Bill Connelly's Charting Project has proved quite useful since he started it two years ago. By tracking things not normally captured in a box score, he has been able to compare quarterbacks, passes, formations and more.
I know you're not super excited to read about numbers and spreadsheets and other nerd stuff when there's an actually a game tonight, but when else am I going to get to write about it? And where else will you get a better understanding of Nick Marshall's passing woes or how his running game is shaping up? Besides, I think you'll like what the numbers say.
Nick Marshall's arm is just fine
To understand Marshall's passing ability this year, let's take a look at last year. I have information for the Washington State game, the Mississippi State game, and the first half of the Ole Miss game. These are the "early" games in which Gus Malzahn was still figuring out what this team could be. I also have information on the last four games of the season against Georgia, Alabama, Missouri, and Florida State. These are the "late" games in which the offensive identity was well established.
When a pass is incomplete or intercepted, the charter marks the reason the pass play failed. The chart below shows the frequency of each reason.
Look at the blue shaded slices in Early '13. Those are the "QB Fault" reasons. 50%!!! Remember all those times a receiver would get wide open down field, only for Marshall to overthrow them by 10 yards. But surely he improved by the end of 2013, right?
Well, a little. The "QB Fault" reasons dipped to 47%. Instead, the red/yellow shaded "Defensive Fault" reasons had quite an uptick as Auburn was playing against top-notch competition.
Now to the first two games of 2014. The QB Fault reasons are way down, to 36%. What makes up almost half of the incompletions instead? Green, the wide receiver drops and miscommunications. Marshall has thrown 11 incompletions and five of them can be blamed on the intended receiver. If three of those are caught, his completion percentage is a healthy 68% instead a sad 56%.
Granted, the sample size in 2014 is about a half of the early 2013 sample and about a third of the late 2013 sample, so this could change a lot over the next few games. And, yes, Jeremy Johnson was lights out in the first half against Arkansas. But let's not fret over Marshall's passing ability just yet. Plus, his presence on the field enhances the other phase of the offense, the running game.
Nick Marshall's legs are just fine
One way to measure an offense is to measure its success rate. If a play gains 50% of the needed yards on first down, 70% on second down, or 100% on third and fourth downs, that play is deemed successful. As you can see here, Auburn currently ranks third in the nation with a success rate of 53.7%. Another measurement (I completely made up) is called Detrimental Rate. A running play that fails to gain even one yard can be detrimental to an offense's ability to continue the drive.
As you can see in the chart below, Nick Marshall and Corey Grant were incredibly successful runners, both over 61% success rate. You might compare Tre's and CAP's success rates and wonder why Tre ended up the feature back. One reason may be that detrimental rate. Mason rarely went down without a fight as less than 12% of his touches failed to gain at least one yard.
The chart also includes the aiming point for each back's runs. Not as illuminating as I had hoped, but check out how much more often Grant is going up the middle and off-tackle when you see the 2014 graph.
This decision clearly paid off as the Heisman finalist ended the season with detrimental rate of 5.9%. Yes, that means Mason touched the ball about 20 times before going down for no gain or less. That kept the offense out of trouble and made it easy for the Malzahn to rely on the running game, that very successful running game. Nick Marshall, Tre Mason, and Corey Grant each had success rates in the mid to high 50s.
This season, Marshall's running game has seemed a bit off. Other than a few big runs, he's not getting much room to work with and he has actually been corralled behind the line of scrimmage a few times. One third of his touches losing yards or gaining zero is no good. But look at how CAP and Grant are picking up the slack. Nearly 70% of Artis-Payne's carries are successful and he fails to gain a yard in only 10% of those carries. Meanwhile, Grant has a success rate of 60% and has gained at least a yard on every one of his 20 carries this season.
Numbers like that aren't sustainable, but I truly believe they will continue to have tons of success until defenses shift their focus away from the quarterback and to the running backs. Marshall hasn't lost a step. He's the same athlete that led this team to the national championship game last year. His only problem is that defenses are set on stopping him (sometimes assigning two defenders to him) until CAP and Grant can prove they are legitimate threats. If the running backs keep having that crazy success, defenses will be forced to adjust and Marshall will look like his old self again.