Spurrier wants balance: Is he asking the right questions? Are his critics?

Steve Spurrier watched the game film of his offense’s horrible performance against NC State and concluded: we weren’t aggressive enough. And people are ridiculing him for it.

Steve Spurrier has watched the entire N.C. State game twice and part of it a third time.

The South Carolina coach reached two conclusions: The Gamecocks were too conservative offensively in their 7-3 win in Raleigh, and such an approach is not going to cut it this weekend at Georgia.

“We had a pretty conservative game plan. I didn’t realize how really conservative it was until I watched the game twice now – almost three times,” Spurrier said Sunday. “We wanted to give the running game a chance, so we did do that. But we obviously need to try for some big plays along the way a little bit more probably.”

USC’s run-pass ratio in the opener was nearly 2-to-1, with the Gamecocks running 42 times and attempting 22 passes (although some of those rushes were scrambles by or sacks of quarterback Stephen Garcia).

Still, the attack looked much too plain for a coach credited with introducing the SEC to an intricate downfield passing attack in the 1990s.

And while Spurrier is not ready to scrap the Gamecocks’ revamped rushing scheme after one game, he made it clear he wants to see a more balanced attack against Georgia.

“We certainly can’t bring that game plan to beat Georgia on offense. I don’t think we can,” Spurrier said. “But we don’t want to send Stephen back there and get sacked and run around all night either. We’ve got to get us a balance between runs and passes that we can hit and look like a good offense.”

The buzz has been that Spurrier must be nuts — hey, he’s already given up on the run game. But look at the numbers. I’ve previously talked about a notion of “balance” that only looks at the number of runs or passes or the total yards with rushing and passing as being misleading, and that a far better metric is comparing the expected — or, in lieu of that, average — yards per attempt of each, though, since passes are riskier than runs, passes should still average more (have a premium). The reason is because the defense will respond to your playcalling; it’s a game theory thing.

So let’s look at the numbers. Overall, the Gamecocks averaged a measly 2.57 yards per rush, and an okay 6.7 yards per attempt, though with an interception. There can be problems at looking at the raw numbers, particularly on third down where the result is binary: convert or fail to convert. So let’s look at first down, where clearly the optimal strategy is to maximize your expected gain.

The sample is small, but on first down South Carolina ran the ball 16 times and averaged a mere 3.06 yards per carry. They threw it nine times for 78 yards (and no INTs), resulting in a very healthy 8.67 yards per attempt. I can safely say that Spurrier should have called more first down passes. The OBC’s instincts are right. His playcalling was too conservative, at least on first down, which is the most important down in football because there are more first downs than any other down.

  • http://cfn.scout.com Matt Zemek

    I strongly believe in first-down passing, but with that said, I think Spurrier is being too impatient here; his impatience with a paucity of passing is legendary, but he doesn’t yet have a signal caller who has blossomed into full flower. I love it when Spurrier pitches it around the ballpark, but as much as it pains me to say so, he was wise, on the road, to entrust this game to his defense and keep Garcia under wraps. If he had a half-decent kicker (and holder), the Gamecocks might not have been sweating bullets in the final minutes. Spurrier shouldn’t be ridiculed for being too conservative; it’s his development of QBs, as you’ve noted, that should be the major issue. (The inherent instincts and football IQ levels of his quarterbacks certainly plays into that. As a Chris Fowler-like follower of professional tennis in addition to college football, Blake Mitchell was the Svetlana Kuznetsova of college quarterbacks during his stay in Columbia.)

  • Tom

    I’m impressed with all the eclectic methods you have for analyzing football and the different metrics you use.

    I have a question: is there any statistical evidence linking success in the running/passing game to quarters? Obviously, as the game wears on the defense gets more and more tired (the offense does too, but since they know where they’re going and the defense is forced to react to that, I’d assume fatigue is a bit harder on defenses.)

    So, statistically, is there any merit to “breaking down the defense” early in the game with a predominantly running attack then shifting the balance to a pass-heavy attack later in the game? Or vice-versa?