This post will look at some key statistics from the USC vs Stanford game. We’ll look at the run vs pass play calling from both teams in a variety of angles. Then we will look at some other interesting statistics for 3rd down conversions, rushing histograms, and yards per drive.
USC came into this game with a very strong running game and a good but somewhat inconsistent passing game. Overall, USC called running plays 25 times (39%) and passing plays 39 times (61%) [Please note that I consider sack plays as passes, unlike the NCAA which considers it a run]. In the five games prior to Stanford that Coach Helton has been calling the plays, there were 169 runs (53%) and 148 passes (47%). We passed the ball a lot more against Stanford than we typically have done.
First, let’s break down the play calling by USC based on down.
USC ran the ball on 59% of their first downs. This is a slight tick down from Helton’s previous games where he ran the ball on 70% of first downs. From there, USC became very pass heavy. Second down had nearly twice as many passes and runs and third down was almost exclusively passing plays. In fact, our only “running” play on 3rd down was on the 3rd and 19 just before our game winning field goal. This was a designed Cody Kessler run which was called primary to center the ball. For all intents and purposes, USC passed the ball exclusively on 3rd down. This included passing on a 3rd and 1 and a 3rd and 3 (both incomplete).
For comparison’s sake, Helton has been exactly 50/50 on runs and passes on 2nd down prior to this game. On third down, he has run the ball 22% of the time and passed 78% of the time. For any third down that has been longer than a single yard, Helton has come out typically throwing (generally 70% or more passing plays). This means that overall, Helton threw the ball more on every down compared to his usual tendencies.
Now let’s look at USC’s play calling by field position. Please note that in the chart below, all “Goal to Go” plays are also counted in “Red Zone.”
USC had the greatest discrepancy between runs and passes behind the 50 yard line. With lots of room to work with and early in drives, USC would have more than double the amount of passes compared to runs. Once we crossed midfield, USC began to run the ball more. This is actually a bit opposite from what was typical of Helton. Typically, Helton has a slight edge towards running behind midfield (56% running, 44% passing) and opens up the passing between midfield and the redzone (44% running, 56% passing). The redzone and goal to go categories lined up generally with Helton’s tendencies with around 71% running in the redzone and 78% with goal to go.
Finally, let us look at the play calling based on quarter.
As can be seen here, USC started and ended the game with a pretty good amount of balance. Even the second quarter was pretty balanced as well. The third quarter was when USC started flinging the ball around with nearly three times as many passes as runs. For comparison’s sake, Helton has typically been very balanced in every quarter except with a lean towards the run in the 4th (likely to close out a game that we are winning).
USC had a 3rd down conversion rate of 29%. Remove the 3rd down dive that Kesser took to center the ball for the game winning FG and we’re looking at 31%. This is slightly under, but statistically in line with, Stanford’s average 3rd down defense this season which is 33%.
This becomes more interesting when we break up the 3rd downs based on distance. USC was 0 for 2 on 3rd and short (three yards or less) and also 0 for 2 on 3rd and medium (four to six yards). All of USC’s 3rd down conversions came on plays with seven or more yards to go. In this category, USC was 4 for 10. Remember that USC exclusively threw the ball on 3rd downs. This hurt the ability to convert the short yardage situations consistently. I don’t blame Helton for making this call as USC averaged only 0.9 yards per carry in this game (remove the sacks and it increases to 1.6 yards per carry, which still isn’t great). It is also worthwhile to note that 40% of USC’s runs were stopped for either no yards gained or negative yards.
On the flip side, Stanford had a 33% 3rd down conversion rate. This included converting only 1 out of 3 on 3rd and short situations. You would expect that Stanford, with their power run game, would dominate the 3rd and short conversions. This is a testament to the strength of our defensive front as well as the aggressive pressure that DC Pendergast put (USC was often loading the line of scrimmage with up to six guys who were backed up by two or three linebackers. This left single coverage on the receivers and only a single high safety up top). More on this later.
Stanford was the most successful on 3rd and medium, with 2 out of 3 successful conversions. This can be a funny distance to defend as there is the threat of both the run and the pass. However, when USC was able to back Stanford up to 3rd and long, Stanford was 1 for 6 (17%). USC was easily able to defend the clear passing situations by Stanford.
First let’s look at USC’s average distance to go versus average gain based on down. [For this chart, I only included the 4th down attempt for 4th downs. If you consider all 4th downs, the average distance to go was 7.78 yards.]
For comparison, here is Stanford’s chart.
Stanford had a great 2nd down push, but had a poor 3rd down push. In fact, Stanford converted more 2nd downs (35%) than they did 3rd downs (33%). If I were to guess, this is likely due to how USC played on defense. So much emphasis was put on bottling up the power run game that runs would either be stopped for very little gain or would break through to the second level and gain chunks of yards (enough to convert). In the former case, the stop would potentially leave Stanford in a 3rd and long situation that USC would excel at defending. To illustrate this, let us look at Stanford’s rushing histogram.
As you can see here, Stanford had a lot of runs clumped in the 0-4 yards gained range. However, there is a definite dip in the 5-8 yard range before another grouping between 9-12 yards. Finally, there were five runs which broke for 15+ yards. I believe USC’s gameplan was built around a front line defense which would limit Stanford’s runs to around three yards with not much second line to help until they gained quite a bit.
There was one final statistic that I found quite interesting when breaking down this game. 7 out of 12 (58%) drives for Stanford failed to gain a single first down. (6 out of 11, or 55%, if you don’t count the final desperation play of the game). This includes 5 out of 7 (71%) of their 2nd half drives (67% if you don’t count the last play drive). Other than the initial TD drive to start the 2nd half, Pendergast adjusted well to the Stanford attack. Here is a line chart showing the yards gained on each Stanford drive.
This game was definitely an interesting one to look at statistically. You could see how OC Helton adjusted his gameplan to try to mitigate Stanford’s defensive strengths by going to the air (Stanford is ranked #3 in rushing defense, but #98 in passing defense). You can also see how USC’s aggressive gameplan to stop the run at the line caused a decent amount of disruption, leading to 3rd and longs. Both of these gameplans paid off in the end as they helped limit Stanford and ultimately win the game.