BYU’s Gotta Get the Ball Downfield

Ty Detmer set all kinds of school and NCAA records during his time at BYU from 1988 to 1991.  A couple of those records stand in stark contrast to the output of the BYU offense since he took over as offensive coordinator in 2016:

  • Most yards gained per attempt for a season – 11.1 (4,560 yards, 412 attempts) in 1989
  • Most yards per completion for a career – 15.69 (15,031 yards, 958 completions)

Fast forward to 2016 and early 2017 and BYU is nowhere near those record numbers:

  • Yards per attempt – 6.16
  • Yards per completion – 10.32

But the problem isn’t that the current BYU offense isn’t threatening its own per attempt and per completion record numbers, it’s that they are well below what they need in order for BYU to consistently score points.  It’s because yards per completion and points per game are two stats joined at the hip.

With 12 seasons of data and 17,420 games, the NCAA averages are 12.2 yards per completion and 27.3 points per game.  Below is the graph showing the relationship of yards per completion to scoring across the NCAA


In the Portland State game, BYU averaged 12.1 yards per completion, which is right at the NCAA average, but the last two games they had 8.5 and 8.1 yards per completion against LSU and Utah respectively.   The result?  They averaged 6.5 ppg in those two games.

Over the last two seasons for BYU:

  • 2016: 10.5 yards per completion, 29.5 ppg
  • 2017: 9.5 yards per completion, 11.0 ppg

So how does all this relate to wins and losses?  If a team averages 12 yards per completion, they win just above 50% of the time.   If a team averages 8.5 or less (like BYU has the last two games) then they win 30% of the time.


There has been a trend over the last 15 years for passing offenses to trade off yards per completion with a higher completion percentage (aka “Dink and Dunk”).  The problem with this approach, however, is that some teams have taken the dink and dunk to enough of an extreme that their increase in completion percentage is not sufficient to overcome the loss of efficiency resulting from the shorter throws.   When the yards per completion drop below 12, it puts a lot of pressure on the completion percentage to be 65%, 70% or higher in order to have a better than even chance of winning a game.


In the last two games, BYU has completed 54% of their passes and averaged just over 8 yards a completion.  Looking at the grid above, that translates to a win probability of 17%.

BYU has to figure out how to get the ball downfield more.  That doesn’t mean they need to bombs away, but they have to throw past the sticks more often than they have to this point.  The low yards per completion in 2016 is a big reason why 8 of BYU’s 13 games were decided by a TD or less and it’s an even bigger reason why BYU is 1-2 to start the 2017 season.


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Hail Marys – Just How Improbable Are They?

Before digging into this question, let’s celebrate this play just a little bit more:

Intuitively, we all know that a play like this is incredibly rare.  First, because these game situations don’t happen every game and second, because the play usually doesn’t work.  But can we put some hard numbers around that obvious observation?  Here’s an attempt to do so.

Hail Mary – Defined

I was unable to find on the internet anywhere any real work done on Hail Mary probabilities.  Since there is no standard definition provided by earlier analyses, I’m going to set up the criteria as best I can to put the Mangum Miracle in its proper context.

A Hail Mary is most commonly defined as a long pass into the end zone into the middle of a huge group of receivers and defenders.  For the purposes of this blog, it’s going to have to be a little different.  Play by play text doesn’t provide the details of where the ball was thrown and how many people were trying to catch it or bat it down or intercept it.  Hail Mary passes can also occur in the 1st half or 2nd half and don’t always necessarily happen on the last play of the half or game.

In an attempt to make this as apples-to-apples with the Mangum Miracle, this analysis will identify a Hail Mary situation as follows:

  1. A pass thrown on the last offensive play of the game – for either side
  2. The line of scrimmage has to be at least 30 yards away.  The distance requirement increases the probability the pass is thrown a long distance in the air and is contested by a greater number of defenders
  3. The offense has to be either tied or down by 8 points or less, so that a TD ensures a win or at least an opportunity to tie with a PAT/2pt Conversion.

The statistics used in this analysis come from play-by-play data covering 7,220 games from the 2005 to 2013 seasons.

Hail Mary – How Often?

Scrambles on plays that meet the above criteria are ignored.  Given that, 403 games out of 7,220 (5.5%) have pass attempts which fits the criteria.  Broken down by distance from the end zone, they are


So most of the attempts (56%) come from a distance (60 to 99 yards) that is too far for most QBs to throw into the end zone.  Mangum’s attempt from the Nebraska 42 is closer than 344 of the 403 (85%) attempts.  In fact, the longest Hail Mary TD during this span was a 53 yarder by Arkansas State vs Memphis in 2006, so most of these 403 attempts were doomed to fail simply because they were too far away to work.

Hail Mary – How Successful?

Of the 403 Hail Mary situations from 2005 through 2013, only 10 (2.5%) resulted in TDs.  Seven other receptions were stopped inside the 10 yard line.  However as mentioned above, the majority of these attempts came from too far away to have any realistic chance of working, so here is a breakdown of success rates by distance.


For passes like Tanner Mangum’s attempt from 40 to 49 yards away, only 3 of the 65 attempts (4.6%) resulted in a game-winning touchdown.  From the 40 to 49 yard distance, more passes were intercepted (14) than were completed (10).  Of the 297 attempts from 50+ yards away, only one resulted in a TD.

It’s worth noting there was an attempt from 79 yards that was stopped at the 6 yard line and a 62 yard attempt which was stopped at the 1, but no other attempts outside the 50 came even close to the end zone.

A Hail Mary pass was intercepted on 19% of all attempts, which is nearly 8 times more frequent than a Hail Mary touchdown.

It is freely acknowledged this analysis is limited by the limited detail in the data available, but hopefully this post sheds at least some light on how unlikely an occurrence this win over Nebraska really was.

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BYU vs UConn – Statistical Extract

The season opener versus was Taysom Hill’s best passing game as a starter in several respects:

  • Hill completed 28 of 36 of his passes.  The 77.8% completion percentage ties his career best.  He was 14 of 18 against Nevada in 2013.
  • His 308 passing yards was his 3rd best passing total in a game, behind his 417 vs Houston and 339 vs Boise State.
  • Taysom’s 177.14 pass efficiency was his career best as a starter.
  • This is the 2nd start Hill had 3 TDs with 0 INTs.  He also had 3 TDs and 0 INT against Boise State.
  • Last year, BYU was atrocious passing on 3rd down and 7 or more yards to go.  In 2013, they were 21 of 69 (30.4) for 329 yards, 0 TDs, 3 INTs and a pass efficiency of 61.8.  They converted only 17 of those 69 attempts for a first down (24.6%).   Against UConn, they were 6 for 6 for 45 yards and a pass efficiency of 163.0 and converted 3 of the 6 attempts for a first down (50.0%).

Hill “only” had 97 yards rushing vs UConn.  This snapped his 3 game streak of running over 100 yards, dating back to the Notre Dame game. Other Hill rushing notes:

  • With at least 21 yards against Texas, Hill will pass JJ DiLuigi for 12th in the BYU career rushing list.
  • Hill’s 5.7 career rushing average is better than anyone else in the top 16 of the BYU career rushing leaders.  Casey Tiumalu (17th) averaged 6.2 yards per carry.
  • The UConn game marked the 4th game where Hill ran for at least 2 TDs.  His career high of 3 was against Texas last year.

Other odds and ends:

  • In every game where Taysom Hill has thrown for 300+ yards, BYU has also rushed for over 200 yards.
  • BYU’s average kickoff distance of 54.3 yards is the 5th worst in the nation thus far this season.
  • The Cougars had the ball for 9:36 in the first quarter, but afterwards UConn won the time of possession 28:08 to 16:52.
  • Bronson Kaufusi is 4th nationally with 2 sacks per game.
  • BYU is 9th with 4 sacks per game.
  • BYU’s 150 penalty yards is 31 yards more than any other team in the nation this year.
  • BYU has had over 100 yards in penalties 15 times since 2001.  Their record in those games is 10-5.
  • It would seem that 513 yards of total offense would be really good, but it’s only good enough for 35th in the nation after week 1 (thanks largely to the numerous FBS vs FCS matchups this week).
  • The Cougars’ defense only allowed a total of 10 points on 5 UConn red zone possessions.

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BYU vs Utah Statistical Extract

Due to unpopular demand, there will be no BYU vs Utah statistical extract post.  Optometrists and Gastroenterologists everywhere rejoice!   In the near future there will be a lengthier examination of Pass Efficiency and why it is absolutely vital that BYU improves significantly from their last place ranking in this category.

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BYU vs Texas – Statistical Extract

The surprisingly dominant victory over 15th ranked Texas provides for a lot of great little statistical tidbits this week:

  • The 19 point margin of victory is the 7th largest winning margin for a BYU victory over a ranked opponent.  The largest also came against Texas in 1988, when the Cougars crushed 19th ranked Texas 47-6.
  • BYU’s 550 rushing yards broke their old record of 465 set in 1958 vs Montana.  It was also the most rush yards Texas had ever allowed.
  • During the Bronco Era, BYU is 2-3 at home against ranked teams, 2-0 vs ranked teams at neutral sites and 1-10 vs ranked teams on the road.
    • Of the 10 road losses to ranked teams, 3 were by only 1 point, 1 was by 3 points and 1 by 7 points
  • That means that only 5 of the 18 games against ranked teams were at home.  This is not a new phenomenon.  BYU has only had 24 home games vs ranked teams, compared to 61 games at road or neutral sites.
    • 10-14 at home
    • 8-32 on the road
    • 8-12-1 at neutral sites
  • Jamaal Williams is 2nd in the nation in rushing yards with 326 and 1st in rushing attempts with 63
    • The BYU record for rushing attempts in a season is 252 by Ronney Jenkins.  Williams is on pace for 410 rushing attempts.  The NCAA record for most rushing attempts in a season is 450.
  • Taysom Hill’s 259 rushing yards was the 2nd most in BYU history, 13 yards behind Eldon “The Phantom” Fortie’s record 272 set in 1962.
    • Hill has run for 522 yards in 4 career starts, or 130.5 yards per game, averaging 8.42 yds/carry.
    • Taysom Hill has a career rushing average of 7.7 yds per carry, the highest of any BYU football player with more than 50 rushing attempts.
  • BYU had 550 yards rushing versus Texas.  It took BYU until the 6th game of the 2011 season to rack up a season total of 550 yards rushing.
  • There have been only 13 other teams who have run for more than 550 yards since 2001.
  • BYU has averaged 43.5 ppg against Texas in Provo, winning 40-21 in 2013 and 47-6 in 1988.
    • BYU threw for 402 yards in 1988, making BYU possibly the only team to both throw and run for over 400 yards against Texas.
  • BYU’s 679 yards of total offense is the 3rd most in the Bronco Era, behind 694 against Tulsa in 2007 and 683 vs Air Force in 2005.
    • BYU had 211 yards of offense in the 4th quarter vs Virginia.  Spanning the 4th quarter of the Virginia game through the end of the 3rd quarter, BYU had 825 yards of total offense and scored 49 points on 119 plays.
      • The 119 plays would have been an NCAA record (currently 115).
  • Since 1977, BYU is 13-4 against teams that currently or were previously members of the Big12 conference.
    • Against the triumvirate of Texas, Texas A&M and Oklahoma, BYU is a combined 7-2.

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BYU vs Virginia – Statistical Extract

So here are the statistical highlights and (mostly) lowlights from the Virginia game:

  1. Jamaal Williams had 33 carries for 144 yards. The 33 carries were the most in the nation for week 1, the 144 yards ties him 12th in rushing yards.f
  2. Jamaal’s 33 carries were the most by a BYU running back since freshman Curtis Brown ran for 217 yards on 33 carries as part of rallying from 27 points down to defeat Utah State 35-34 in 2002.
  3. Ross Apo’s 52 yard reception on the last play of the game was his 2nd longest of his career. His longest was a 53 yarder vs Idaho in 2012.
  4. BYU and Virginia combined for 24 punts, which is the highest punt total in a game since at least 2001, which is as far back as the NCAA has published individual game statistics.
  5. BYU punted 11 times last weekend, but punted only 24 times for the ENTIRE SEASON in 1983.
  6. BYU had 23 3rd down attempts. Only 12 non-overtime games since 2005 have featured more 3rd down attempts — and only 2 of them involved teams that had the ball for less than 30 minutes.
  7. BYU completed only 13 of 40 passes (32.5% completion). In the last 12 years, only 5 other D1A teams have thrown at least 40 passes and completed less than 32.5% of them.
  8. Virginia only gained 223 yards on Saturday. Since Bronco resumed defensive coordinator duties in 2010, BYU has held 23 of their 33 opponents to under 300 yards of offense. They’ve lost 6 of those 23 games.
  9. Virginia had 223 yards of offense against BYU. Since 2001, 31 of 146 teams (21.2%) have won with between 220 and 225 yards of offense, but such teams only won 5 of 93 games against opponents that gained at least 350 yards. BYU finished with 360 yards of offense.
  10. Only 3 teams had fewer yards per offensive play than Virginia’s 3.01. BYU’s 3.89 yds/play was only better than 15 other teams.
  11. BYU’s pass efficiency of 72.5 was their 9th lowest since 2001, spanning 152 games. Their efficiency before the 52 yard clock-expiring heave to Apo was 60.8, which would have been their 6th lowest during that span.
  12. Since 2001, only 16.2% of NCAA teams have won with a pass efficiency between 70 and 75. BYU’s efficiency was 72.5.

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The Successes of Robert Anae — v1.0

When Robert Anae left BYU at the end of the 2010 season, it was in the midst of a significant amount of fan discontent in the wake of a 7-6 season. That discontent seemed to largely drown out what had largely been a very successful 6 year run as BYU’s offensive coordinator. This blog post is not going to attempt to address criticisms of Anae’s first tour of duty in Provo, but rather highlight specific areas where BYU was particularly successful during that time. Even though the Anae v2.0 offense, influenced by his time with Rich Rodriguez in Arizona, may be quite different in some respects from the offense we saw from 2005 to 2010, there is a chance that we will see some of these same strengths in v2.0


BYU finished in the top 25 in scoring in 4 of Anae’s 6 seasons, finishing as high as 5th in 2006. BYU also averaged a solid 33.3 ppg in bowl games, including 2 of the 3 highest scores in BYU bowl history (44 vs Oregon State and 52 vs UTEP). Overall, BYU had the 15th highest scoring average under Anae v1.0:


3rd Down Conversions

From 2005 to 2010, BYU absolutely dominated their opponents on 3rd down, converting over half of the time during that span. So dominant, they converted nearly a full 2% more than Navy, the next best team on 3rd down.


It also didn’t matter where on the field BYU was during 3rd down; they were able to continue to convert 3rd downs as they got progressively closer to the end zone:


EDIT: Just a quick note that the first chart shows all 3rd down conversions, including conversions through defensive penalties, but the second chart only includes first downs via pass and runs. It’s a limitation of the data available.

Red Zone Efficiency

Perhaps most importantly, when BYU got into the Red (Blue) Zone, they were not just able to score, but score touchdowns. Only Texas Tech (Anae’s former employer) was more successful in finding the end zone once they had crossed the opponent’s 20 yard line:


So while Anae v2.0 may have some striking differences from v1.0, there’s still reason to believe that his offense will find ways to put points on the board by excelling in 3rd down situations, getting themselves into the Red Zone and turning those opportunities into six points.

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Do BYU QBs Have Favorite Receivers?

BYU has seen its share of changes at quarterback over the past 3 seasons, with 4 different QBs getting at least 1 start during that span. A question that is often raised is just how much does a change at QB affect the distribution of passes to the receivers? In other words, do different QBs have different “favorites” they like to throw the ball?

Below is a heat map showing how often receivers were targeted (i.e. were recorded as the intended receiver, regardless if the pass was actually completed) by different BYU QBs over the past 2 seasons. The heat map shows that there were definitely some receivers that benefited/suffered by the change in who was throwing the ball to them.


Conventional wisdom was that in 2011, Jake Heaps favored Apo more than Hoffman and it was vice versa when Riley Nelson took over as the starter. It turns out in this case that conventional wisdom was actually correct. Heaps threw to Apo 19.1% and Hoffman 17.8% of the time, but Nelson only looked to Apo 14.0% and Hoffman 25.9% of the time. That’s a pretty pronounced swing in receiver preference.

Something that appears to have gone largely unnoticed is that McKay Jacobson suffered even more by Nelson’s playing time, having his targeting percentage cut nearly in half, from 14.8% to 7.8%.

In 2012, the distribution of the ball was a little more consistent between QBs. The biggest differences were that JD Falslev was targeted much more frequently (7.1% increase) and Kaneakua Friel much less (6.9% decrease) by James Lark, compared to Riley Nelson.

All 3 QBs in 2012 relied equally heavily on Cody Hoffman, targeting him between 30.3% and 33.8% of the time. With most of the receivers from 2012 returning in 2013, it will be interesting to see if the ball distribution will be a little more even than it was last year.


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Is “Go Fast, Go Hard” Contagious?

This blog post from a couple of weeks ago discussed whether or not BYU should expect to have to play an additional 15 to 20 plays per game on defense compared to 2012, due to the Cougars going with a very uptempo offensive scheme in 2013.  The post’s conclusion was that based on historical data of other uptempo teams, that the number of additional defensive plays these teams faced was considerably less than Bronco’s estimate of 15 to 20 per game.

A question that arose while analyzing this topic was whether or not facing an uptempo team would affect the opponent’s own offensive tempo. Would their offensive pace increase because they get sucked into a track meet, or perhaps their tempo would slow down in an attempt to counterbalance the hyper-speed approach they were up against? The answer appears to be neither.


The bar chart shows a classic “bell curve” shape where the average time per play is almost exactly the same against uptempo teams as it is against the rest of their schedule. This is based on 270 games involving all teams between 2005 and 2012 which averaged over 80 plays per game for an entire season.

Another way of looking at it is the average seconds per play:

Uptempo teams: 20.97 secs/play

Opposition vs other teams: 25.08 secs/play
Opposition vs uptempo teams: 24.83 secs/play

So the average result of normal tempo teams playing against uptempo teams is that their tempo speeds up by 0.25 seconds per play, or a mere increase of 1%. Also worth noting is that normal tempo teams have a tempo that is 18.4% slower than their uptempo counterparts.

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How Much Does Field Position Matter?

Last week, starting cornerback Jordan Johnson tore his ACL while practicing kickoff returns. Bronco Mendenhall explained that he had Johnson returning kicks because of a study that showed how much impact winning the field position battle had on wins and losses. Unfortunately, Bronco neglected to share any of the specifics of that study with the media. Well, in order to fill that information vacuum, Cougarstats has done its own research.

Of 6,372 games played between 2005 and 2012, the team that won the field position battle (i.e. their average starting field position for each drive) won 71.9% of the time. Even if the battle was won by less than 5 yards, the odds of winning are 57% and the win percentage increases fairly rapidly with additional yardage.


Of course, starting field position is due to a large number of factors of which punt and kickoff returns are only a part. Drives begin after a kickoff 41.0% and after a punt 37.7% of the time, for a combined 78.7%. However, many kicks and punts are not returned. Drives beginning after a kickoff RETURN or a punt RETURN happens only 39.0% of the time, so even if you increase your kick return average 5 yards, it will improve your average starting field position by about 2 yards.

So was the reward worth the risk of injuring one of the more irreplaceable players on the BYU defense? You be the judge.


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