Midterm Report Card
There's nothing like a 39-point win at a rival's Homecoming game to fire up the fan base, and we know there are few things you like more than reading about good football. I suspect one or two of the other guys will cover the This Feels Good part of the 2018 season to date, so I thought I'd throw out
some a lot of all of the numbers I can find, comparing 2017 to first-half 2018. (All of these stats come from Bill Connelly's work at Football Study Hall: 2018 numbers are here and 2017 are here. Warning: there are a ton of numbers at those links.)
Overall performance: B
The 2017 team started 3-3, bulldozing Ohio, Missouri and Minnesota, holding Wisconsin and Louisville close even while being outplayed, and getting blitzed (literally) by a Michigan team that got a career game from a backup QB (although if O’Korn had been Normal O’Korn, UM still would have won). They finished 7-6, but had coin-flip losses at Rutger and home against Nebraska; they crushed Illinois (sound familiar?) and thumped Iowa and Indiana (although the Hoosiers kept the score close), then split against Northwestern and Arizona in games where analytics thought they’d be heavily beaten.
2018 looks pretty similar, which is something I wouldn’t have said a month ago. There is a key difference: Purdue’s postgame win expectancy has been no lower than 59% in each of their six games. Yeah, it sucks to lose a close game, but the Good Guys were losing close games last year that shouldn’t have been close; this year, they’re not that far away from a 6-0 start. Five of the six remaining games are at least in coin-flip range, with Purdue favored in two of them, both on the road. A 57% chance of another bowl season? Yes please.
The offense is much better; you don’t need me to tell you that, just google “rondale moore awesome". We’ll get into details below, but David Blough has also been a key, as the injury to Sindelar cleared the way for the senior to take over, and nearly 1700 yards later, he’s the man. Defense is much worse, which makes sense when you think about the talent that Purdue lost - this was supposed to be the unit that would struggle initially, and they are. They’ll come around in time, and their game against Illinois was an excellent sign of that. Special teams … aren’t as bad as they were last year, but they’re not great. That won’t be a problem if the defense does get better, but coin-flip games can be decided by special teams, and right now, that’s not always a good thing.
Overall offense: A+
How do you get an offense to catch fire? Keep the ball moving and break big plays. Purdue has made significant improvements in the former; Success Rate measures how often you get enough yards on a play to keep a drive alive*, and the top quarter of I-A football is where you want to be. IsoPPP is a measure of explosive plays, and if you’ve seen any Purdue football this season (aside from the Eastern Michigan game), you’d probably guess the Boilers have a ton of those plays. An elite offense combines steady gains and explosive plays to put points on the board, taking advantage of good field position. Purdue hasn’t given its defense great field position to defend, but the one weak spot has been points per trip. Yeah, it’s up from last year, but again as you’ve seen, the Boilers don’t get enough on their long drives. (The reason why that’s here and not in special teams is that if you do enough on offense, special teams won’t come into play.) Turnovers also haven’t worked in the Boilers’ favor, although a good bit of that came early in the season.
*getting 50% of yards needed on first down, 70% on second, 100% on third/fourth
Overall defense: C-
Most of the decline on defense has been on long drives: the Good Guys haven’t been able to stop methodical marches down the field nearly as well as last season. Since they also continue to struggle to stop big plays (being right about average isn’t a good thing), that translates into a lot of points, which I think has boosted the offense’s field position a bit from getting touchbacks - starting at the 25 is better than starting at the 5, right?
Note that there is probably a correlation between methodical drives and points inside the 40: when you don’t slow the offense down enough, they’ll march right into easy scoring range. Half a point per trip isn’t a lot in and of itself, but as you can see from the difference in rank (falling nearly 50 spots), it is a big drop, and it can make a big difference in close games.
Rushing offense: B
The first two numbers don’t have 2017 equivalents because Connelly’s changed things up: he is looking at efficiency and explosiveness relative to the average team in a given down and distance on that yard line. Purdue’s running game has been less effective than average, but significantly more explosive … and yeah, that’s definitely what I’ve seen. Opportunity rate - producing at least five yards on a run - is down a bit, but stuff rate is up: the O-line hasn’t always made the holes we need to see, but they’ve done a great job of at least getting the RBs to the line of scrimmage. If they can add a couple of yards to what’s available, the running game could take off: imagine Knox, Jones and Moore with a little more space. (And Moore is already averaging 15.4 yards per carry; Knox is at 6.2 and Jones at 5.9. Blough is even above 5, at 5.1.)
Passing offense: A-
No surprises here. The Good Guys are much better than average at moving the ball in the air, whether it’s in little bits or big chunks, and even though Blough has been sacked a bit, it hasn’t been that often (his is 5.1%, about once every 20 pass plays). With the kind of offense Brohm runs, a solid passing game will cover up holes in the running game, and this is more than solid, especially considering the yards lost to blown pass interference calls. For as well as these guys are playing, there’s yet room for improvement. Translation: wooooo!
Rushing defense: C
The defensive dropoff is most noticeable here: last year, you could not churn out yards against the run defense. You could break a long run - the Boilers were average in explosiveness on defense - but you weren’t going to get 4 and 5 yards a carry. This year, teams have run on the Boilers pretty well, but the one area where Purdue hasn’t dropped off as much is stuff rate, and that’s big. Getting an occasional TFL on a running play puts the opponent in pass mode, and that’s … well …
Passing defense: C-
… not a great thing either. The Good Guys have struggled to stop chain-moving completions, although they aren’t giving up too many big plays. Combined with the struggles against the run, the Boilers have not been able to slow I-A offenses down much this year (fortunately, Illinois doesn’t have a I-A offense). If they can get opponents to third down, things go much better (Purdue is in the top third on third-and-long, top 25 on third-and-medium, and 4th on third-and-short), but all too often, first downs are coming before then … 75.5% of opponents’ first downs in Open Play (between the offense’s 10 and the defense’s 30) are obtained on first or second down. As the secondary gets more experience, these numbers will improve, but for now they’re why it’s so important for the offense to generate points.
Special teams: C-
Spencer Evans has missed a couple of PATs and had one blocked, but that doesn’t come into play here: what does is, actually, J.D. Dellinger’s two attempts, a miss from 21 and a make from 21. (By the way, opponents haven’t made a field goal against Purdue in three weeks; Missouri was the last one to do so. Nebraska and Illinois both missed their lone attempts, and BC didn’t try one.) Because close FGs should be slam dunks, Dellinger and the Boilers get dinged for that miss. Evans’ misses are from 38, 49 and 53, and he’s 11 for 12 inside 40 yards (he hasn’t attempted a kick between 39 and 48), so he’s actually better than those numbers might indicate.
Joe Schopper has done a fine job on punts, putting 9 of 24 inside the 20, so that’s the one area that is definitely above average. Kickoffs, like field goals, are hurt by not-Evans, as Myles Homan has kicked off three times with a net of 30.3 yards per kick; if Evans had been healthy enough to do all the kickoffs, there might not have been much of a dropoff from last season.
The return game has gone from blah to mostly blah; punt returns are still nothing, although that’s also a sample size thing (just 8 returns in 6 games). Kickoff returns are sometimes good, but Moore’s success rate is just 46.2%; it’s like he’s a freshman or something. Oh, wait. (It’s also because Brohm hasn’t completely repaired Purdue’s depth issues, which means special teams guys are maybe guys who wouldn’t be out there if you had someone better you’d want to use on special teams, i.e. not most of your starters.)
Two of the remaining six games have flipped from L to W, and only the Ohio State game remains out of reach. The other three are against teams better than anyone Purdue’s played to date, but two of those are at home, and the third is against a team that lost to Northwestern (uh, wait) and Arizona State, but beat Penn State, so depending on which MSU team shows up - keeping in mind that their Super World Cup Series Bowl is the week before the Purdue game - Purdue should be expected to stay in every one of those last five games.
If the Boilers can get just a little bit better, they might be able to improve on last year’s record despite starting 0-3. Even if they don’t, at the very least, the outlook for 2019 is much brighter. If they do reach seven wins before bowl season, well, it might be worthwhile to buy LouisvilleNeedsChipKelly.com or something along those lines. I don’t expect Brohm is going anywhere just yet, but 7 or 8 wins this season would sure make some people take a long, hard look at him.
Feature photo courtesy of NASA