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The Numbers Game: Virginia Tech Football at the Quarter

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A look at what the numbers can bear out about the Hokies so far. The eight ball says? Reply hazy. Ask again later.

After three weeks, where do Frank's Hokies stand? All signs point to...well, we're 2-1?
After three weeks, where do Frank's Hokies stand? All signs point to...well, we're 2-1?
Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports

A common saying out there about analysis of data is that there are three types of lies: Lies, *bleep* lies, and statistics. It’s not altogether that difficult for someone to downsize or edit or over-specify a statistic to make something say what they want when they want it. Massaging numbers is a game of accountants, lawyers, developers, and our favorite, politicians. So what I’m going to try to do will be reporting on the simplest of statistics to understand, if not necessarily the simple ‘counting’ stats. Telling you how many touchdowns that Bucky Hodges has or how many interceptions we’ve got right now would be frankly too simple or dull, and I’d like to take a jab at interpreting what our stats actually SAY- a small amount of simple reading in-between the lines. I’d give this a qualification stating that Virginia Tech’s first three games are representative of a small sample size, and that how our games were played at the time and who we played also can massively impact how these stats actually come out in the wash. For example, being in third and long frequently against Ohio State, while not great, is not as inexcusable as being in many third and longs against Furman.

So with that, onto the interpretations. I’m only going to give you four that simply strike me as important now, though of course there are more that I’d love to delve into- third down conversion percentage, average yards to gain on third down, third down SKIP percentage (how many opportunities at a third down did an offense MISS by being turbo efficient), among other things. But I’ve chosen to highlight four issues: The wide receiving corps, the defense, the penalty problem, and the ‘lack of commitment to the running game’.

Point the First: Virginia Tech’s Receiving Corps is really problematic…for everyone, including us.

To give you Virginia Tech’s first quarter receiving statistics can be incredibly misleading.  For right now? Isaiah Ford is something to be quite happy about. Ford is currently, out of all those ridiculous offenses out there, 34th in the nation with 266 yards receiving. Now, that’s also about HALF of the leader- Roger Lewis of Bowling Green has 510 yards in three games to be completely insane- but considering our limited offensive scope, it’s something nice. If you extrapolate that over the season, which still ends up being a guess, in 12 games, Ford could have 1,064 yards. That, my fellow fans, would be the first 1,000 yard receiver in Virginia Tech history. I kid you not. We STILL do not have a 1,000 yard receiver over all time. That’s just embarrassing. We are one of two teams- Nebraska being the other- to never have a regular season 1,000 yard receiver. Both teams broke the record once in bowl games with Andre Davis and Johnny Rodgers (hello, 1972), but still. That’s flat terrifying. ARMY AND NAVY have a 1,000 yard receiver. I can guarantee you that unless his ridiculous production continues, Ford won’t make it either. He’d have to average 61.16 yards per game. That’s just not likely to happen, even if he is our best receiver who gets open the most often. But again, for us, he’s having a very good year. He’s not afraid to block, either.

Virginia Tech currently has a total of 50 receptions on the year. Of those, virtually half are to Ford and Phillips- 24 of 50. Fairly consistent, yes. The next three are Malleck, Rogers, and Hodges with 7-5-5. Yeah, that’s…somewhat troublesome considering how much people were raving about Hodges, but he’s being used as a distraction just as much as a receiving target, if not more so. That’s troubling if your offensive coordinator seems to use your best weapon as a distraction. The Lions do it in the NFL with Megatron…when he’s hurt. Either Hodges isn’t getting open or we’re not utilizing him the right way, or both. I know he’s been banged up and left half a game against Furman, basically. It’s still not very reassuring. But between 24 and those 17, we’re down to a paltry 9 receptions among the rest of the roster. 4 of those? Travon McMillian, who hasn’t done a ton with them. After that? Can a real third wideout please stand up? Asante has 1 reception. Knowles has 1 reception. For all the shine Jaylen Bradshaw was getting before the year, he hasn’t recorded a meaningful statistic to my knowledge. What the heck has happened that we’re flailing about so much to find receivers? No wonder we’re currently recruiting 4 and might have 5 by the end of the year- the guys we’ve got either aren’t being coached right or just aren’t good enough.

Point the Second: We’re suffering from an undersized defense…and our fairly good pass defense.

Right now it’s just downright dangerous to throw on our defense. At present we’re 19th in FBS in pass defense- currently, opponents are completing 32 of 81 passes thrown on us- that gives us a very respectable defensive completion percentage of 39.5%. We’ve only given up 452 yards, which can be one game in certain conferences. Our turnover margin is tied for 4th in the country- despite everything we tried to do to let that slip against Purdue- at +6, including 5 interceptions and 4 fumble recoveries. In a way, Foster’s defense is still a terror. In a way, though, we really have been completely gutted and gashed in the running game. Right now, Foster’s defense sits at an utterly horrendous 105th out of 127. We’re giving up a just putrid 6.03 yards per rush. Now, so much of that came from Ohio State, and we’ve got a WAYS to go to make up for that embarrassment. Of the 639 yards we’ve given up on the ground, 56% of that came in the game against Ohio State, where we got literally trucked by Cardale Jones and Ezekiel Elliot- and shredded by Braxton Miller and JT Barrett. They ran for almost a perfect 10 yards a carry. That’s a function of just not being big enough of fast enough to tackle people until they reach the third level. I’d say that was all, but Furman’s main runner, Triston Luke, rushed for 79 yards on 10 carries. That’s 7.9 yards a carry- and, yes, admittedly, we stuffed plenty of their other runners. Purdue had close to 0 luck passing on us, but they ran for 144 yards on 29 carries, which clicks out at about 4.96ypa. We’re currently not being burned in the air, but once we go up against a team and struggle offensively to stay ahead of a good running game- Miami or Georgia Tech, especially- we’re going to have HUGE problems on our hands.

Point the Third: Yes. The penalties are a problem. Guess what? Ain’t a new one.

If you’re wondering why Finegate started, it probably has something to do with this: According to a Richmond Times-Dispatch article, Tech committed 98 penalties last year, 2nd in the ACC. This year we’ve been flagged 27 times- extrapolate that out, and you get 108 penalties. That’s completely unacceptable. Are we dealing with undisciplined players? Or a lack of coach control?

Depends on what penalties you’re talking about. Certain ones are player problems- Pass Interference (Kendall Fuller, turn your danged head around) and Personal Fouls (can it, Luther) are definitely player-caused penalties, either by inability to play right or poor self-discipline. Penalties like substitution penalties and too many people on the field (We’ve had plenty of those the past two years)? Those are on the coaching staff. We’ve given up a total of 251 yards this year on penalties, and are second in the league at giving up first downs on penalties- six of them, mostly on pass interference or personal fouls and from our best defensive players, too. All penalties tell you is that you have a discipline problem, unfortunately. The service academies routinely are at the bottom of the rankings in penalties. It doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t win, though. In the NFL, the Seahawks have gone to the past two Super Bowls while being one of if not the most penalized team in the league. Talent can paper over discipline. But when you’re a team like Tech, you can ill afford to rely on your talent that much to cover for as many problems as we have.

Point the Fourth: We’re running. We’re not awful at it...It’s just more efficient to throw.

Right now, Virginia Tech is one of the few teams that just doesn’t want to pass at all. It’s not like we’re Georgia Tech or Navy and that’s our ‘thing’. We just don’t throw all that much. This year Tech has a total of 82 pass attempts, completing 61% of them. Some of that is dragged down by Lawson just a bit, but Motley is throwing at a 61.4% clip. That’s…barely acceptable by current college standards. Nowadays you’re looking for 65-70% completion percentage (turbo small sample size, but in 16 attempts Brewer was 68.8%), but part of that is dictated by how deep you throw and how easy your routes are. Graham Harrell at Texas Tech, for example, completed a high of 71.8% of his passes. Are we getting yards? Sure, we’re getting yards. We’re getting a lot, in fact. Right now Motley’s throwing for 8.58ypa. That’s most of the way to a first down. He’s not overly pretty, but he’s effective enough. He’s currently 28th in the country- not terrible for an offense not exactly known for being keen on throwing the ball around. Currently the leader is Chad Kelly at Ole Miss (12.3), and if Hugh Freeze isn’t running a lot of chuck and duck, I don’t know who is… minus the current attempts leader. Kelly’s attempted 73 passes. Motley has attempted 57. The leader in the house right now is Wazzou’s Luke Falk at 152. That’s THREE TIMES what Motley throws. They’ve only run 66 times though. That’s less than half of what we have at 141. Their short passing game IS their running game- Falk averages about 7ypa.

So then we get to our running game. For all the complaining, we’re actually at a 36.8% Pass-to-Run ratio. That’s…well, in this day and age? Downright odd. We’re 34th in rushing offense right now, averaging 4.72 yards a run. In the NFL, that’s astounding. Now in NCAA? That’s…mediocre at best. We’re 61st out of 127. The argument could be made that we’re not throwing ENOUGH. For all the moaning and groaning we do about ‘running the ball more’, we’re not exceptionally great at it right now, and so far? It’s just under half as effective as Motley’s arm. And yet we’re doing it almost twice as much. That’s…inefficient. It’s not pretty- Motley still has to learn to play quarterback because he was an option quarterback in high school (that’s been covered). It’s not Tech- or what many fans have in their mind as to what they want Tech to be- by any stretch. But we’re GOING TO have to be comfortable with Motley throwing 35-40 times in a game. Someone’s going to take our ‘meh’ running attack and stuff it. It’s up to Motley to perform with higher passing loads. So far, outside of the iffy- bordering on nonexistent- backside awareness? If Motley has more practice? He might be able to do it. But there's always the possibility his efficiency numbers drop when he's asked to throw more to a top-heavy receiving corps and underutilized tight ends.

As for the running game, we’ve got another turbo small sample size issue. We’ve got four backs at around 20-30 carries- Brenden Motley, Travon McMillian, Trey Edmunds, and J.C. Coleman. Motley’s numbers are somewhat skewed by how the NCAA calculates sack yardage, so I’ll bail on his evaluation for this comparison. But between the three others, your leader in the clubhouse is McMillian at 21 carries for 179 yards, giving him a 8.5ypa. If you take away his one long run of the year (63yrds), that brings him to 20/116/5.5, which is actually still respectable. Trey Edmunds? Currently 29/136/4.7, take away his long of 35, gives you a 28/101/3.6, which is not good. J.C. Coleman? 25/104/4.2. Take away his long of 10, you’re going to a slightly worse 24/94/3.92. That’s not great either. In the land of supersmallsamplesizetopia, Travon McMillian is king and ruler of the backfield and it’s not even close. Of course, that still has to do with what kind of plays people are having called for them and their talents/abilities, so that’s aboutcoaches and their utilization of talent as much as it is the players’ talent in and of themselves.

So what does this all mean?

It's somewhat of a cop-out, but the real answer is, we can’t be entirely sure yet. We’ve got a small sample size for an offense that doesn’t particularly run a ton of plays. Any and all of my calculations are based on what limited information we have on this team. A review at the half obviously would tell us more, and more another quarter of the season in. Three current conclusions that might be drawn include:

  1. We don’t throw the ball enough as a modern offense, but we don’t exactly have the weapons out they’re we’re confident enough to use, and the ones we do like we can have problems getting open.
  2. Penalties are a problem. Either the players or coaches lack discipline or both- but anecdotally, it might not matter.
  3. We’re actually very committed to the running game. We’re just not particularly great at it, and we’ve got a lot of carries going to not so efficient runners.

So where does that leave us? Despite anything you gleaned from that, we’re 2-1. We lost to a team we probably should have anyway after they broke our quarterback’s collarbone. We then started slow against two teams weaker than us…and proceeded to take them behind a woodshed. We’re not perfect. But we’re at least on a decent track. The team still has to find an identity…and if the numbers say one thing? We haven’t even begun to find it yet.

*edited to clear browser format issues