Advanced Metrics is checking all offense at the door

Death, taxes, and boring football in Iowa City. Hard to think of three things more consistent—or annoying—than those three phenomena. It’s Iowa week folks, and boy oh boy, do we have a slobberknocker in store for this week.

Iowa is rolling in as the #3 team in the land, with convincing victories over a ranked Iowa State and an upstart Maryland squad. Ferentz might be old, but the dude can still coach, and this Iowa team appears to be among the most consistent and talented that Father Kirk has fielded in Iowa City in quite some time. Perhaps even more impressively, this season comes on the heels of a series of tumultuous off-seasons. In any case, we are set to take the field against a disciplined, physical, and yes, old-fashioned Iowa, in the infamous Kinnick Stadium. Gulp.

Frankly, I’ll bet you know what the Advanced Metrics are going to say. But you will be struck at how clear they are—and where each team may flight a sliver of hope this Saturday.

When Penn State is on Offense…

Per usual, you can find explanations of each of the metrics by following this link to the original Advanced Metrics post (which was, ironically, Iowa week of 2019). Speaking to the predictive power of these metrics, the character of just about every game this year has closely followed what the metrics have suggested. This past week against IU was no different: Indiana wanted to—and did—limit explosive plays, and Penn State needed to stay patient, not turn the ball over, and not abandon the run to win. Check, check, and check—no matter how frustrating that goal line BS was.

Well, as you can imagine, Iowa is going to take the same exact approach this week. The difference? They are worlds better at it than IU. Just take a look at this sea of yellow:


Iowa DC Parker is quietly, in my opinion, the best DC in the B1G, behind MAYBE Leonard up at Wisconsin. He isn’t flashy, he isn’t loud, and he isn’t young. But the guy knows what he wants, teaches the players to think how he thinks, and coaches his guys up to stay within the system. It is as impressive as it is infuriating. As the metrics clearly show, Iowa is not going to give up explosive plays, particularly on the ground. It is not going to miss tackles, as evidenced by the second-level and open field yards. And heck, it’ll make you work like a dog to grind out short-yardage situations, as the stuff-rate, line yards, and power success metrics all indicate. Hard to find any daylight here.

So what can Yurch and the boys reasonably hope to do? Aside from limiting turnovers—completely—our main advantages are (unsurprisingly) in the passing game. Penn State and Iowa are roughly evenly matched in passing-play success rate (which is emphatically not the case for rushing plays). However, we do own fairly significant advantages, to my surprise, in both Passing-Down Success Rate AND Explosiveness on Passing Downs. Part of this is likely fool’s gold: given that Iowa still holds the advantage in passing play success, this tells me that they are more than happy to give you some open space in 3rd and long situations. However, given that we own an advantage in explosiveness on passing downs (again to my pleasant surprise), I am led to believe that Iowa has not yet faced a set of athletes like Cliff, Dotson, PW, and the TE room. So, if we are given room, we need to convert it into first downs.

Second, we should be heartened by the fact that we actually own an advantage in both Success Rate on Standard Downs and overall Havoc Rate. Why? Because Iowa relishes in bigtime offensive mistakes, all of which are captured in Havoc Rate. Generally, we don’t give up big turnovers, sacks, etc., while Iowa excels in this area. Given that a not-insignificant portion of Iowa’s scoring comes DIRECTLY from the defense, this will be extremely important to watch. Even outside of turnovers, we should be more than happy to take what the defense gives us. If that is short underneath stuff, take it. Why? Again, because we actually have the advantage in standard down success rate. In other words, if we can stay patient and stay on schedule, we have the chance to move the ball into score range. Maybe some trick plays from Yurch can get us the rest of the way.

When Penn State is on Defense…

If that depressed you, be happy Lions fan: the defensive metrics are far nicer. Take a look:

Technically more blue here than there was yellow in the previous graph (new feature at the bottom of both graphs)! Morevoer, the Iowa offense has the advantage in only 4 categories, compared to Penn State’s 5. The hilarious thing, though? The advantages are almost identical.

For Iowa, their primary advantage is in Havoc Rate. This is very good for them, because they like to run the football. Their RB is quite good, and frankly, running the ball is just about the only consistent thing about their offense (though they did look better against a horrid UMD defense). For our part, our front-7 TFLs and forced turnovers are relatively low. As a result, Iowa owns a rather healthy advantage in overall havoc rate, even though we have the edge in DB havoc rate.

Part of this result is due to the fact that, as I mentioned last week, Pry has been content to allow rushing yards to accumulate on standard downs by refusing to pack the box. On power situations—just about the only time we stack the box—the story is different. In fact, as the figure shows, we hold a massive advantage in line yards and stuff rate, as well as a healthy advantage in power success. Moreover, unlike PSU’s offense, Iowa’s offense doesn’t come close to Penn State’s in the explosiveness contest—in spite of Iowa’s excellence in explosive-play defense. Here, we hold massive advantages on defense.

What does all of this mean? Aside from the fact that we should expect a ton of three-yards-and-a-cloud-pellets all night, it means that I really, really hope Pry completely stacks the box with 7 and 8 guys on first and second down. Iowa doesn’t have the athletes that IU did, frankly--though they have a better running game. So, play to those strengths and weaknesses. And hey, even if you do have a bust in coverage or something, Iowa doesn’t have a penchant for big plays. I like our chances to get to Petras or catch back up to Iowa’s TEs-turned-WRs before major scoring plays can materialize.

Guys, this is going to be an ugly game. It’ll feature fine, fine defense, infuriating offense, and probably a ton of missed holding calls. I would be shocked if the final score gets above 20 points for either team. As a result, this game will hinge on 1) Penn State’s ability to stay patient and on schedule (probably through the short passing game and QB scrambles), 2) Penn State’s ability to stop the run, and 3) our ability to not gift points to Iowa via turnovers.

I feel decent about (1), a touch nervous about (2), and have no idea what to expect on (3). I am hoping to take solace in the following, however: in comparing Yurch v. Parker to Pry v. Brian Ferentz, I at least don’t hate our chances.

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