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Stats Corner: A Good Defense Beats... Everyone

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Using Bill Walsh’s Advanced Stats to Analyze MWC Defenses

Fresno State v Boise State Photo by Loren Orr/Getty Images

While the 2018 college football season has ended, we will have one last look at the ranking for the Mountain West teams. We are still using Hall of Famer Bill Walsh’s advanced stats, this time looking at how the defenses did, and where they might find areas of improvement for 2019.

Backed-up (bcftoys.com)

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Team NFP DFP National Rank DLF National Rank
Team NFP DFP National Rank DLF National Rank
Fresno State 7.4 75 1 0.273 6
Boise State 2.9 71.6 44 0.169 95
Utah State 2.1 70.5 69 0.107 127
San Jose State 2 69.3 99 0.257 12
Wyoming 1 71.7 40 0.24 23
New Mexico -0.7 69.6 89 0.208 50
Air Force -1.1 71.8 39 0.233 30
Nevada -1.3 68.9 103 0.201 55
San Diego State -2.1 69.8 85 0.213 46
UNLV -4.4 67.3 116 0.159 104
Hawaii -5.5 65.1 128 0.141 116
Colorado State -6.5 68.7 105 0.161 103

Defense wins championships. How many times what we heard that before? Even in a time where everything favors the offense, how long until there is a penalty in the NFL for the defense being within 5 yards of the quarterback, defense is still vital. Walsh was an offensive coach and was worried about his team being backed up inside their own ten, to him it was one of the biggest areas of concern. Defenses are hoping and praying for the chance to have a go at an offense backed up with little room to move and an error can be disastrous. NFP is short for net starting field position, the different between the average starting positions of each team’s offense. DFP is the average distance from the end zone for the opposing offense, or how much room the defense has to give up before a touchdown. Conference champs Fresno lead the nation, averaging 75 yards that an offense had to cover before scoring a touchdown. The more yards to cover, the more likely an offense is to make a mistake. It also means more first downs must be earned before the points can be rewarded. Hawaii was on the other end of the national ranking, at 65 yards. That means Fresno had to give up a first down, just to be equal with Hawaii in distance to goal. DLF stands for defense long field, meaning that defense walked onto the field inside their own 20. Once again, conference champ near the best in the nation. At least 3 times a game, on average, Fresno’s opponent started a drive inside their 20-yard line. This limits what the offense can do and makes life easier for a defense, a turnover here means almost certain points. One must also consider how potency of the offense, remember a touchback on kick off means starting at the 25-yard line, outside the DLF ranking. Meaning that when Dominik Eberle kicks 69 touchbacks out of 108 kickoffs (63.9%) in 2018, he is hurting the DLF for Utah State defense. But I’m thinking the defense really didn’t care about starting on the 25.

Third Downs (teamrankings.com)

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National Rank in 3rd Downs per Game Team 3rd Downs Per Game 3rd Downs Converted Per Game 3rd Down Conversion % National Rank in 3rd Down Conversions
National Rank in 3rd Downs per Game Team 3rd Downs Per Game 3rd Downs Converted Per Game 3rd Down Conversion % National Rank in 3rd Down Conversions
8 Colorado St 11.9 4.7 39.69% 68
19 Boise St 12.6 3.9 31.10% 9
20 Air Force 12.6 5.5 43.88% 103
45 UNLV 13.7 5.9 43.05% 97
71 Hawaii 14.5 6.3 43.39% 100
78 Wyoming 14.7 5.8 39.51% 64
89 New Mexico 15 6.6 44.24% 108
94 San Diego St 15.1 6.3 41.99% 92
96 Nevada 15.1 4.8 32.04% 13
108 Fresno State 15.5 5.4 34.65% 24
110 San Jose St 15.6 6.5 41.86% 90
125 Utah State 16.7 5.8 35.00% 28

As mentioned previously, Walsh called 3rd downs “do or die.” Ideally, for an offense, there would be positive yards on first and second down, setting up a manageable 3rd down. For a defense, the objective is the push the offense back or even just hold them to 2 yards or less and force them into a throwing situation on 3rd down, then got off the field. This is a situation where the percentages are more interesting than the numbers, due to high scoring offenses giving opposing teams more possessions. UNLV allowed teams to convert 5.9 3rd downs a game, the same as Utah State and more than Fresno, even though they allowed 3 less chances than Fresno and 4 less changes than Utah State. This leads to a high percentage of conversions, over 43%, while Boise gets teams off the field more than 2 out of 3 times they get to a 3rd down, while UNLV and New Mexico are more likely to still be on field lining up for a new set of downs.

Redzone (Teamranking.com)

Defense percentage Scoring TD and FG

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National Rank Team Percentage
National Rank Team Percentage
2 Nevada 69.57%
3 Fresno St 69.57%
37 Boise State 79.41%
58 Colorado St 82.05%
60 Air Force 82.14%
78 San Jose St 84.31%
82 Utah State 84.62%
83 Hawaii 84.75%
101 Wyoming 87.88%
105 San Diego State 89.19%
111 UNLV 90.38%
128 New Mexico 94.00%

Defense Red Zone Scoring Attempts per game

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National Rank Team Attempts per Game
National Rank Team Attempts per Game
1 Fresno St 1.8
10 Air Force 2.5
14 Boise State 2.6
36 Wyoming 3
39 San Diego St 3.1
47 Utah State 3.2
60 Colorado St 3.5
78 Nevada 3.8
111 Hawaii 4.5
112 New Mexico 4.5
114 San Jose St 4.6
117 UNLV 4.7

How important is defense? When teams were in a position to score, conference champions Fresno State, was the best in nation in slamming the door on the offense. Not only did they only allow their opponents to score less than 70% of the time, but good luck in even getting there as they only allowed their opponents into the red zone 1.8 times a game, not even once per half. While Nevada was just as effective by the percentage, they allowed 3.8 trips into the red zone per game more than twice Fresno State, or nearly once per quarter. It is no surprise that the teams who allowed the most trips to the red zone, were the three less successful teams in the league, New Mexico, San Jose St, and UNLV. Couple that with UNLV and New Mexico’s allowing scoring percentage over 90% and that is a recipe for a long season.

Eric Barker said “Do fewer things and do them well. Focus on the things only you can do. Do the important things which must be done.” The thing a defense must do is prevent points, and while there are many stats which can be used to judge how effective a defense can be, Walsh determined that these stats would be the ones a defense should be focused on. Fresno State was effective and efficient on the stats Walsh believed most important, and it should be no surprise that they were the most successful team in the league. The questions to be answered for next season are “Can Fresno do it again?” and “Can the other teams catch up?” If the answer are yes then no, it looks like there will be a repeat champion.