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Tuesday Muse-day 11/5: Once More Unto the Breach

In which we talk Massachusetts, math, and bad things

NCAA Football: Pittsburgh at Georgia Tech Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Hey y’all, welcome back to whatever the heck this season is. If you’re like me, the bye week was a beautiful reprieve but alas, we must soldier on. Perseverance or grit or whatever.

Game Recap in Three Sentences

The defense earned three turnovers, however the offense only managed to convert them into 7 points.

The defense held Pitt to just 61 second half yards compared to 302 in the first half.

The offense failed to gain 200 yards for the first time this season.

ATLeast We Ain’t Them of the Week

UMass. My god is this defense bad. The Minutemen gave up 730 total yards to Liberty on Saturday. That equates to 9.5 yards per play. Liberty’s drives in the first half were the following:

  • TD
  • TD
  • Punt
  • TD
  • TD
  • TD
  • Punt
  • TD
  • TD

It is absolutely mind-blowing how awful UMass’s defense is; they’re 130th in yards per game (dead last) and are giving up 80 more yards per game than the 129th team. They’re also 130th in points per game, a full 10 more points per game beyond 129th. When I keep saying “it could be worse”, UMass is what I’m referring to.

Uniform Rating

2.0 stripes. I don’t like the navy. I’m not really a “it’s not our color” stickler, I just don’t think it looks anywhere near as good as gold.

NCAA Football: Pittsburgh at Georgia Tech Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Above The Line of the Week

  • Juanyeh Thomas. He continues to be one of our most fun players to watch and one of our rising stars.
  • The Mini 500. One of my favorite traditions.
  • I can’t think of a third, it’s hard to find joy. Sorry.

Stat of the Week

15.3%. Otherwise known as our third down conversion rate on Saturday. This continues to kill us. For the entire season we’re at 34.4% (110th nationally). The 11 third downs we failed to convert on Saturday were of the following distances: 7, 8, 4, 3, 6, 15, 10, 8, 4, 6, 8. 15.3% is bad, but what do you expect when you’re always in third and long? We continue to put ourselves in unwinnable situations. For each of those third downs, here were the second down yards to go: 7, 10, 10, 10, 5, 10, 6, 10, 4, 6, 11. Do the math (and remove penalties), and we gained a total of 15 yards on those 11 second downs. Zoinks.

5 Star (7 Star, 5 Star) Developmental Program Haiku of the Week

I want to go home
Come pick me up Mom this sucks
Why is Pitt better

Once More Unto the Breach

We’ve now made it through the “middle” of the season (i.e. the second third), so let’s again check in on how the past four games have gone. As a reminder, these were our past four results:

UNC: L 22 - 38

Duke: L 23 - 41

Miami: W 28 - 21

Pitt: L 20 - 30

At first thought, I feel maybe slightly better about this third than the first third? The big problem with the first third was that we all pretty much expected to be 3-1 with wins against The Citadel and Temple. And since those were two awful inexcusable losses the pain was that much worse. Here though, I’d say my overwhelming feeling is “meh”. I never thought we’d do well in conference play (I projected our only ACC win to be NC State), so going 1-3 in the meat of our Coastal schedule feels...fine to me? I dunno. Anecdotally I feel like we’ve been playing slightly better recently, but it’s still obviously not good. Miami was a huge win, albeit a lucky one. Pitt was a winnable game that we just couldn’t grasp. UNC was a game we lost a handle on, and Duke was a game where mostly just one quarter doomed us. Still though, there were positive signs in each game and it feels like we’re pretty consistently playing good second halves now (at least on defense). I’d say that’s a decent step in the right direction after the trainwreck of the first third of the season.

Offense

Offensive Stats - First Third vs Middle Third

Stat First 4 Games Middle 4 Games
Stat First 4 Games Middle 4 Games
Points per game 13.5 20.8
Total yards per game 289.8 309.8
Passing yards per game 126.3 155.8
Rushing yards per game 163.5 154
Completion percentage 48.3 44.4%
Yards per rush 4.1 4.3
Yards per completion 12 14.2
Turnovers per game 2.3 1.25
First downs per game 16.5 15.5

Scoring-wise we’ve moved ourselves up from worst to 10th worst, yardage-wise we’ve moved ourselves up from 7th to 13th worst, and turnovers-wise we’ve moved ourselves from 12th worst to 70th overall. Outside of those small moves, the offense is basically producing at the same rate.

The first notable thing here is definitely the fewer turnovers. Obviously 1+ per game still isn’t great, but it’s a heck of a lot better than 2+. Still, they always seem to come at the most inopportune times (see: Lucas Johnson fumbling on the goal-line against Pitt).

The second thing to note is that we are passing the ball way more. We went from calling 27% passes in the first third of the season to 40% passes in the middle third. That’s a huge increase for a team that doesn’t at all look comfortable throwing the ball. Scoring-wise it’s worked: we scored just 2 passing TDs in our first four games compared to 6 over our last four. Perhaps this is a product of seemingly finally settling on James Graham as the starter instead of Tobias Oliver, but its hard to say for sure. It’s still pretty painful to watch our passing offense however I don’t really hate the shift; any and all game-experience is going to help our guys. In particular, Ahmarean Brown has come alive over the last four games. He’s scored in three of them and has started to become a focal point of the offense.

Overall, we still fall in the category of “very bad”, but it does feel like we are incrementally improving.

Defense

Defensive Stats - First Third vs Middle Third

Stat First 4 Games Middle 4 Games
Stat First 4 Games Middle 4 Games
Points per game 28.2 30
Total yards per game 392.3 420
Passing yards per game 136.8 239
Rushing yards per game 255.5 181
Completion percentage 54.3% 63.2%
Yards per rush 5.2 4.3
Yards per completion 12.4 11.1
Turnovers per game 2.8 1.25
First downs per game 20.5 23.2

These average out to be pretty much worse across the board, but let’s take a closer look to try to feel at least a little better.

First off, these numbers are a little skewed by an atrocious defensive outing against North Carolina. Yeah yeah, every game counts but when you look at just these four games, UNC is a clear anomaly. If you take that game out of the equation, the stats start to look pretty good.

Between the first third and middle third we totally flip-flopped our run/pass defense. We gave up over 100 more passing yards per game, but also 75 less rushing yards. While this seems like a net loss, I actually think this is a positive sign. Some facts:

  • We played The Citadel in the first third, an option team that didn’t really throw
  • In this middle third we played three teams that rank in the top 50 for passing attempts per game

Basically in this middle third we’ve played more pass-heavy teams and it feels very reasonable to give up more yards. Now, 100 more yards is awful and makes me v sad, but at least the trend makes some sense. Rushing-wise, stopping the run has been a huge weakness for us all season and that trend has mostly continued into the middle third, although it has gotten slightly better. We’ve managed to claw our way from the 3rd worst rushing defense in the country to the 7th. That’s still horrible but improvement is appreciated anywhere we can get it. Getting our yards-per-rush down to 4.3 has been a huge part of this small improvement and hopefully we can continue that trend.

To me, the big thing for the defense has been the Jekyll/Hyde nature of our first halves vs our second halves. In these last four games we have given up just 27 total second half (and OT) points. That’s really good. In second halves we gave up 282 yards to UNC, 95 to Duke, 182 to Miami, and 61 to Pitt. If you were to extrapolate what would happen if we had only played second halves, we would have given up 310 yards and 13.5 points per game over this stretch. That’s a top ten or fifteen defense. The glaring problem is that our first half defense is abysmal. In first halves we gave up 103 total points, 305 yards to UNC, 278 yards to Duke, 175 yards to Miami, and 302 yards to Pitt. If you extrapolate those numbers, we would have given up 526 yards and 51.5 points per game. That’s UMass bad (it’s always a fun game to see if I can reference the same bad team twice in one article).

The differences here are striking. We’re a historically terrible defense in the first half and a top ten one in the second half. I’m actually curious if any team in history has had such a huge spread. While these first half numbers prevent me from feeling truly good about this, the fact that we are capable of playing like a top ten defensive for 30 minutes every game is something I’m taking as a really positive sign. With another year of experience and coaching under this staff I feel confident that this unit can make a huge leap next season.

All in all, the middle third of the season wasn't great, but it has shown us that the pieces might be there. We’re a long ways off from being a good team, but it does feel like we’re closer than we were when we started. At this point, I’ll take that victory. I dunno, maybe next week I’ll just go back to writing about soup.