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Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Statistical Review: Fresno State #45

Let me tell you a story. At the end of the 2009 college football season (and the last day of the 2009 calendar year), I watched Air Force stymie a dynamic Houston Cougar offense that was led by Case Keenum and coached by Kevin Sumlin. Keenum threw for about 200 yards and was picked off six times. Houston scored 20 points, and seven of those came on a kick return. Air Force defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter converted that game and a very impressive season into a DC position at Texas A&M.

In 2010, DeRuyter helped resurrect a terrible Texas A&M defense (yells of "wrecking crew" were heard from the stands), and the Aggies beat Texas, Oklahoma and Nebraska by allowing 17, 19 and 6 points in those games. The 2011 installment of Texas A&M football was hyped coming into the season, but they finished 7-6 after blowing several substantial second half leads, largely because the secondary couldn't cover a wheelchair in the 4th quarter. 

Head coach Mike Sherman got fired and DeRuyter stepped in as interim head coach for an unimpressive win over Northwestern in the bowl game. Meanwhile, Houston blew its perfect season and conference title hopes in part because head coach Kevin Sumlin was busy being courted by Texas A&M. He left Houston for his new job days after losing to Southern Miss.

Tim DeRuyter packed his things in College Station and took the head job at Fresno State. And here's the punchline: while Sumlin and Manziel rewrote record books in College Station, Fresno State had the nation's most dominant pass defense. Sumlin assistant Kliff Kingsbury, formerly at Houston, then at Texas A&M before heading to Texas Tech, hired Matt Wallerstedt, who followed DeRuyter as Air Force DC and then to A&M, to run his defense in Lubbock, and Kingsbury cites bowl games against Air Force as a factor in that hiring decision. Little did I know I was watching the beginning of a coaching avalanche on that New Year's Eve 2009.

To be clear, Fresno State did not have the best pass defense in the country; Florida, Oklahoma and Alabama did slightly less well against much better competition (though Oklahoma accomplished this by abandoning any pretense of stopping the run). But no team did more against the schedule they faced than Fresno State. Opponents averaged 5.10 yards per pass, completed 51.6% of attempts, were sacked on 9.1% of pass attempts, and threw interceptions on 5.8% of passes. This last number is particularly impressive, half a percentage point higher than any other defense in the country; Keenum isn't alone in finding DeRuyter's defense deceptive. Fresno State's forced turnovers were worth 121 points in 2012, almost 10 points per game (second only to SMU), and ended 18.8% of possessions.

By all accounts, the Fresno State offense should have been better. The quarterback topped 4,000 yards and had a 37/7 TD/INT ratio. The running back was a dime short of 1,500 yards. And they only turned the ball over on 10.3% of possessions. But at 2.3, the points per possession seem relatively low, and the EP3 (effective points per possession) is even lower. The biggest factor was the timing of turnovers. They didn't turn the ball over too often, but when they did it was costly. They were tackled in the backfield too often and weren't great on 3rd downs, so their drives were shorter than we would expect - 5.6 plays per possession. 

Fresno State will regress some on defense because, if nothing else, the turnover value will regress some. On the other hand, the tendency towards regression suggests they should make up for some, or all, of that on the other side of the football. It's never a good thing when you lose a career 4,500 yard running back. But if they can beat Boise State at home in September, Fresno State could make some noise in 2013.
The Statistical Review breaks down teams along a number of performance categories, everything from red zone scoring to field goal percentage, and compares that performance against the rest of the FBS. All 124 teams will be reviewed from 124 to 1 by the hybrid rankings. You can find short descriptions of the stats used in the table below.

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