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BREAKDOWN: What the Advanced Stats Say about UCF vs. Tulane

Here’s what UCF needs to watch out for if they want to keep the Green Wave in check.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 16 Tulane at Temple
Tulane QB Justin McMillan
Getty Images

UCF heads into New Orleans and Yulman stadium on Saturday to face off against the Tulane Green Wave.

This is a game I am very much looking forward too and should be a rather exciting match-up.

I’m going to try and break down both offenses from an advances stats/analytical/scheme standpoint as best as I can. I’ll probably focus more on Tulane’s offense simply because it is what I think is the bigger factor in the game (if that makes sense).

I’ve charted every meaningful play from both offenses this season vs. FBS competition. This includes just about anything you can think on a play from pre to post snap (roughly 50+ data-points).

One thing I wanted to do before the season was do this for every AAC team, but I didn’t realize how much time and work that would be so it never happened. However, I started off with Tulane vs. FIU in Week 1 and kind of fell in love with the Green Wave’s offense and that led me to continue charting all their games.

Finally, UCF and Tulane meet.

Will Hall is Tulane’s offensive coordinator in his first season at Tulane after being the TE’s coach at Memphis last season so he’s familiar with the AAC and UCF in particular. His offense has turned around the Tulane program in a year.

His offense is led by Justin McMillan, a transfer from LSU. McMillan is an electric player and in my opinion is an extremely good fit for Hall’s offense.

Let’s look at some of his numbers:

McMillan’s accuracy by depth and direction.

A couple of notes here, that will probably help down the line as well:

Depth of target is something I’ll refer to a lot, it is simply how far the ball travels to the receiver from the line of scrimmage; caught or not. I’ll also call it (intended) air yards, or aDot (average depth of target).

I also include end zone yards in my charting.

Direction for the passing game is pretty simple. Right and left sideline are outside the numbers. Left and right are between the hash and the numbers and middle is between the hashes. I’d make a cool graphic of the numbers on the field to make it simple if I knew how.

Looking at McMillan’s numbers, nothing jumps out either good or bad. He’s pretty consistent in every direction. He’s been very accurate on short passes and has struggled a lot on the intermediate balls which is probably the hardest throw to make. His deep ball accuracy isn’t great, but it’s not bad either. Obviously, the deeper you throw the ball, the less accurate you’re expected to be.

This graph looks at his EPA (expected points added), Success rate, and completion % based on his intended air yards.

EPA is easily the best way to measure efficiency.

Success rate is simple. A play is deemed successful if it gains 50% of the yards to go on 1st down, 70% on 2nd down, and 100% on 3rd and 4th down.

Generally speaking, EPA should increase along with intended air yards.

Here, we see McMillan’s EPA drop off tremendously when he enters that intermediate depth. On passes @ or behind the LOS and on short passes, he hovers around 0.3 EPA/Att, which is really good. I think this speaks volume to the playmakers around him and Hall’s offense.

When you get to the intermediate range, he dips into the negatives and bottoms out at about -0.6 EPA/Att, which is not very good to be nice. But, then he jumps back into the positives when he throws the ball deep.

If you can complete ~35% of your deep ball (21+ air yards) you’re going to be an efficient quarterback in that area and McMillan is great proof of that. He has an exceptional arm.

This is just every throw McMillan has made plotted by IAY and EPA. You can see how slightly negative that regression line is and it’s something you’d hope to see the opposite, but I think it’s more of a result of how good Tulane’s short passing game has been rather than a knock of McMillan as a QB.

McMillan is also exceptional with his feet which is something I’ll talk about in a bit.

Early Downs

If you’ve seen anything I’ve done regarding UCF, you know that I like to talk about 1st and 10 and how important it is.

For Tulane, I think their performance on 1st and 2nd down is going to dictate how this game goes for them.

In their three AAC losses, they’ve gotten off to pretty poor starts and this isn’t exactly an offense built to score a lot of points, fast for say. I think it’s an offense built to score a lot of points, but is also an extremely cohesive offense. Where on the other hand, IMO UCF’s offense is not cohesive, but built to score if that makes sense.

For this table, I used only plays in the first half and excluded the Red Zone.

Will Hall loves to run, I hate running which is ironic because their run game is kind of what got me hooked on this offense.

However, his run game has been extremely efficient. Tulane goes about 55% run on 1st down (not including scrambles). Their EPA/Rush, success rate, and ypc are all off the charts. At the same time though, their passing game has also excelled on first down.

When Tulane falls behind in the down and distance (based off EPA), they struggle on second down. Their EPA/Play dips to -0.1112 and their EPA/Rush is woefully bad.

But, when they get ahead of the chains, it allows them to stick to their M/O and turn a 2nd and 5 into a 3rd and 1 or 2, an area where they are almost impossible to stop.

If you make that same chart for Tulane’s 3 AAC losses, it looks a lot different. I left out 2nd and 5 or less because their were only 7 plays.

Looking at 1st and 10, the R:P is relatively the same, but EPA/Rush dips about .26 points. Which is incredible to think about what Tulane’s early down rush EPA would look like in only wins. Their rush success rate and YPC also drops.

But, their EPA/Dropback rises. For the losses graphic I did turn turnovers into just incomplete passes or 0 yard rushes (Still badly negative plays in terms of EPA), simply because a pick 6 skews the numbers greatly and doesn’t exactly tell the story. Also, turnovers are, for the most part, random as UCF fans have probably realized this season with the crazy turnover regression happening to them. I also shouldn’t say random, more of, they’re just not predictable. The same pass intercepted in one game can be dropped in the next game.

As EPA/Dropback remains high, the success rate per dropback stays at a very good 50% clip and Tulane is still averaging just under 10 yards per attempt.

When you then look at 2nd and long (6+), Tulane is 9:10 in terms of run to pass in their 3 AAC losses. Only 1 of their 9 rushes in this situation put them into a decent down and distance on third down.

Where on passes, they have a 60% success rate and a positive EPA.

The simple thing I’m trying to show here, is that I think Tulane needs to be more aggressive early on against a really good team as relying on the run against better competition has not been very effective.

How do they do this?

Use Justin McMillan as the weapon he is. McMillan isn’t going to wow you with accuracy as I showed before, so being in predictable passing situations is not exactly what you want.

Tulane, IMO needs to use the pass to establish the run, not vice versa. The run has been established since football existed and that’s not changing no matter what anyone says.

If you look at the first quarter only:

On 1st and 2nd down pass plays where play action to some degree (RPO’s included)

  • 19 attempts
  • 0.148 EPA/Drop-back (using an inc pass for INT)
  • 63.16% success rate
  • 10.4 YPA

McMillan’s best aspect is his legs.

He’s had 37 plays and 29 pass attempts with a designed boot or roll out. Normally these are more of quick hitting, rhythm building throws, but they also allow him the option to run a lot of the time as well.

On these plays he has a:

  • 0.3911 EPA/Play
  • 0.828 EPA/Scramble
  • 0.2706 EPA/Pass Att
  • 65.5% completion % with an aDot of 10.07 yards.
  • 9.07 YPA
  • 62.16 % success rate
  • Play action was used of 31 of these and those 31 plays had a 0.68 EPA/Play.

This is one of my favorite plays Hall has designed.

Here’s Tulane running leak. The crazy thing is, this was one the 37 plays that resulted in a negative EPA. With a good throw it’s a TD.

This is a nice little RPO that is just impossible to stop. Fake Zone Read right with a one man lead for McMillan who has Darnell Mooney fake blocking and then releasing on a little fade route.

When you do this kind of stuff on early downs, the defense has so much to think about and Hall is such a creative mind who has a QB thrives making plays on the move. Once a defense has to worry about this right away, it’s game over.

Almost everything Tulane does, can be done in more than one way. They ran this same concept in the RPO above out of a 2x1 set, here it’s out a 3x0 with the bubble screen as the pass option, but McMillan keeps it for a successful first down run.

Bottom line is, for Tulane to win/keep this close, I think they need to use the pass to set up the run as weird as it may be for some of you to read that, it’s true.

I love Tulane’s run game and it’s going to play a key role if they win, but I think relying on it too much early on, could be a major letdown.

Personnel

Alright, let’s look at Tulane’s offense now from just a general season perspective and not from a play calling/efficiency stand point.

Tulane’s personnel is fun to watch. Not exactly sure this was the best graph to use to show this data, but I really wanted to use it.

For those that don’t know personnel is just who’s on the field. This is based off formation. So “10” personnel is 1 running back, 0 tight ends and 4 wide receivers. The first number is always running backs, the second is tight ends, and the missing number is WRs (it always adds up to 5). I chart wings/H-backs/Y-backs as tight ends, although I’ve seen most people chart them as running backs.

It’s something that I was borderline on a in the middle of the season and it would just be too much to go back and change every play. I try to think about it as a RB is going to be someone lined up in a position pre-snap/pre-motion who can receive a handoff from the QB normally.

Anyways. Tulane will line up every way possible. As mostly every team, their most frequent is “11” personnel, but they only use it ~42% of plays.

They’ll use 2 back looks on about 7.5%, and 2 TE looks 12%. While going 4 wide second most frequently at about a 21% clip.

The thing about Tulane is they can line up in “12” one play and be in empty the next without substituting. It makes it extremely difficult for a defense and also speaks volumes to Tulane’s skill guys grasping so much of an offense.

Wing T

This deserves its own section. Tulane goes to the Wing T in pretty much any short yardage situation they’re in and they thrive out of it. They’ll normally have 3 RB’s in with 2 of them as wings. And a tight receiver.

On 3rd or 4th and 1 or 2 yards to go, they are 15 for 16 when running a play out of Wing T.

They average 1.247 EPA/Play on those 16 plays, just absurd.

They’ll run Jet sweeps, buck sweeps, traps, QB sneak, and just a simple G Lead. And they’re not afraid to throw it with McMillan getting out on a boot.

They’re one of the best red zone teams in the country and it’s because of the Wing T.

Fake the buck sweep right, with a bootleg left and it’s a walk in touchdown.

Buck Sweep for a TD.

Jet Sweep motion into a wheel route with a play action on the G-Lead or Down action out of the right side of the line. Just so many moving parts in such a condensed area that it’s almost impossible to not blow an assignment.

Running Backs and Run Game

This is getting really long, but this is a major part of the Tulane offense so I have to touch on it before briefly talking a bit about UCF’s O.

Tulane is easily the deepest backfield in the AAC. At one point vs. Navy I believe they were using their fifth and sixth string RB’s and they were producing at an extremely high level in the second half of that game.

With that said, they’ve also had a ton of injuries in this area. I could be wrong, but I think they are all back.

Bradwell, who has the most carries by far, is ironically their least productive guy, by a pretty good margin.

This only counts McMillan’s designed runs/option runs and his numbers are unheard of. Easily up there with some of the best in the country. Corey Dauphine hurt his wrist, and has been a little slow since he returned, but he will bounce runs to the outside and it’s scary for the defense when that happens. Huderson and Carroll are just really good backs.

And Amare Jones is what Otis Anderson would be if Otis Anderson was used right.

He lines up in the slot and the backfield, but also in the backfield with another running back!

Now the fun. Let’s look at some the run schemes Will Hall loves to use and how these guys are utilized.

GT Counter

Simple, the guard and tackle pull. Here’s Jones running GT counter out of “21” personnel:

Here they run a jet sweep to Jones out of the slot with a QB GT Counter read attached.

And here’s McMillan keeping.

Duo

They have only used this in the Army game I believe (I could be very wrong), but it was dominant.

Corey Dauphine is the perfect back for this.

Zone

They also love zone runs. Outside zone, wide zone, split zone, inside zone, zone read out of the shotgun, pistol, under center, they do it.

Here they run an outside zone read, but like they do, they add in their own creative wrinkle. The backside guard fake pulls and kicks out the end leaving the DT unblocked for McMillan to read.

I have no idea what this is, but it’s cool. My guess is outside zone with delayed split flow from the Y-back. That’s also probably wrong. But, look at the linebackers focus on James here and delay their pursuit a split second once James goes to block the backside end.

Tulane utilizes the pistol frequently and also goes under center. It gives you an advantage when running the ball because it doesn’t tip which side you’re running to. They also use motion a lot and line their receivers up in bunch and tight, but I won’t bore you with numbers on that.

Receivers

Won’t go in depth on this, but they have two really good receivers in Jalen McCleskey and Darnell Mooney. I’m not 100% sure McCleskey is going to play because he got hurt at the end of the Temple game. But, both of these guys are legitimate threats on the outside every play. Jaetavian Toles will line up in the slot and is usually their lone receiver in the wing T.

Will Hall also loves to use a running back in the slot. Amare Jones is the main guy in that role and as mentioned before, he is a great running back too.

He has 22 catches on 31 targets. They simply want the ball in his hands. He averages 1.18 EPA/Reception. Jones is a big play waiting to happen and Aaron Robinson should be the one matched up on him. Robinson has quietly been one of the best corners in the country.

Will Wallace and Tyrick James are the two tight ends who see action. Hall isn’t afraid to get them on the field together and also not afraid to throw them the ball. Combined they have 13 catches on 18 targets and rack up 1.587 EPA/Rec. Hall has done a great job of designing plays to get his tight ends open via leaks, throwbacks, and fake bubble screens.

Finally, it is not really worth of anything, but something I picked up on. McCleskey will always line up on the same side as Toles or the guy lined up in the slot. Mooney always lines up either alone or with Jones/James/or Wallace if Tulane is in a 2x2.

This offense is incredibly fun to watch. They have stalled out in their losses at times and it’s in large part to getting shut down in the run game and falling behind the down and distance.

UCF has gotten hurt by mobile QB’s in the past and on rub/combo routes when they’re playing their man-switch coverage. Hall’s offense is one that involves a lot of both of these things.

At times, the line has contributed greatly to those negative plays and penalties have been a killer as well.

UCF’s Offense

I’m not going to talk much about the UCF Knights’ offense because most reading already have seen what I’ve said throughout the season about this group and this post is insanely long.

But one thing I looked at this week, was Dillon Gabriel’s passing yards in terms of aDot and completed air yards on a per week basis.

I wanted to see if their was a difference in the wins and losses.

Most people are quick to point out that Tulsa and Cincinnati both ran a 3-3-5. But, I think the bigger emphasis is that both tried to force UCF to beat them throwing the ball short.

I mentioned this extremely early on in this novel that I think UCF’s offense is more built to put up points, than sustain drives. It’s something I want to look at in the off-season more in depth, but without a big play run game this season, it has put the explosive play need all on the passing game.

If you look at the Tulsa and Cincinnati games, the completed air yards/att are extremely low compared to every other game, but ECU and Temple. Temple they didn’t need to throw because the run game was so good and against ECU, the offense struggled in the 2h.

The thing is, when they threw the ball short against Cincinnati and Tulsa, it was effective.

Against Tulsa, 13 of Gabriel’s 34 (38.23%) attempts were either screens or check downs thrown -2 to 2 yards from the line of scrimmage.

On passes thrown 4-9 yards downfield vs. Tulsa (taking out the inadvertent throw away interception):

  • 9 atts
  • .654 EPA/Att
  • 55.56% succ rate
  • 7.22 YPA

Against Cincinnati:

  • 19 atts
  • .376 EPA
  • 73.68% success rate
  • 9.1 YPA

NOTE: Only plays outside red zone

Can UCF win without being reliant on the deep ball? They were able to beat Temple because of a dominant rushing performance, but that’s it.

I have no idea how Tulane will come out defensively, but if they come out playing soft coverage, I will be interested to see how UCF reacts and adjusts throughout the game.

Bottom line is, UCF is going to put up points in this game. Both teams will. UCF plays too high of a possession game for it to not at least reach 60 combined points.

Tulane has to be able to keep up and a couple of quick 3 and outs can really haunt them early.

I expect both teams to be aggressive on fourth down. Both have been so far to this point and there’s no chance settling for field goals are winning this game. Field goals are just turnovers with a participation trophy.

There’s a lot more data that I have, that I didn’t include (a) because I forgot or (b) this was already long enough, but I’ll gladly answer any questions.

EPA data is courtesy of @statsowar on Twitter. Give him a follow. All other data is mine and I’ve probably messed something up on at least 1 of the 1300 plays I have from these two teams.