Bumped. - BN Eds.
One complete game is all that stands between us and the Pac-12 Championship game. The luster has finally faded from Harbaugh’s Stanford, but this is still a program that the Bruins haven’t beaten this decade. Six losses in 5 years, by a total point margin 86-190 (the most painful being 2010’s 0-35 drubbing at home). All indications are that this is U.C.L.A.’s year. We just proved we own this town, and we already we own Arizona; after this game we’ll own California, too.
Let’s look at the numbers behind the scenes to see why this game is U.C.L.A.’s for the taking.
Brian Fremeau’s Efficiency Index is an advanced statistical measure that uses "each of the nearly 20,000 possessions" to track a team’s drive efficiency. Basically, the FEI looks at how successful a team is at maximizing its scoring opportunities while limiting its opponents’ scoring opportunities. We’ll also take a peek at Bill Connelly’s S&P+, a play-by-play advanced statistical measure that looks at a team’s success rate and explosiveness per play.
Both the FEI and S&P+ are opponent-adjusted and exclude garbage time. The F/+ combines the FEI and the S&P+ and serves as the "official" college football ranking for Football Outsiders. All "per game" information is pulled from cfbstats.com.
WHERE WE’VE BEEN
U.C.L.A. jumps two spots to #5 after convincingly handling Southern Cal. Stanford jumps two spots... to #35… after convincingly handling Northern Cal. So yeah, these two teams are pretty much on the same trajectory; U.C.L.A.’s just sitting on a much higher plane.
Stanford’s current FEI (red line) is almost exactly equal to the current combined FEI of our previous opponents (green line). Coincidence? I think NOT! Well, yeah, it is, and I guess it’s not that interesting. Moving on…
There has been much consternation amongst a portion of the Cardinal fan-base regarding some of their coach’s in-game decisions. I stopped by cfbmatrix to take a look at their updated "Charlie Weis Anti-Coach of the Year" rankings to get an idea of just how bad
Mr. Conservative Mr. Personality Coach Shaw could be. While 7WSark is coming in at a negative three (should have been negative four, had Arizona made one measly FG on three attempts), Shaw only comes in at a negative one this season based on the Trees’ double-overtime loss to the Utes in Week 12.
Now, this isn't some huge advantage in U.C.L.A.’s favor. Just like the Bruins’ play on the field, our coaching has been inconsistent, as well. Up until our win over the Washington a few weeks ago, Coach Mora was also sitting at negative one thanks to back-to-back losses against Utah and Oregon (offset by a positive coaching effect in the Bruins’ win over Texas).
Still, after three solid wins, it looks like Mora and crew and "turned the corner" and are devising game plans to better take advantage of player mismatches and opponents’ weaknesses. My only worry is that against Stanford Mora will regress and try to out-NFL-coach Shaw. That would be like trying to out-cheat a trogan; it’s just not possible. If Mora sticks to his plan for our recent success, this should be another convincing win.
U.C.L.A. vs. Stanford – OVERALL
U.C.L.A. is currently ranked at #5 in the FEI, the highest ranking we’ve had this season since jumping to #2 after our loss to Utah (wait, our ranking increased after we lost? Yes, it did. Remember, the FEI was drunk back then, with all sorts of crazy shifts from week-to-week. Things have normalized now, but it interesting to see that back in week 6 the FEI predicted we’d go 9-3; we should end up 10-2. In the FEI’s defense, I don’t think anyone fathomed how far Stanford’s offensive play could fall in one season).
At an overall #35, Stanford is slotted above Washington (#45), but below Utah (#19). The Bruins outrank the Trees in all facets of the game, but this Stanford team is no slouch. They have a decent offense (similar in efficiency to Colorado’s), and an extremely efficient defense (almost as good as Utah's). But hey, what do you know, for maybe the first time this season our Special Teams efficiency isn’t a huge concern.
Last week I mentioned that our win over the Wildcats had been the only game of the season where each component of the team contributed positively to the margin of victory. Well, the Bruins did it again against Southern Cal for a 24 point non-garbage time victory (see first Game Splits graph below). Now that’s a beat down. A similar performance from our group on Friday would surely mean a victory.
Our expected scoring value from field position and turnovers seems to have self-corrected a bit after that treacherous Cal game. Winning in these categories is obviously great, but as long as we don’t get beat in them (i.e., generate negative scoring value) we have the talent to win on the field (man, were we lucky against Cal or what?).
And for reference, here are Stanford’s Game Splits:
Anyway, outside of a poor showing against Oregon, Stanford’s units have played fairly consistently in terms of contributing to their results, much more so than our units, anyway. Their offense certainly took care of business against Cal, but that’s not hard given Cal is ranked #77 in defensive efficiency.
Looking below, we still haven’t really impressed the S&P+, which (again) ranks our opponent above us. It’s only one spot below, though, so I guess that’s progress. Regardless, the S&P+ views this as a much closer game than the FEI.
Now let’s take a closer look at the components that make up the FEI efficiency ratings. These measurements consider what our offense has accomplished and what our defense has allowed our opponent to accomplish in terms of:
• 1st Down/TD – Percentage of drives resulting in at least one 1st down or TD
• Available Yards – Ratio of yards earned to total yards avail based on starting field position
• Explosive Drives – Percentage of drives that average 10+ yards per play
• Methodical Drives – Percentage of drives that run 10+ plays
• Value Drives – Percentage of drives starting on own side of field that reach opponent’s 30-yard line or better
The figures shown above are raw and not adjusted for SOS. If they were, you’d see our True Blue bars come up a fair amount (from #28 to #5), and their unimaginative cardinal (Really? You’re going to name your team after a color? Gee, I wonder where Nerd Nation got that idea [cough cough, Syracuse].) bars stay about the same (#16 to #14).
I’m going to repeat myself (I told you I would): outside of Utah (#4), this will be the toughest defense the Bruins have faced. That said, at #5 we are one of the most efficient offenses Stanford will have played, coming in just behind Oregon (#3), who hung 45 brightly colored points on Stanford’s sad little tree. Their next closest challenges were Washington State (#19), Arizona State (#22) and Notre Dame (#23), which were held to 19, 26 and 17 points, respectively. Stanford lost to both the Sun Devils and the Irish.
Value Drive’s obviously favor the Trees, but other measures aren’t so lop-sided, and 1st Down/TD is actually in our favor. So, I’d think we’ll be able to put together a few sustained drives, maybe break off one or two big plays, and after some back and forth on possessions finally put up points. If we can penetrate this defense and finish a few drives, we should be fine. This isn’t going to be a shoot-out, and Stanford’s not the kind of team that’s going to come back from behind to win.
At #5, U.C.L.A.’s offense is still deemed extremely efficient (Oregon is #3 behind Georgia Tech and Auburn). Below is a graph of our week-to-week Game Factors, one of the underlying components in the FEI.
FCS, so lame.
U.C.L.A. tends to move the ball through the air more, but has had a fairly balanced attack (43% yards gained on the ground, 57% in the air). Hundley completed passes to 10 different receivers last week, and Paul Perkins is currently the conference’s leading rusher. Unfortunately, Stanford’s defense looks extremely balanced in its ability to defend against the run and the pass. Stanford is #10 in the nation in sacks, averaging 3.2 per game, and will be hungry for Hundley. This could create problems if the Bruins aren’t more productive than they were last week on the ground.
The S&P+ puts Stanford far above the Bruins in every category, with the closest match-up coming in Standard Downs (Passing Downs are 2nd down with 8+ yards or 3rd/4th with 5+; all other downs are Standard Downs), where Stanford is ranked #1 and U.C.L.A. #8. So, same story as above – grind it out and eventually finish. Stanford will try to do the same, but as we’ll see below, has a terrible record in the red zone.
Adjusted for SOS, U.C.L.A.’s bars would increase significantly (#60 to #32) and the goofy looking Trees’ would increase a bit (#71 to #61).
Stanford under Harbaugh became a physically imposing team that pummeled the hell out of you. While they still have a stout defense that can beat opponents up and wear them down, they don’t have the types of offensive weapons they had in the past that could take advantage of a battered opponent to close out games.
Absent our guys flat out not showing up, Stanford absolutely shouldn’t be breaking off any big plays against us. The Cardinal will be looking to rely on their defense to limit our production offensively, and then just grind it out when they get the ball to eventually win the field position battle and punch it in.
QB Kevin Hogan has had some issues, but he can do some damage leading this offense when starting on our side of the field. Stanford will get to the Red Zone, guaranteed. However, once they're there is when their real trouble begins. Stanford is ranked #123 in the nation on red zone conversions, scoring just 69.6% of the time (50.0% TD, 19.6% FG). (Just to rub it in, the Bruins are ranked #1 in red zone conversion with at 95.6% scoring rate (64.4% TD, 31.2% FG) – Suck it, Trees!).
The main problem for Stanford is that their go-to strategy of pounding it out just hasn’t been working. If there was ever a game for the Trees to surprise an opponent by trying something different, this would be it. Mix up the calls, throw in some play action, whatever. Improvise, adapt, overcome!
As has been widely noted, go-to offensive weapon Ty Montgomery will be out with an injury. This is a nice break for the Bruins and a huge loss for Stanford’s struggling and erratic offense. My only concern is that this provides the catalyst for Coach Shaw to finally get creative with his offense and call some combination of plays other than run, run, pass.
Losing their top offensive producer could force Shaw’s hand in taking risks and better utilizing some of their other skill players. It’s kind of like Coach Neuheisel in the Kai Forbath days. Would CRN have been so ready to go to the FG had he had Fairbairn instead of Forbath? Actually, he probably would have, but you get my point.
Looking at the game factors, Stanford’s offensive efficiency has had a nice upward trend since their win against Washington State in game 6 (sure, they won, but their offensive efficiency was rated #1,026 out of #1,290 FBS games played this season. It’s easy to put up points when you’re playing the worst defense in the Pac-12).
Seeing this offensive trajectory actually makes me feel a little better. I think Coach Shaw will have sensed that his offense has been improving each week, and will stick with his Mr. Conservative moniker, which means we have absolutely nothing to worry about with regards to him putting together a game plan that will catch our defense off-guard. Uh... but hopefully it doesn't continue to improve for this game and actually score serious points!
And by the way, look at the Bruins' defensive performance last week against Southern Cal. Not quite to the level we saw against Arizona, but I'll take it any day.
S&P+ sees things closer than the FEI, but still has our defense ranked far above their offense. Again, we CANNOT play Stanford’s game. Do not let them grind this out and stick around until the end. If we do, Stanford could just squeak this one out.
Oh yeah, look at our Special Teams now, we’re ranked in the top half of all FBS teams! Looking at the individual ST components, we suck at punt returns, they suck at punts. We’re good at kickoff returns, they’re good at kickoffs. We hold an a slight advantage when kicking the ball, and maybe even more so now that they’ve lost their star return man - but where we hold a real advantage is in Field Goals.
Yes, field goals. U.C.L.A. continues to move up and has jumped from #57 to #44 in FG efficiency (season high) after Fairbairn’s 100% FG rate against Southern Cal (sure, there was only one attempt, but gosh darn it if Fairbairn didn’t nail it). Believe it or not, U.C.L.A. is actually ranked #36 in the nation with a 78.9% FG completion rate. And remember Stanford’s trouble in the red zone? This dismal FG efficiency is certainly a large factor, with Stanford’s FG completion rate sitting at 68.4%, bad enough for #82 in the nation.
All I gotta say is:
And after tomorrow’s win, we’ll deal with our lingering Oregon problem.
The FEI gives the Bruins an 85.8% win projection, and has been correct 81.5% when giving a win projection in the 85%-95% range (but 71.5% of the time when in the 75%-85% range – we’re right on the cusp here). The FEI hasn’t been this confident since our game against Colorado, which, uh, we won in double overtime… Okay, well, the FEI hasn’t been this confident since our game against Memphis, which, ah, went to the 4th quarter…
Whatever. 85.8% is a pretty strong endorsement. And, as it seems it always is, the FPI is less confident in our victory (67.8%), while the F/+ loves us like the FEI does, with an 80.7% win probability.
FEI – U.C.L.A. 31 – Stanford 17
F/+ – U.C.L.A. 34 – Stanford 14
Vegas – U.C.L.A. -4.5