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Missouri 38, South Dakota State 18: Beyond the box score

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Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

This offseason at Football Study Hall, I tinkered with an idea called the Five Factors, in which I talked about football games being basically decided by, yes, five interrelated factors: efficiency, explosiveness, field position, finishing drives, and turnovers. I thought it would be interesting to use the first BTBS post of the season, then, with the Five Factors idea in mind.

Efficiency

Every play is deemed either successful or not, and over the course of a game or season, you can use this as an efficiency measure, as you would on-base percentage in baseball. It helps to describe a team's ability to stay on schedule and avoid drive-crippling passing downs. (How crippling are passing downs? The national success rate on standard downs was 48 percent. On passing downs: 32 percent.) Efficiency might matter more to teams without a ton of explosiveness, but on some level it matters to everybody.

-- Five Factors

Success Rate (close): Missouri 48.1%, SDSU 30.2%
Rushing Success Rate (close): Missouri 50.0%, SDSU 23.1%
Passing Success Rate (close): Missouri 45.0%, SDSU 37.0%
Standard Downs Success Rate (all plays): Missouri 52.1%, SDSU 29.7%
Passing Downs Success Rate (all plays): Missouri 41.7%, SDSU 29.6%

On SDSU's two touchdown drives, the Jackrabbits gained 150 yards in 11 plays (13.6). The rest of the game, they gained 215 yards in 53 plays (4.1). They went three-and-out four times and narrowly missed out on a fifth when they threw and interception on third down instead. It was an unusual game in this regard -- big plays keeping an FCS team in the ballgame instead of efficiency or good breaks.

Missouri's success rates were good, thanks mostly to the run and early-game passing. The Tigers were four percent over last year's national average when it came to standard downs success rate (which means it was a below-average performance overall once you take opponent into consideration), while SDSU 18 percent below. On passing downs, Missouri was about 10 percent over last year's national average while SDSU was two percent below.

Adjusting for opponent, then, Missouri was quite good in passing downs offense and standard downs defense, iffy in passing downs defense, and poor in standard downs offense.

Missouri Targets & Catches
Jimmie Hunt: 5 targets, 3 catches, 31 yards (6.2 per target)
Marcus Murphy: 4 targets, 3 catches, 20 yards (5.0 per target)
Darius White: 3 targets, 2 catches, 83 yards (27.7 per target)
Wesley Leftwich: 3 targets, 2 catches, 10 yards (3.3 per target)
Bud Sasser: 2 targets, 2 catches, 37 yards (18.5 per target)
Sean Culkin: 2 targets, 0 catches
Russell Hansbrough: 1 target, 1 catch, -3 yards

So slot receivers (Hunt and Murphy) caught six of nine passes but averaged only 5.7 yards per target, while outside receivers (White, Leftwich, Sasser) caught six of eight passes and averaged 16.3 yards per target. Throw more to the outside guys!

(Of course, Mauk only threw to them when they were open, so...)

Explosiveness

My first stab at this (and the point of this post) is to build off of an idea in the comments of one of my Varsity Numbers pieces at Football Outsiders.

One way of measuring this that might be useful is PPP per successful play. That might more directly get at the key question - when you have successful plays, are the REALLY successful, or just a little successful.

-- Isolating explosiveness with IsoPPP

I've used PPP for years in these BTBS write-ups; IsoPPP basically Equivalent Points divided by Successful Plays instead of Equivalent Points divided by Total Plays. It's a pretty easy concept to understand, and it completely strips apart my efficiency measure of choice (success rate) from my explosiveness measure.

Yards Per Play: Missouri 6.6, SDSU 5.7
IsoPPP: SDSU 1.03, Missouri 0.88
Rushing IsoPPP: SDSU 1.56, Missouri 0.55
Passing IsoPPP: Missouri 1.54, SDSU 0.78
Standard Downs IsoPPP: SDSU 1.19, Missouri 0.67
Passing Downs IsoPPP: Missouri 1.02, SDSU 0.77

While the game was considered "close," SDSU had only six successful rushes in 26 attempts, a dreadfully low 23.1 percent success rate. But one of those six carries went for a 75-yard touchdown on the strange, "bobble it, then pause and let all the defenders run by you, then run for a touchdown" play by Zach Zenner. To say the least, that skewed the rushing averages. Missouri was much more dangerous passing downfield, as evidenced by Maty Mauk's three touchdown passes 112 yards, mostly in the air (as opposed to a short pass and a long run). SDSU did have four passes of at least 20 yards, which produced big-play averages higher than you'd like to see. But overall, Missouri was efficient enough to hold a healthy lead in overall yards per play.

Field Position

Field Position might have more influences than any of the Five Factors. To win the field position battle is to move, kick, punt, and return the ball better than your opponent. Or at least three of the four. And you probably want to win the turnover battle, too. Field Position is a mix of a ton of other factors. How much of each? [...]

* Field Position: Turnover Margin (21%), Success Rate (37%), Kick Margin (22%), Punt Margin (22%)

-- What derives field position?

Average Starting Field Position: Missouri 35.5, SDSU 23.3
Success Rate (close): Missouri 48.1%, SDSU 30.2%
Net Kicking: Missouri 40.6 (in seven kicks), SDSU 12.7 (in three)
Net Punting: Missouri 43.0 (in four punts), SDSU 35.5 (in six)

Missouri dominated the little things in this game. Big plays gave SDSU a fighting chance, but not only was Missouri far more efficient than SDSU (which impacts field position quite a bit), the Tigers were also far more effective in kicks and returns. Only twice all game did the Jackrabbits start a possession beyond their 30-yard line: they started at their 31 once and their 37 once. Meanwhile, Missouri started drives at the SDSU 10 and 32 and only started inside its 25 twice. That adds up.

Finishing Drives

Using these four measures -- Success Rate, IsoPPP, Red Zone Success Rate, and FG Efficiency -- I started tinkering. I'm just knowledgable enough to be dangerous when it comes to polynomials in Excel, and using 2013 data only, I was able to craft pretty strong projections for Points Per Trip by crafting an individual projection for each measure (projecting Points Per Trip by using only Success Rate, only IsoPPP, etc.) and using these weights:

* Offense: 28% Red Zone Success Rate, 25% IsoPPP, 20% Success Rate, 27% FG Efficiency. This wasn't the weighting I expected, but it produced a correlation of 0.906 between projected and actual points per trip.

* Defense: 34% IsoPPP, 26% Red Zone Success Rate, 23% Opponents' FG Efficiency, 17% Success Rate. Correlation between projected and actual: 0.858.

-- What matters when it comes to finishing drives?

Points Per Scoring Opportunity*: Missouri 4.43, SDSU 3.40
Red Zone Success Rate: 
Success Rate (close): Missouri 48.1%, SDSU 30.2%
IsoPPP: SDSU 1.03, Missouri 0.88
Field Goals under 40: SDSU 1-1, Missouri 0-1
Field Goals over 40: Missouri 1-2, SDSU 0-0

* Scoring Opportunities are defined as drives in which you either score from more than 40 yards out or have a first down inside the opponent's 40.

Missouri twice missed field goals, which meant that its overall averages were only average. But the Tigers held SDSU far below average in this regard, thanks mostly to turnovers. The Jackrabbits threw an interception from the MU 22 and lost a fumble at the MU 14. This is a bit lucky on Missouri's part, but it's also been a steady reason for the Tigers' success through the years.

Turnovers

Interceptions: Missouri 2, SDSU 0
Pass Break-ups: Missouri 3, SDSU 0
Fumbles: SDSU 2, Missouri 1
Fumble Recoveries: Missouri 2, SDSU 1

On average, you'll pick off 23 percent of your passes defensed (interceptions plus break-ups), which means that Missouri probably should have expected to have only one interception instead of two. Meanwhile, they recovered two of the game's three fumbles. That means the Tigers benefited from a bit of turnovers luck, albeit in a small sample size.

***

When you dominate in field position, outdo your opponent finishing drives, benefit from turnovers luck, and drastically outpace your opponent in success rates, you would probably expect to win by more than 20 points. But standard downs inefficiency, a couple of missed field goals, and that first-play, 75-yarder allowed SDSU to keep things close.

Again, a lot of our suspicions were confirmed in this game. Missouri has a lot of big-play potential on offense but could suffer from efficiency problems when the run isn't enough. Meanwhile, the Tigers should be very efficient against the run but could suffer from time to time on pass defense.

On to Toledo.