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One weird stat that suggests K-State can beat Texas

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If Jesse Ertz is healthy tomorrow, the Wildcats may have a chance to win

NCAA Football: Florida Atlantic at Kansas State Scott Sewell-USA TODAY Sports

I’ve been talking to football nerds a lot this week.

For clarity, allow me to define the term:

football nerd

/fo͝otbôl nərd/
noun
informal
a person with an almost slavish devotion to analytics pertaining to the sport of American football, and especially those found on the websites Football Study Hall and Football Outsiders.
“TB and jeffp171 are football nerds”

Now that we have that out of the way, let me explain my week. It all started Tuesday. I had agreed to be the Robin to Luke Thompson’s Batman on Bring On The PodCats with guest Ian Boyd, so, naturally, with recording scheduled for 9 a.m., I woke up at 8 a.m., made coffee and started to prepare. (My philosophy when it comes to the podcast is not to prepare more than an hour ahead of time. That way, when people say “Hey, you did a good job!” I can think “And I didn’t even really prepare! I’m a genius!” and if someone says “Man, you really sucked,” I can think “Meh, I didn’t even really prepare. What am I? A genius?”)

With coffee in hand, I navigated my internet web browser to footballoutsiders.com and clicked links there until I found my way to S&P+ ratings. For the uninitiated, S&P+ ratings were invented by SB Nation’s Bill Connelly. They’re very mathy. They’re based on two numbers — a team’s success rate (S) and the equivalent points per play (P). The + signifies that the numbers are opponent-adjusted.

If none of that makes sense to you, don’t worry. It barely makes sense to me.

The point is, I knew Ian was into that stuff and I’ve read Bill Connelly’s book (and TB often texts me with random related factoids which I’ve become very good at pretending to know about) so I’m vaguely familiar with what the numbers mean, so I thought I’d check them out.

Everything seemed pretty normal, and about what I expected, until I found myself looking at Texas’ defensive rankings:

This is probably gibberish to most of you, and I get that (and if you’re on a phone, you likely can’t even see it), but the part you should pay attention to for the purposes of this post is this:

“SD” means standard downs and “PD” means passing downs. For reference, second down with eight or more yards to go, or third or fourth down with five or more yards to go are considered passing downs. Everything else is a standard down.

What these numbers mean is, on standard downs Texas defense ranks 28th nationally according to Bill’s numbers. Not bad. But on passing downs, it ranks 111th.

I know, this is a bit rambly, but hang out. I promise there is a point.

If you haven’t listened to the PodCats yet, how dare you, sir or madam. But about halfway through, I brought these numbers to Ian’s attention. He seemed surprised, so I went back and verified while live on the air (otherwise known as good radio). Once I made sure they were right, Ian was a bit baffled.

“I’m not even totally sure what to make of that,” he said. “That’s probably a sign of an athletic team that has no idea what they’re doing. They make plays sometimes, because, athletically this is the best defense in the conference. But in terms of playing football, it’s like the worst defense in the conference.”

When he said that, two thoughts immediately shot through the K-State fan part of my brain:

  1. Man, I sure hope Jesse’s healthy.
  2. Man, I sure hope this offense is capable of doing what a K-State offense can normally do to undisciplined defenses.

Later Tuesday night, I was still thinking about the numbers, so I sent TB a text, and we got to talking. He pointed out that Texas’ secondary had a bunch of breakdowns in losses to Cal, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma. And he’s right.

I thought some more, and by Wednesday morning, I decided to email Bill Connelly to get his perspective on the numbers. He emailed me back Thursday night, and in typical Bill C fashion, he hit me with some hard numbers:

“That's definitely a unique combination of numbers there,” he said. “Not only are they terrible at defending passing downs, they're terrible at defending passing downs despite a great pass rush.”

He pointed out that on 3rd and 7 or more, Texas’ opposing quarterbacks to this point are 19-for-31 for 329 yards, three touchdowns and one interception.

“That’s really, really bad,” he said.

Meanwhile, on first down, they’re holding opponents to 3.7 yards per carry, which is pretty good.

Bill’s email came at 9 p.m. and after reading it, I immediately replied asking if there were any precedent for it. Bill is a robot who boots up every morning at 4 a.m., so I imagine he requires a minimum of six and half hours of charging time every night, meaning he didn’t respond right away. And, naturally, I found when researching this post that Air Force is currently 6th (!) in Standard Down Defensive S&P+ and 108th (!) in Passing Down Defensive S&P+. But in terms of teams with Texas’ overall talent level, I’m not sure there’s a match nationwide.

Which brings me to that point I promised you:

As TB pointed out in his Kicking the Tires post, if Ertz plays, there’s a chance K-State does enough to win. Assuming the defense hasn’t been a fluke this whole time and stops this Longhorn offense, Ertz will have to take what Texas gives him in the secondary.

And, believe it or not, the stats actually suggest he can.

On 3rd and 7-9 yards, K-State converts 64.3 percent of the time. Considering the situation, that’s pretty great. And it’s a down and distance K-State might face a lot tomorrow.

If anyone other than Ertz steps on that field at quarterback for K-State tomorrow, it’s gonna be an uphill climb. This isn’t the Texas we’re used to, where we can trot a Collin Klein out there and run all over them. They’re better than that. The Delton dream probably won’t play out (although Ian did say it was possible, because while Texas’ defensive line is really good, apparently K-State’s offensive line is too, and Ian says the Texas linebackers might be secret trash.)

All of this has really been a longer breakdown of what TB said in his Kicking the Tires post. K-State needs a good Ertz and a good defense. Texas’ defense looked much better against Iowa State, but its a squad that still relies on wristbands to memorize its base defense. If K-State was ever going to pick a week to find its way back to offensive form, this would be it.

The nerds say the chance is there. The fan in me hopes they’re right.