My 2019 SU Football Preview Part II - The Team

SWC75

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THE TEAM

I’ll continue my theme of the previous three SU Football reviews by looking at Dino Baber’s teams at Eastern Illinois and Bowling Green for clues as to what a Dino Babers team looks like when it’s fully realized. We had a lot of success last year but I don’t feel that we were a Dino Babers team yet. His previous quarterbacks tended not to run the ball much, as these stats will show and when he came he announced that he didn’t like running quarterbacks as they get injured too often. But Eric Dungey was easily the best quarterback on his roster and Dungey’s game was a mix of running and passing. Running the ball was what he was actually best at and he did it with an aggressive enthusiasm. Babers finally realized that he wasn’t going to change Dungey so he might as well use his talents and developed a run-pass option offense that suited the player he had. It wasn’t a freeze option like the old Don McPherson/MarvinGraves/Donovan McNabb days. It was a power running game, often through the middle of the line. I grew up in the Csonka-Little days and have often pined for the days of multiple running backs. On a pass play the defense doesn’t know who is going to get the ball: why set it up so they always know that on running plays? I want to see a big, powerful running back run between the tackles and block on other plays and to have a smaller, quicker guy explore the flanks or go out for passes to get him on “an island”. I think we lose something when we ask one guy to perform both roles. Well, last year, we did have two running backs in the backfield and one was a big, strong guy who looked for contact. That was our quarterback, Dungey.

Well he’s gone now and in his place is Tommy DeVito, a much superior passer who is unlikely to be the running threat Dungey was, even though Tommy is nearly as big (6-2 212 vs. 6-4 226) and is said to be faster of foot than Dungey. Tommy is more likely to scramble to make a first down or to give a receiver a chance to get open for a pass than Dungey, who liked to bowl people over, (or jump over them). He was recruited by Babers to run the offense he likes, with the quarterback dissecting the defense from the pocket and leaving the running to the running backs. I think Tommy is going to totally re-write the SU record book. The gold standard for SU is currently Ryan Nassib’s 2012 season where he completed 294 passes for 3,749 yards and 26 touchdowns, all school records. He had 10 interceptions that year. The only higher differential between TD passes and interceptions in the SU books is by Donovan McNabb in his senior year of 1998: 22-5 = 17. Dungey in his great career had 58 touchdown passes and 30 interceptions. This is horse-and-buggy stuff compared to what Babers quarterbacks have done in his first two stops:

EIU season 1: https://eiu_ftp.sidearmsports.com/custompages/football/2012/EIUFBStats2012.pdf
They ran the ball 457 times and passed it 554 times. (45.2%-54.8%). Jake Walker, 5-11, 194, carried the ball 232 times. Taylor Duncan, 6-3 224, carried 117 times. The QB, Jimmy Garoppolo, ran the ball 54 times for 223 yards and was sacked 29 times for the same amount so he had zero yards rushing. Eric Lora, 5-11 190, was easily the leading receiver with 136 catches at 12.2 yards per catch. But the leader for average was Chris Wright, 6-1 177, who caught 53 balls for 16.8 yards per catch. Chavar Watkins, 6-2 201, caught 49 for 11.0. Sam Hendricks, a 6-4 208 tight end, caught 37 for 8.3. Nobody else had 20+ Garoppolo had 331 completions for 3,823 yards, (11.5 yards per catch). He had 31TD passes and 15 interceptions.

EIU season 2: https://eiu_ftp.sidearmsports.com/custompages/football/2013/2013_EIUFootball_Stats.pdf
They ran the ball 563 times and passed it 557 times. (50.3%-49.7%). Shepard Little, 5-10, 197, carried the ball 217 times, as did Taylor Duncan. Both gained over 1,000 yards. Garoppolo, ran the ball 53 times for 209 yards and was sacked 17 times. Eric Lora was again the leading receiver with 123 catches at 12.6 yards per catch. The leader for average was Keiondre Gober, 6-3 200, who caught 48 balls for 18.6 yards per catch. Adam Drake, 6-2 195, caught 85 for 15.4. Jeff LePak, 6-6 222, (but listed as a wide receiver), caught 51 for 14.2 Duncan caught 31 and Little 21. Nobody else had 20+. Garoppolo completed 375 passes for 5,050 yards, (and average of 13.5 yards per catch). He had 53TD passes and 9 interceptions.

Comment: At peak efficiency, this is a 50-50 offense as far as running vs. passing. There was a #1 receiving option both years but he seems to have been closer to a “possession” receiver. They used more receivers in the second year and tended to throw deeper. Yet Jimmy completed a higher percentage of his passes, (66% to 61%). The running game was an even split between two different size runners. Little averaged 7.1 and scored 15 times, Duncan 4.6 with 10 scores. I like to think they played in tandem, a Little/Csonka combination in my beloved two running back formation. But this being modern football, they probably alternated and got such big numbers because the team accumulated 367 first downs so they could run so many plays and because the passing game opened things up for them.

BGU season 1: Bowling Green - Cumulative Season Statistics
They ran the ball 556 times and passed it 547 times. (50.4%-49.6%). Travis Greene, 5-11, 189, carried the ball 180 times. Fred Coppet, 5-9 213, carried 141 times and Andre Givens, 5-9 185, carried 101 times. They gained 2,265 yards between them. The QB, Matt Johnson was injured early in the season and replaced by James Knapke. Together, they ran the ball 44 times, (and were sacked 28 times). The receiving was more balanced than at EIU: Roger Lewis (6-2 199), had 73 catches for an average of 15.0. Ryan Burbrink (5-8 173) had 64 for 11.8., Ronnie Moore, (5-9 170), had 56 for 12.3. Gehrig Dieter (6-3 207) had 35 for 13.1. Heath Jackson (6-0 185) had 34 for 7.9. Greene had 27 catches. Nobody else had 20+. Johnson and Knapke completed 305 passes for 3,486 yards, (an average of 11.4 yards per catch). They had 16TD passes and 12 interceptions.

BGU season 2: Bowling Green - Cumulative Season Statistics
They ran the ball 542 times and passed it 594 times. (47.7%-52.3%). Greene carried the ball 223 times and Coppet 145 times. They gained 2,169 yards between them. The QB, Matt Johnson was healthy and now backed up by Knapke. Together, they ran the ball 79 times, (and were sacked 36 times). Dieter had 94 catches for 11.0 yards. Lewis had 85 for 18.2. Moore had 72 for 13.2. Burbrink had 56 for 11.2. Greene again had 27 catches. Johnson and Knapke completed 397 passes for 5,119 yards, (an average of 12.9 yards per catch). They had 47TD passes and 8 interceptions.

Comment: With a healthy Johnson, the balance tipped slightly in favor of passing but Greene actually gained more yards rushing (949 vs. 1298), although they did play two more games. I’d prefer to see the balance we see in the BG stats over having the lead guy getting 100+ catches. The passing attack should make the other team cover all the receivers and the whole field. But Babers has expressed a preference for a “bell cow” type of receiver: a #1 option we look for all the time. You don’t see that here. There’s also little evidence of using a tight end here: maybe they didn’t have a Ravian Pierce. For the most part the size of the wideouts were above average so those guys could make the sort of catches you expect from a tight end.

I’m guessing our numbers this year will look more like the first years at Eastern Illinois and Bowling green and that we might have a chance to put up the second year number in 2020. When I first looked at these numbers in 2016, I felt that the second year numbers would not be obtainable in a power conference. But then I saw the numbers being put up by Heisman candidate quarterbacks:
Lamar Jackson 3,543 yards 30TDs 9 int
DeShaun Watson 4,593 yards 41TDs 17 int
Baker Mayfield 3,965 yards 40TD 8 int and 4,427 yards 43 TDs 6 int
Jake Browning 3,430 yards 43TDs 9 int
Mason Rudolph 4,904 yards 37TD 9 int
McKenzie Milton 4,037 yards 37TD 9 int
Kyler Murray 4,361 yards 42TDs 7 int
Tua Tagovailoa 3,966 yards 43TDs 6 int
Dwayne Haskins 4,831 yards 50TDs 8 int
Will Grier 3,864 yards 37TDs 8 int
Gardner Hinshaw 4,779 yards 38TDs 9 int
(I’m guessing Trevor Lawrence of Clemson will add his name to the list this season and that his numbers will fit right in.)

The numbers Jimmy Garoppolo and Matt Johnson put up at EIU and BG are the exact sort of numbers you need to put up to be a top quarterback in college football these days. We will know the Dino Babers offense has arrived when our quarterback is putting up those numbers. Is he, (and are his teammates ready to do this this season? Stay tuned.

The running back situation intrigues me. How will we replace the running threat that Dungey represented? Will we use some of Dungey’s plays with DeVito? Can this offense use two running backs in tandem? This is going to be my first question to Coach Babers on his first radio show of the season. That statistic of two running backs for the 2013 EIU team both having 217 carries sticks in my mind. Is that really possible if all they do it alternate? Last year we ran the ball 602 times. Dungey ran it 184 times, (including sacks). Neal ran the ball 155 times, Strickland 121 and Howard 68, Pierre and Adams 8 times each. That’s 360 carries. We gained 303 first downs compared to 367 that second EIU season. They also played one more game than we did last year. With a little more first down efficiency we could get our running backs the ball that number of times and hope to get that kind or production. But we are very deep in running backs with Neal, Howard, Pierre and Adams all back and joined by Jawhar Jordan, who everyone is raving about. I’d love to see a tandem of Howard or Pierre and Neal or Adams. We will probably be using them one at a time as almost everyone does these days, with little help in rushing from the quarterback positon this time. The defense will know who is going to get the ball if it’s a run. Can the passing game and the talent of the one back and his blockers make up for that?

Then there is the defense. Babers has a reputation for defenses that try to contain things, assuming that the offense is going to score at a rate the other team won’t be able to keep up with. Football is becoming like basketball where the defense is not judged by how little the other team scores but by the difference between what the opposition scores and what we score. The days when Alabama, (as they did under Bryant in the early 60’s) could have 30 consecutive single digit defensive games are long gone.

In Dino’s first season at EIU, they gave up 36.2 points per game, scoring 36.5. They gave up 296 first downs, 170 yards rushing per game and 265 passing. In his second year there, all those numbers came down. They gave up 21 points a game, while scoring 49. They surrendered 250 first downs, 147 yards rushing and 211 passing. They still weren’t shutting teams down but they were winning by four touchdowns. In his first year at Bowling Green they gave up 33 ppg, (scoring 30). They surrendered 366 first downs, 202 yards rushing and 291 yards passing a game. It was almost as if the 2014 BG team was playing the 2013 EIU team. Again, there was considerable improvement the second year, even though they weren’t really shutting down the opposition. They gave up 29ppg, (to 42). The other team got 327 first downs, 183 yards rushing and 235 yards passing. His first year here, we got out-scored 26-39 per game, giving up 275 first downs, 225 ypg rushing and 276 passing. The second year we were down to 27-32 with 248 first downs 197 yards rushing and 247 passing. Last year it was 40-27 with 258 first downs, (actually more), 162.5 rushing and 264 passing. Our rushing defense was better but our passing defense was worse. What helped tremendously was that we were +13 in turnover margin, had 43 sacks and were 40% - 29% in third down conversions. With our outstanding defensive ends, (and Chris Slayton devouring blockers) and ball-hawking Andre Cisco, we were a big play defense. But statistically, we were only 88th in total defense, 116th in pass defense. Our rushing, (63rd) and scoring (64th) defenses were middle-of-the pack. I’m hopeful that the pass defense will improve as our young guys grow up. Dino Babers has been saying after practices that the defense is ahead of the offense and he’s talking about his defense with pride, suggesting he’s interested in doing more than holding teams down, that he finally wants to shut them down.

And, of course, last year our special teams were second to none. Andre Szmyt, (pronounced like “Schmidt”), was an unknown walk-on when camp began. All he did was to lead the nation in field goals (a sterling 30 for 34, including 3 for 3 from beyond 50 yards) and points with 151. Sterling Hofrichter was second in the conference in gross punting, (43) and led in the more important stat of net punting, (39), giving us field position advantages in game after game. Sean Riley was second in the nation in punt returns with 16.4. Our advantages in field position, turnover margin, third down conversions and place kicking were so tremendous – and tremendously important- last year you wonder, on principle, can it be that good again this year?

Dino’s teams at EIU and BG were -5, +15, +10 and +12 in turnover margin. In third down conversions, they were 1 percentage point short of the opposition, then +13, then -4, then +9. In net punting they were -9 yards, -1, +3 and even, (obviously, it depends on the punter). In placekicking, they were 12/13 in field goals, then 7/17, (same guy), then 23/29, then 8/15, (also the same guy). So these things can wobble a bit. But it does seem like turnover margin is a big part of the Babers scheme. We don’t want to “regress to the mean” there.
 

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