Arizona State At Missouri: Beyond The Box Score Preview

If the Mizzou offensive line can put forth a quality effort, it should be able to open up holes for James Franklin, Kendial Lawrence, Marcus Murphy and company. And if it can't ... well ... yikes.

There are plusses and minuses to the type of sellout (or near-sellout) crowd expected at Faurot Field tomorrow evening. In a game where the home team is either an underdog or a very, very close favorite, such a crowd can be a serious boon to the team. The Mizzou crowd that filled the stadium last week was incredible -- urging the team on in tense moments (until the midway point of the fourth quarter, at least) and going absolutely insane when something good happened. That's the plus. The minus happens when a huge crowd that assumes its team is going to win at least semi-comfortably starts to react when the road team puts up a big fight. There is an audible buzz -- it sounds something like "ohhhhh...." -- when 70,000 people clam up at once. And that is absolutely not a boon to the home team. They can hear that, too.

I'm not going to tell you that Arizona State is going to make tomorrow's 70K(ish) clam up ... but there is at least a decent possibility. This is a pretty good team. And if the Sun Devils take advantage of their opportunities and mismatches better than the Tigers take care of theirs, this game could go down to the wire.

Obviously data points are at a minimum in the middle of September, but let's see what we can learn in looking at Arizona State's huge win over a depleted Illinois squad.

(As always, there is a short glossary at the bottom. And as always, skip to the words if you don't care about the numbers.)

Arizona State 45, Illinois 14

ASU Illinois ASU Illinois
Close % 63.8% STANDARD DOWNS
Field Position % 64.2% 24.3% Success Rate 64.3% 46.8%
Leverage % 83.6% 63.5% PPP 0.47 0.26
S&P 1.116 0.730
TOTAL
EqPts 35.6 13.3 PASSING DOWNS
Close Success Rate 66.7% 33.3% Success Rate 54.6% 14.8%
Close PPP 0.58 0.12 PPP 0.83 0.04
Close S&P 1.243 0.453 S&P 1.372 0.186
RUSHING TURNOVERS
EqPts 13.2 11.4 Number 2 3
Close Success Rate 56.5% 37.0% Turnover Pts 11.7 14.1
Close PPP 0.27 0.25 Turnover Pts Margin +2.4 -2.4
Close S&P 0.833 0.620
Line Yards/carry 3.32 3.75 Q1 S&P 1.260 0.345
Q2 S&P 1.404 0.626
PASSING Q3 S&P 0.854 0.687
EqPts 22.4 1.9 Q4 S&P 1.093 0.274
Close Success Rate 76.0% 26.7%
Close PPP 0.86 -0.11 1st Down S&P 1.090 0.647
Close S&P 1.620 0.155 2nd Down S&P 1.374 0.296
SD/PD Sack Rate 4.6% / 11.1% 14.3% / 25.0% 3rd Down S&P 0.850 0.542
Projected Pt. Margin: Arizona State +24.7 | Actual Pt. Margin: Arizona State +31

Illinois' Offense Is Not Good

It bears mentioning from the start: Illinois has no proven receivers following the loss of last year's star, A.J. Jenkins, and the Illini were without injured quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase on their trip to Tempe last week. When Scheelhaase went down against Western Michigan the week before, WMU's defense suddenly looked pretty stellar as well. Backup Reilly O'Toole went 2-for-3 for just seven yards against WMU, and he rushed twice for three yards; in Illinois' five possessions after Scheelhaase went down, the Illini gained 21 yards in 17 plays. So with that as the backdrop, of course Arizona State's defense looked good against Illinois.

But like I find myself saying a lot, you can only pass the tests you are given, and ASU passed this one with flying colors. During the approximately two-thirds of the game that were not garbage time, the Sun Devils just destroyed Illinois' passing game, allowing minus-0.11 points per play and allowing a paltry 1.9 yards per pass attempt (including sacks) to Illinois. O'Toole's passing line: 10-for-14 for 54 yards, a touchdown, an interception, and four sacks for 25 yards. New backup quarterback Miles Osei, a solid run threat, went 4-for-10 for 47 yards, two picks, two more sacks and a per-attempt average of 3.1 yards. Anything under 5.0 yards per pass attempt is pretty terrible, but Illinois averaged 2.2. To me, that says quite a bit about the quality of Arizona State's pass defense. It invaded Illinois' pocket pretty consistently ("Devil" end Carl Bradford, a hybrid OLB/DE who gives ASU multiple looks, had 2.5 sacks), and ASU defensive backs were outstanding against Illinois' admittedly limited receiving corps.

For the game, Illinois' rushing total was pretty good. Josh Ferguson and Donovonn Young carried a combined 26 times for 166 yards (6.4 per carry) and a touchdown, but a lot of that came once the game was out of reach. ASU was up, 35-7, early in the third quarter when Ferguson ripped off a 51-yard run and Young followed with two carries for 19 yards. That's almost half of their full-game total in three garbage-time carries. When the game was close, ASU shut things down.

However, if you look at Illinois' line yards per carry (a measure you should be quite used to this week), you see that Illinois' early struggles may have come because Ferguson and Young weren't good enough to take advantage of the holes they were given. Anything above about 3.0 line yards per carry is pretty good, and 3.75 is really good. From what we've seen of Kendial Lawrence and Marcus Murphy, if they're given 3.8 yards on each carry, they're capable of taking quite a bit more. Tackle Will Sutton looks like a potential playmaker -- through two games, he is both leading ASU in tackles (11.5) and running second in tackles for loss (4.0), but Mizzou might be able to push ASU around if it has its act together.

So what I glean from this is that the ASU pass defense might be better than it was last year, when James Franklin had his first great game as a Tiger quarterback (26-for-42, 319 yards, two touchdowns, 103 pre-sack rushing yards); but the ASU front seven could be victimized significantly by a strong run game. Does Mizzou have a strong run game with its patchwork line? We'll see. There are swaths of yards to be taken if it does.

Plus, of course, it does bear mentioning that Mizzou has far more weapons in the passing game than Illinois does. ASU got to know Marcus Lucas and L'Damian Washington pretty well last year (they combined for seven catches, 126 yards and a touchdown in Tempe), T.J. Moe is itching for a breakout game, and of course Dorial Green-Beckham awaits his opportunity. If the protection is decent (and there are no guarantees in that regard), Mizzou's passing game could be just fine. But passing downs terrify me against ASU; Mizzou isn't very good at them, anyway, and ASU could have the pass rush to snuff out quite a few.

Illinois' Pass Defense WAS Good Last Year, And Arizona State Torched It

Again, we're limited in the analysis we can make here; we're comparing Arizona State's output against Illinois in 2012 to what we know about Illinois' 2011 defense. Still, what should still be a solid Illinois pass rush (end Michael Buchanan is great, as is linebacker Jonathan Brown) only got to Arizona State quarterback Taylor Kelly only once in 25 attempts (they brought down backup Michael Eubank once, too), and what should still be a strong Illinois secondary (corners Terry Hawthorne, Justin Green and Jack Ramsey are all decent to good) was victimized considerably.

ASU was both efficient and explosive against Illinois, asserting its will in the passing game. Junior tight end Chris Coyle caught 10 of 11 passes for 131 yards and two touchdowns, and wideout Jamal Miles caught three of three passes for 54 yards. Granted, Rashad Ross had a terrible game against Terry Hawthorne (four targets, zero catches), and we should probably expect the same this week if he's matched up against E.J. Gaines, but in passes not intended for Ross, Kelly completed 18 of 20 for 249 yards.

Coyle is a very interesting matchup for Mizzou. Todd Graham is not known for employing big tight ends (or in his offense, H receivers), but he inherited a good one here, and he has figured out how to use him, like at the start and end of this drive.

Mizzou clearly prefers to keep three linebackers on the field as much as possible -- even if Zaviar Gooden is out, I think the Tigers prefer Donovan Bonner and Andrew Wilson on the outside as opposed to nickel back Randy Ponder -- and while employment of Coyle should allow them to do that, Coyle is still really good at what he does and could provide some matchup issues. The rest of the receiving corps, meanwhile, is a bit unpolished but fast enough to take advantage of Mizzou mistakes.

Arizona State Might Have To Pass

As you see from the clip above, ASU goes to a lot of different lengths to try to move the ball on the ground. You'll see D.J. Foster (a freshman "running back" who is basically half-RB, half-WR) running fly sweeps, and quarterback Michael Eubank will come in periodically to execute more of a ground-based attack with zone reads, et al. But while Eubank did have some success against Illinois (six non-sack carries for 50 yards), the primary running back really did not. So far this year, Cam Marshall has rushed for 14 yards in nine carries versus Northern Arizona and for 52 yards in 12 carries versus Illinois. That's a per-carry average of just 3.1 yards; I'm growing confident enough in Mizzou's front seven, even without Gooden, that I don't think he will see much success. That won't necessarily matter if others, like Foster or Eubank, are seeing success; but I think ASU will find that it needs to throw to win. We'll see if the Sun Devils can do it when they have to.

ASU Targets And Catches

Let's circle back to the passing game for a second. Here are ASU's target numbers for the 2012 season thus far:

Player Targets Catches Catch% Target% Rec. Yds. Yds. Per
Target
Chris Coyle (WR-H) 15 12 80.0% 30.6% 196 13.1
D.J. Foster (RB) 7 7 100.0% 14.3% 104 14.9
Rashad Ross (WR-X) 7 1 14.3% 14.3% 50 7.1
Kevin Ozier (WR-Y) 5 5 100.0% 10.2% 52 10.4
Richard Smith (WR-Z) 5 5 100.0% 10.2% 45 9.0
Cam Marshall (TB) 4 4 100.0% 8.2% 44 11.0
Jamal Miles (WR-Z) 3 3 100.0% 6.1% 54 18.0
Marlon Grice (TB) 2 1 50.0% 4.1% 8 4.0
J.J. Holliday (WR-Y) 1 1 100.0% 2.0% 14 14.0
TOTAL 49 39 79.6% 100.0% 567 11.6
TOTAL (WR) 21 15 71.4% 42.9% 215 10.2
TOTAL (RB) 13 12 92.3% 26.5% 156 12.0
TOTAL (TE/H) 15 12 80.0% 30.6% 196 13.1

While we don't know how ASU's offense will respond as the opponents get tougher, and while we don't know how sophomore Taylor Kelly will respond in his first road start, we can pretty clearly see that this offense is designed to make easy throws to players in space, and in two games it has done exactly that.

From what we've seen over the past year or so, Mizzou's defense is at its best against tighter, more powerful offenses. That is an odd thing to say considering that, until two weeks ago, Mizzou played all of its games in the Big 12, but compare the output of more pro-style or power-based recent opponents (Georgia, North Carolina, Texas) to more spread-em-out attacks. Like I said above, Mizzou's third linebacker is better than its fifth defensive back, and if you can stretch the Tigers out and force them to employ five DBs, you've already won one battle. And if Randy Ponder's play doesn't improve over its level from the first two games (he missed a tackle that turned into one of SE Louisiana's few big plays, and he was repeatedly victimized by Marlon Brown last week), ASU should be able to win a few more battles here. And other nickel possibilities like Matt White (victimized a lot last year) and Ian Simon (redshirt freshman) have their own limitations. Mizzou is not deep in the secondary, and ASU could make them pay for that.

The keys, then, will be a) forcing ASU to become one-dimensional, and b) tackling, tackling, tackling. ASU will go short as many times as you let them, and if Mizzou doesn't miss tackles, then that's alright; bend, don't break, and hope that ASU's young quarterback will eventually make a mistake.

(That rhymed!)

Summary

The current line for this game is Mizzou -6. That sounds pretty good, though honestly, if these teams were to play 20 times, I think Mizzou's average margin for victory would be closer to 3-5 points. Mizzou should absolutely be favored, and I expect them to win, but ASU's odds are decent. They really could see success by spreading out Mizzou's defense, and if the Mizzou offensive line doesn't come up big, they could make the Tigers pay for falling into passing downs.

If the large crowd remains an asset, if Mizzou runs the ball well, and if the Tiger defense can tackle and play bend-don't-break effectively, they should win. We'll say the most likely scenario is something like a 30-24 victory. (F/+ numbers say Mizzou by 4.7.) But there are plenty of reasons to be scared of this game, not because of any "trap game" possibilities, but because ASU is pretty good. Be prepared for a 60-minute battle. And please don't clam up until the end. (Easier said than done, I know.)

-----

A Quick Glossary

F/+ Rankings: The official rankings for the college portion of Football Outsiders. They combine my own S&P+ rankings (based on play-by-play data) with Brian Fremeau's drives-based FEI rankings.

Field Position %: The percentage of a team's plays run in their opponent's field position. National average: 43%.

Leverage Rate: A team's ratio of standard downs to passing downs. National average: 68%. Anything over 68% means a team did a good job of avoiding being leveraged into passing downs.

Passing Downs: Second-and-7 or more, third-and-5 or more.

PPP: An explosiveness measure derived from determining the point value of every yard line (based on the expected number of points an offense could expect to score from that yard line) and, therefore, every play of a given game. National average: 0.32.

S&P: Think of this as an OPS (the "On-Base Plus Slugging" baseball measure) for football. The 'S' stands for success rate. The 'P' stands for PPP, an explosiveness measure that stands for EqPts Per Play. S&P is measured for all non-garbage time plays in a given college football game. Plays are counted within the following criteria: 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. For more about this measure, visit the main S&P+ page at Football Outsiders. National average: 0.747. Standard downs S&P average: 0.787. Passing downs S&P average: 0.636.

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

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. National Average: 42%.

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