What a 'Bettor Better Know' from NCAA Week #3

David Malinsky

Monday, September 18, 2017 1:53 PM UTC

Monday, Sep. 18, 2017 1:53 PM UTC

What a 'Bettor Better Know' - NCAA Week #3, and how pressure carries different weights at different levels...

Point Blank – September 18, 2017

Week #3 brought a key focus point into play on the NCAA gridirons and I will make it both a prime topic today, and also let it dictate the jukebox – the notion of pressure, and how to incorporate that key factor into the weekly game handicaps. Dabo Swiney’s 2017 Clemson Tigers may have a lot of young faces in the lineup, but the guys that have been through back-to-back runs to the National Championship game were more than ready for their moment at Louisville. Yet at lower levels pressure can lead to teams playing worse, instead of better, and the Saturday board brought some prime examples of that.

To set up your background as you sort through the usual long Monday read, let’s go to David Bowie and Annie Lennox, two rare talents that soared to greater heights when the spotlight was brightest, this from the Freddie Mercury tribute in 1992 -

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Now time to get to work.

Item: Purdue let up on an SEC team on the road

The above headline is something I not only didn’t expect to write any time soon, perhaps through the end of my betting lifetime, which hopefully has a couple of decades left. And while that could be trivialized by the fact that Purdue rarely plays SEC teams on the road, the only place the Boilermakers have been to win outside of their home field over the past 5+ seasons is at Illinois.

Purdue didn’t just beat Missouri on Saturday, however, the Boilermakers rolled 35-3. First downs were 29-10, total offense was 477-203, and the Tigers only had the ball for an amazing 16:17 of possession time. Yet that only partially tells the story of a game that could have been much worse, hence time to again discuss the Missouri program, in what may be the waning games of the Barry Odom eras (will this even qualify as having been an era?).

The bigger story? Jeff Brohm called his Boilermakers off after building a commanding lead, and was content to grind the clock away through most of the second half. It was 28-3 Purdue at halftime with total offense at a shocking 370-91.

Last Monday one of the focus points here was on Odom dismissing DC DeMontie Cross, and whether it was something to turn the Tiger defense around, or merely a HC under pressure throwing an assistant under the bus. Since the middle of last season it has been Odom calling the defensive signals, not Cross, and Odom’s designs were several steps behind what Purdue was attacking with until the Boilermakers held themselves in check.

It is a mess in Columbia right now, and one of the disconnects may be that the Tigers seemed to feel that they were ready for Saturday. Try this from Odom in the post-game – “As a staff had a really good week of preparation. Really good week of practice, and then, obviously, performed very, very poorly.” Or OL Paul Adams - “We had a pretty set mind-set that this week was going to be our week. … Thursday was probably one of our best Thursday practices that we could have. You know, everybody says it was a shock because we had such a good week of preparation, and then that happened.”

Could it be that under Odom the Mizzou players and coaches simply don’t know what a good practice week is? If they thought they were doing the right thing, and got embarrassed that badly vs. an opponent that isn’t overpowering at all, how do they correct anything?

Speaking of corrections, the betting markets and Jim Harbaugh bring some fascinating components as Michigan heads to West Lafayette this week.

Item: On those Michigan red zone issues

I don’t need to say all that much about the flip side of Missouri’s Saturday drubbing, having covered the rapid Purdue improvements under Jeff Brohm here last Monday (as well as the Western Kentucky slide, which continues). It brought a huge challenge for the oddsmakers to set the parameters this week, and now the betting markets to react, with Pinnacle opening Michigan -8.5 against the Boilermakers in something that was once common but most rare of late – a Big 10 showdown at Ross-Ade Stadium.

Consider the adjustments. If we use a neutral source like The Gold Sheet as the reference, had these teams met in the final game of the 2016 season the Wolverines would have been a 30-point favorite on this field. Their opening rating for this season would have made it -22, which was reflected in the Week #1 closing +25.5 for Purdue vs. Louisville at Indianapolis.

Now the markets are rapidly upgrading Brohm’s team, while also knocking Michigan down a couple of pegs off of sluggish non-covers vs. Cincinnati and Air Force. But while the Wolverines have failed to impress on the scoreboard they have been doing a lot of things right across most of the field. It is the red zone that has been an issue, and it has been a major issue.

The Michigan offense has been in the red zone 10 times this season, and has scored one touchdown. One. That is by far the worst ratio of any team in the nation, and of teams with at least 10 such trips, only  Toledo (9-19) and UNLV (5-11) are under 50 percent, both coming up just one possession short.

Consider the scoreboard impact. Had the Wolverines scored TDs on half of their RZ trips it would have meant an extra 5.3 points per game (assuming all PATs were made), and ideally a team with this kind of talent should be above half.

Is this bad football, or is this a short-term aberration, one that would likely begin to correct on its own, but perhaps accelerate in terms of correcting because it now becomes a focal point? Harbaugh would not get into specifics when asked about those issues after the win over Air Force, but he at least admits an awareness of them - "We'll keep forging ahead, keep making improvements. I like where our team is right now. ... Our team is moving the ball. That's a fact. I think the red-zone touchdowns will come."

Data-base tracking does not bring an answer here in terms of regression – NCAA football is far too team-unique to make generalizations. The key for the shrewd handicapper is to be aware of those game flows, in particular how many points Michigan may have already left on the field. As for Purdue this week, the setting now goes from being low-key, which is pretty much all the careers of any current Boilermaker players have been, to some high intensity and pressure. That isn’t always a good thing for players that aren’t accustomed to it…

Item: When step-up games are sometimes too big

I do a guest spot with Pauly Howard and Mitch Moss on their “Follow the Money” show on the VSIN, and one of the topics was Memphis/UCLA for Saturday morning, which led to some good discussion that belongs here as a major talking point.

The gist was that the Tigers were indeed going into pocket, with the Bruins defense not equipped to stop Riley Ferguson and all of those weapons in the skill positions, especially in a tough setting for UCLA from a concentration standpoint – not only kicking off at 9 AM on the body clocks of the players, but with a key Pac 12 revenge match vs. Stanford on deck. But I also said that there was some trepidation that would impact the wager amount – while many were excited by how big of a game it was for the Memphis program, that instead made me nervous. When it is step-up time for B-level or lower programs, sometimes a little caution is called for.

Another game mentioned in that slot was Old Dominion, the improved Monarchs getting the chance to play a Power 5 opponent at home, and you could have worked Wyoming into the discussion as well, the Cowboys having their first home game vs. a Power 5 team of the Craig Bohl era (unlike Odom at Missouri, he genuinely will have one in Laramie). And what did those two teams do in games that they talked about with tremendous excitement all week, and likely each had their biggest crowds of the season? They trailed by a combined 81-17 at halftime.

Memphis got there, largely because the UCLA vulnerabilities were indeed in play, but note in the early stages some of the issues that come with these settings. On the second defensive series, the Tigers were called for a silly taunting penalty. On the second offensive series, Ferguson showed nerves on a third-down pass, throwing the ball too early as Patrick Taylor was breaking open on a wheel route. Following that incompletion was a personal foul penalty on the punt cover team for interfering with a fair catch, another mistake that stems from being too hyped up, and just a few minutes later a Tiger drive ended with Tony Pollard dropping a pass when he was wide open on third down.

Memphis played with enough aggression and abandon to make some big plays to get the win, but also had to deal with a lot of nervous sloppiness. That is the on-going issue for settings such as these and is something for the handicapper to take into consideration.

There is the natural temptation to want to play on a team that will be “up” for a big game, but when those are games that are out of the natural setting for the programs, it often happens that the upstarts come out with too much unfocused energy, which leads them to play worse, rather than better. Remember that these players are in their late teens or early 20s, and some are going under a major spotlight for the first time.

Item: And then there is that Oregon offense again

Two weeks back the Ducks led Nebraska 42-14 at halftime, and did not score again. At Wyoming on Saturday it was 42-10 at intermission, and only 7-3 the rest of the way. Is this a case of Willie Taggert getting a little too conservative with leads; the Oregon offense showing a lack of depth; or the new playbook difficult for opposing DCs to decipher, before doing a better job after they get a chance to adjust at halftime? It is naturally an important focus point because it not only impacts the Ducks, but also how we grade Nebraska and Wyoming as well.

The answer so far is that I simply don’t know. Last week when I focused on the issue there was some tribute given to the Nebraska defense for not letting go out of the rope after a disastrous opening half, and the Cornhuskers followed up by holding Northern Illinois to 14 first downs and 276 yards (two of the Huskies TDs came on interception returns).

This week the read is again a difficult one. Taggert was aggressive on the opening drive, going for it on fourth-and-2 at the Wyoming 47-yard line, and failing. On the second possession, the Ducks reached the Cowboy 29, before Justin Herbert threw an interception. On the third drive Herbert threw passes on two of the three plays, but it ended with a punt.

It wasn’t until the fourth drive that the offense clicked again, 70 yards in nine plays (aided by a 15-yard penalty on the Cowboys) for a TD. But in the ensuing possession there was another three-and-out, and again not a conservative one, with Herbert passing on two of the plays.

There is a tendency to blame the lack of production Taggert backing off, but that is not the way that the play calling was. Hence I still don’t have a great feel for those uneven game flows, which means more digging ahead.

Item: On that Notre Dame rushing dominance vs. Boston College

The rushing statistics from the Fighting Irish at Chestnut Hill were simply stunning, 51 attempts for 515 yards (yes, I will use the NCAA version with sacks blended in here, to avoid confusion with what you will see in the official numbers). That was just a week after that offense had only managed 55 overland yards in losing at home to Georgia. It was a rare outing in which two players topped 200 yards, RB Josh Adams with 229 and QB Brandon Wimbush with 207, the production from the latter including four of the seven rush Notre Dame TDs.

Let’s set some perspective, to delve into why it matters so much. Seeing a Steve Addazio defense get run through for those numbers is rather astonishing, given this –

NCAA Rush Defense
2016 – Boston College #7
2015 – Boston College #2
2014 – Boston College #2

That is quite a run for the current senior class to have put together, and there are currently six seniors and four juniors, with one sophomore, starting for that defense.

So how did they get run over so badly? The question is whether it was muscle or tactics. It was only 14-10 at halftime before Notre Dame ran away, literally, and here is how Brian Kelly detailed it afterward - “We didn’t make a lot of plays in the first half. and we came in at halftime and went up to the offensive line and said, ‘Look, we need you to take over this football game. You’re our veteran group.’ And they really responded.”

But was this a mauling in the trenches (physical), or instead, a series of big plays (tactical)? The Fighting Irish had six runs of 35 yards or more, three of them going for more than 60, and those six plays provided more than half of all of their full-game production. How much of this was great blocking, and how much could be attributed to some scheme issues?

Let’s go to Addazio - “Our bell cow was defense. And we don’t give up rushing yards like that. And we let it up on big plays. It wasn’t like when you get pounded to death.” 

It is the last sentence that makes this another one that requires some deeper digging, and I will be following up by tracking more from Addazio as the week unfolds, after he has had a chance to look at the video. The Fighting Irish do indeed have a very high ceiling for their OL, four senior starters having returned, and the quintet averaging 316 pounds across, none of them lighter than 305. That could create a compelling matchup at Michigan State this week, where Mark Dantonio has arguably his youngest and thinnest DL corps.

Item: Revisiting Baylor, and why some of the adjustments by Matt Rhule may not have been all that positive yet

The Bears were brought in as a lead topic last week because of how Rhule referred to the word “physical” for losses to both Liberty and UTSA, which are not phrases a Big 12 coach would ordinarily be using against those opponents. Before heading to Duke there were some major lineup changes, a young team getting even younger, and indeed the enthusiasm level was better. If you were only tracking the scores you would have noted the Bears down only 24-20 in the fourth quarter, with the ball and a chance to take the lead, before a pick-six thrown by Zach Smith turned the tide in what became a 34-20 defeat.

Be careful with this one. The Bears made some big-time plays, Smith connecting to Chris Platt for TDs of 79 and 73 yards, and to Denzel Mims on a 44-yard scoring play. But outside of those plays it was an awful 9-31 for the young QB, for just 67 yards, with three interceptions, while the Bears managed just 57 net rushing yards. The offense was only able to stay on the field for 20:16, going 1-12 on third-down conversions, and failing all three times on fourth down.

Rhule is painfully aware of the realities - “I don’t know if any quarterback can function in the world Zach’s living in now. We’re kind of a big-play offense, we’re scoring in an explosive manner, but there’s nothing efficient and that really starts up front with our ability to run the football and protect the quarterback. We can’t run the football right now. When you can’t run the football you can’t control the game.”

I am going to start my week with #401 Oklahoma (Saturday, 6:30 Eastern) on the shopping list, hoping to lock into a -25 at some point, the Sooners bringing the tools to exploit all of those Baylor weaknesses, and a setting to put those tools into play. While many times a team will look at a game vs. a weak sister as the chance to merely get the win and move on to bigger things, for the Sooners this is a big thing – they coasted past non-conference Tulane on Saturday, and are off next week, so there is no distraction from bringing their best focus, not only with positioning for the playoffs as motivation, but also a chance to showcase Baker Mayfield for the Heisman.

Be aware of that latter element, because it indeed matters. A savvy young HC like Lincoln Riley can’t help but be aware of the struggles of Lamar Jackson and Sam Darnold this past week, which altered the Heisman landscape in a major way, and if you plan to be the HC at a program for a long time, and want to build on a passing game that is your personal forte, getting your QB a Heisman is a significant recruiting tool.

Item: Ole Miss can’t run the football either

This has the potential to be an awkward SEC campaign for Mississippi, the various difficulties associated with Hugh Freeze being escorted from the premises back in the summer slowly adding up over the course of the autumn. Making things more unstable are on-going investigations, plus the fact that Matt Luke and his assistants are already aware that the odds of any of them being invited back next season are long. Much as the Baylor/Duke outcome called for deeper scrutiny, so does the Ole Miss late-night loss at California, which not all of you would have stayed up to watch, nor perhaps even tracked as deeply as it deserves.

One of the things noted in the comments thread over the weekend, and you can enter that arena by clicking the grey button in the upper left of each Point Blank, is that the vast amount of public money that went to the Rebels this week was a major surprise, from an opener of -3.5 all the way to -7 near kickoff. That was despite the fact that they had been out-rushed 389-156 at home through their first two games, against lightweights South Alabama and UT-Martin. And on the field Saturday night it was more of the same.

If you only saw the scoring flow you might have believed that Mississippi played well early and faded, leading 16-7 at halftime before falling 20-0 the rest of the way. In truth the Rebels never did have much physical presence in the game – they hit early TD passes of 72 and 71 yards, but outside of those plays there wasn’t much. The offense was only able to stay on the field for 61 plays, while Cal snapped it 87 times, which did indeed take a toll in the second half. The Golden Bears are transitioning to being a more physical team under Justin Wilcox but it will take a couple of recruiting classes, yet they won the net rushing battle 155-57.

Ole Miss has now been out-rushed 544-213, despite opening against arguably the three softest defensive fronts they will face all season (you can throw the November game vs. UL-Lafayette into that mix). After a bye week, the challenge changes almost 180 degrees, with back-to-back road games vs. Alabama and Auburn. It won’t be pretty. Go back to Matt Rhule’s comments about the inability of Baylor to manage games because the Bears can’t run, and you see the Rebel vulnerabilities in two settings in which they will desperately need to be able to manage the games.

Item: Watch that LSU depth in the DL this week

For all of the upbeat talk about the LSU offense adding some layers under Matt Canada, the new-look Tigers were pretty much the same as the previous version, one of the issues being the limitations at QB. That is something to sort out at another time, but for this week there is an interesting focus – while there are usually the assumptions of swarms of bodies being available in the LSU defensive front, that was not the case through most of the night at Mississippi State, and it will carry over here.

By the end of Saturday’s drubbing the Tigers were down to four DL, which is why starting DE Christian LaCouture was still on the field to the last snap, despite the 30-point gap on the scoreboard. Already missing was DE Rashard Lawrence because of an ankle injury (he is questionable for this week), then being lost was Ed Alexander (hamstring), who usually plays DE but was moved inside to NT because of the shortage of bodies, and DE Neil Farrell was tossed from the game for a targeting call in the second half, which will keep him out of the first half vs. Syracuse this week.

The reason this all comes into focus is that under Dino Babers the Orange want to play about as fast as any team in the land, averaging 88.3 snaps per game so far this season. Ordinarily, it is suicide for a team in this price range to do that on the road against a superior opponent, in most cases the underdog being more likely to get worn down by their own pace than the chalk. But might Babers look to take advantage of that lack of LSU depth up front by pressing the accelerator to the floor, despite the overall talent gap? This will be a tricky total for the oddsmakers to set later today.


What a ‘Bettor Better Know’ – NCAA #1

What a ‘Bettor Better Know’ – NCAA 2

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