I often think about sports wrong. You probably do, too, but that's OK. If all you want to do is watch the game, the result is probably enough analysis. But you wouldn't bother with this blog - not that it'd have any content - if I didn't take a little deeper look. And the allure of the simple "scoreboard!" taunt is powerful.
Game results are at once the only thing that matters, and in some cases misleading. Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens exemplifies this point, characterized in the quote below:
One of the most memorable moments of the season was the Butler-Gonzaga finish, when Gonzaga was winning by a point and Butler's Roosevelt Jones stole the ball and was about to shoot a runner at the buzzer and Stevens started walking toward the Gonzaga bench. Whatever happened with the shot, the game was about to end. Stevens knew it, and he knew he had somewhere to be, so he crossed his arms and was several steps toward Zags coach Mark Few when Jones' shot dropped through the net and Hinkle Fieldhouse exploded in noise and Butler's players sprinted around the court and Stevens kept walking, calmly, to shake Few's hand.
The quote I've seen is "the hay is in the barn" at that point. You've done enough to win, but the difference between a win and a loss rests on a single shot. Maybe the shot goes in, maybe it doesn't, but that shouldn't significantly change how you feel about what transpired over the previous 39:58.
In a way, that's how I look at K-State's loss to NDSU. Just doing barely enough to get by an FCS team, even a really good FCS team, isn't cause for much celebration. But there's a chasm between the narrative and reaction to a narrow loss and a narrow win in that game. There shouldn't be. All we really proved is we don't have the talent to simply overwhelm NDSU with a game plan that doesn't exploit all our matchup advantages. We should've already known that.
We signed up for Bill Connelly's charting project this year. For one, it's a worthwhile project that I think will yield useful data. For another, it's a good way to get a deeper look at K-State's games and analyze what happened. Here's what I learned from charting K-State's 24-21 loss to North Dakota State.
Jake Waters is good: His official line is 21-29-2, 280 yards, 9.6 yards/attempt, 2 TD. When you look behind the numbers, it's even more impressive. One of his incompletions was a drop, and another was thrown away. His first interception was a terrible play call. It's hard to believe we tried to throw for a first down on 3rd and 25 from our own five yard line. His second interception was a desperation heave at the end of the game.
Good and bad news about the running game: On the bright side, you can add 22 yards to the rushing total. That includes 15 yards lost on the bad snap that Waters just had to cover, as well as seven sack yards. On the downside, that's still only 63 rushing yards.
While I think we would've been better served throwing the ball on the fourth-down attempt in the second quarter, that play didn't fail because Waters is a poor runner. Rewatch it and you'll notice Tavon Rooks completely whiffed on his block, allowing Cole Jirik to make a tackle when he shouldn't have even been in the play.
While we're talking about the offensive line... Yeah, it wasn't very good. I counted three poor plays by Rooks just in the first 20 minutes of the game. Cornelius Lucas did not have a good game, either. And to get even more negative about the rushing game, John Hubert's one big carry was not a result of good blocking. It wasn't a poorly blocked play, but Hubert shed a tackle and picked up 10 yards after contact.
The defense ... wasn't THAT bad: No, seriously. In 11 possessions, NDSU punted four times, turned the ball over via interception, allowed three sacks, gave up 10 total tackles for loss (not including the clock-killing play to end the game), and only generated one big play. The big play was Sam Ojuri's 66-yard run in the third quarter, and probably only goes for about 10 yards if Dante Barnett doesn't take a terrible angle.
Against a team as experience and disciplined as NDSU, you're going to give up a sustained drive or two. So I can live with the third-quarter drive when the Bison drove 75 yards in 13 plays for a touchdown. K-State didn't give up any big plays, but it couldn't get a takeaway or a stop - including a fourth-down conversion - and NDSU took advantage. It happens.
Now, about that last drive: As Morse put it, our defense got smoketested on NDSU's game-winning drive. We brought pressure only twice on the final drive, despite several obvious passing downs. NDSU faced 2nd & 10, 3rd & 11, 2nd and 13, 2nd and 12, and 3rd & 7 on that drive. We blitzed on the 3rd and 7 and gave up a first down when Trevor Gebhart caught Brock Jensen's pass just short of the sticks and barely fell across the line. We also blitzed on 3rd and 3 when NDSU had the ball on our 14 yard line, knocking Jensen down just a split second after he delivered a bullet to Zach Vraa.
In other words, one tackle a few yards shorter, or one blitzer getting to Jensen a step earlier, and the narrative is completely different this week. That's not to say we'd all be thrilled. But instead of having lost to an FCS team, K-State would've pulled out a narrow opening-game win, and we could be somewhat comforted that we had done that the last two years and gone on to win 21 games.
Doing damage out of an empty set: On that infamous last drive, NDSU lined up with zero backs and five wide receivers five times in 18 plays. The results? Four completions for 27 yards and one rush for seven yards, almost all of it over the middle. Basically, they emptied out the middle of the field and exploited our soft coverage underneath. This set accounted for two of the Bison's third-down conversions on the drive. Let's hope the coaching staff has some sort of answer to this formation, or we're going to see it a lot.
We used max protect, a lot: Apparently part of the game plan was to really protect Waters and give him plenty of time to throw. We used six or more blockers 25 times, and used seven or more blockers 12 times. This is part of the vanilla offense we've been discussing. When you have seven blockers, the maximum number of pass receivers you can have in the pattern is three; with eight blockers, it's two.
Ignoring K-State's last offensive play of the game, max protect worked reasonably well. With seven or more blockers, Waters was 10-11 for 161 yards and one TD. But NDSU also sacked him once, which really shouldn't happen with seven blockers.
Quantifying the "pass more" offense: I'm on record that we should've thrown the ball more. But that's an empty criticism without offering some substance. Here's what I mean.
If you watch the tape, you'll see that, unsurprisingly, NDSU's defensive backs were generally giving Tyler Lockett and Tramaine Thompson a lot of space. Lockett, Thompson and Curry Sexton were able to pick up 5-15 yards pretty easily just by running stop routes and other underneath routes. With a quarterback as deadly accurate as Waters and good timing, which this group appears to have, those are basically rushing plays. Fourteen of Waters' completions were thrown less than 10 yards downfield.
That's basically free yardage, and it's drive-sustaining yardage. And it sets up the double-move routes that resulted in the long touchdown passes to Lockett and Thompson. In particular, I noticed that NDSU's strong safety, Kolton Heagle, was particularly vulnerable. Thompson burned Heagle on his long touchdown catch, which was the second time just that drive Heagle couldn't keep up. We didn't do a very good job exploiting that obvious matchup advantage.
One other thing we did twice and then completely forgot about was throw wide receiver screens to Lockett and Thompson. The first two plays of the second half? Both seven-yard completions to Thompson on wide receiver screens. With the defensive backs playing soft and the running game not working, working the ball to Lockett and Thompson in space would be an acceptable substitute.
Conclusion: There was a point to that introduction, I promise. We intuitively understand that the result of a game isn't predetermined. If it were, K-State would've gone 12-0 and played Notre Dame for a national title last year. Baylor's odds of beating K-State last year weren't especially high. Was Baylor a better team than K-State? No, but they won when it mattered.
K-State didn't perform all that much differently against NDSU than it did two years ago in a 10-7 win over Eastern Kentucky. NDSU is a far better team than EKU, and K-State did enough - even without exploiting all its advantages - to get in position to win the game. In fact, K-State was in control of the game in the third quarter, but didn't continue to press its advantages. Combine that with a rapidly tiring defense, and NDSU pulled out a huge win. Credit to them.
After K-State narrowly squeaked by EKU two years ago, I'm sure there was a siren song of call for change. Play Bryce Brown, Collin Klein sucks, probably others. Don't take too much from this opening game, even if it was a loss. And an embarrassing one, at that. This game, alone, does not require significant rearrangement of the players on the field, especially the players who played well above replacement level. It does require some coaching and attitude adjustments. Whether these adjustments occur will have a far greater effect on how this season plays out than who starts at quarterback, or linebacker, or defensive line.