upfield, and has him mostly under control. At this point, Pearsall (circled in yellow) is uncovered and Daniels has enough space that he could stop and make the throw for the easy first down:
However, Daniels decides not to make that throw, and tucks and runs up the middle, which is his second mistake. Despite not making the initial throw to an open receiver, there’s still hope for the play if Daniels waits for West to push the defensive tackle past him, then scrambles out to his left, where he has two unoccupied blockers (Daniyel Ngata and Ladarius Henderson, circled in yellow), who could either provide time for him to extend the play and continue to look for open receivers, or run for the first down:
Instead, he gets tackled for a loss, and ASU’s chance to get one more score before the end of the half is blown.
In two games this season, we’ve seen a pattern of Daniels getting impatient in the pocket, and bailing out early rather than waiting for receivers to come open. Last week, the two instances both resulted in sacks. This week, there were some positive results, but that won’t always be the case. Daniels has always used his athleticism to get yards in important situations, but he’s at his best when he’s more selective about when he runs and is willing to use his arm to make plays. ASU will face defenses with much more athleticism than UNLV’s, and if he tucks and runs as often as he did against the Rebels, the negative results will be more common. Additionally, it’s crucial to ASU’s success this season that Daniels stays healthy.
ASU did clean up the penalties to some extent. I mentioned last week that I wanted to see fewer than 60 penalty yards. ASU finished with 63, so close.
Special teams looked less sloppy. Most kickoffs went for touchbacks, and none went out of bounds. Coverage was good, too. Eddie Czaplicki continued to punt well, placing his two punts inside the UNLV 20 yard line. There was, however, another missed extra point, this time by Cristian Zendejas.
Finishing drives was a mixed bag. Only one drive just stalled out in the red zone, resulting in a field goal in the fourth quarter. However, one red zone trip was cut short by the interception in the end zone, and another trip into UNLV territory ended on the loss of downs near the end of the first half mentioned above.
The rush yards did not come as easy as they did last week, at least not for the running backs. Outside of Jayden Daniels’ carries, ASU ran 34 times for 162 yards, for 4.76 yards/carry. Still a pretty good performance, as the overall EPA/rush was higher than last week.
Question of the Day
What do you think of Jayden Daniels’ performance? How do think he’ll play against tougher competition?
If like what you read, and haven’t subscribed, please do so:
Also, please share with your friends, we’d love to have them: