Back Inside the Numbers: Troy at App State

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Inside the Numbers: Troy at App State

By Jim Johnson
SouthernPigskin.com
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There are no convoluted scenarios, no hoping that so and so loses to whoever, just a straightforward win and you’re in situation.

Well, I’m done calling anything a de facto championship, at least for the time being, but this weekend, when Troy travels to Appalachian State, it is the actual Sun Belt East championship. There are no convoluted scenarios, no hoping that so and so loses to whoever, just a straightforward win and you’re in situation.

App State rolled through the first two-thirds of their schedule like a freight train headed for the first ever league title game. However, the bullies became the bullied on one rainy Thursday night in Statesboro, in late October -- a game that some idiot who will remain nameless dubbed the de facto Sun Belt Championship -- after losing their starting signal caller Zac Thomas and a key defensive contributor Jordan Fehr early in the first quarter. Another offensive no-show a week later at Coastal Carolina, salvaged only by continued elite defense, saw the once-unimpeachable favorites finally in a mortal light. Since then, with Thomas back in the fold, the Mountaineers again look like the juggernaut that outscored opponents 204-32 during a four game stretch from September into early October.

Troy, though perhaps not in as overwhelmingly dominant fashion as their opponents, quickly bounced back from an ugly week one loss to Boise State to win their next five contests relative easily, including a victory (that the same idiot predicted before the season even started) over Power Five Nebraska. Then quarterback Kaleb Barker sustained a season ending knee injury against Georgia State, and the offense has lacked any semblance of consistency since. His replacement, Sawyer Smith, was a mess in a loss to lowly Liberty, played well enough in a limited role against South Alabama, leaning on a dominant rushing performance, shined in wins over Louisiana and Georgia Southern, but was abysmal in a game that Troy probably deserved to lose to Texas State. Plus, for whatever reason, the run game hasn’t provided any modicum of efficiency since the game versus South. There’s no telling where this team would be without their own superb defense.

ESPN’s FPI gives the Trojans just an 18.8% chance of beating App State. S&P+ (https://www.footballstudyhall.com/2018/2/2/16963820/college-football-advanced-stats-glossary has it at 25%. FEI puts the number closer to 20%. Suffice it to say, Scott Satterfield’s group is the clear favorite, but if I’ve learned anything this season, it’s to not underestimate Neal Brown and company… and to try not to look at my Twitter mentions if I do.

Still, in order to pull off the upset, the running game needs to come back in a big way.

Currently ranked 97th in rushing S&P+, Troy’s struggles unexpectedly stem not from a lack of playmakers in the backfield, even after losing Jordan Chunn from last season’s team, rather from the performance of an offensive line that should have been one of the best in the conference.

On carries that gain at least five yards, or get to the second level -- in other words, when the offensive line does its job, BJ Smith is averaging a solid extra 6.1 yards per opportunity, Sawyer Smith an extra 8.3 yards, and Jabir Daughtry-Frye an incredible 11.4 highlight yards per opportunity. The problem is that only 43.5% of their carries are getting to the second level, which ranks 98th in the country, behind an run blocking unit that is 87th in standard down line yards per carry, 122nd in line yards per carry on passing downs, and 84th in stuff rate, allowing a stop at or behind the line of scrimmage on just under 20% of their runs.

Because of that, Troy is 105th in rushing marginal efficiency, but when they do manufacture a successful play, they make them hurt, ranking 5th in marginal explosiveness.

It’s not as if Troy can’t win at the line of scrimmage against an App State unit that is more predicated on the linebacking corps than the defensive line, but the inefficiency still does not bode well against a defense the caliber of this one, which ranks 13th in run defense S&P+, 17th in marginal efficiency and 21st in explosiveness allowed.

Again, the defensive line is only 52nd in percentage of 5+ yard carries allowed and 40th in stuff rate, but they do sit in the top 25 in standard down line yards. Favoring smaller, faster defensive linemen even in their 3-4, and utilizing a heavy rotation as they have throughout Scott Satterfield’s tenure, sophomore Demetrius Taylor is the only one allowing more than 2.6 yards per play. Even so, the front three can be pushed around from time to time and generally leaves the playmaking up to the backers.

Fortunately for App, this group has handled the burden with great efficacy. The four starters, Akeem Davis-Gaither, Anthony Flory, Jordan Fehr, and Noel Cook are the team’s top four tacklers, top four in tackles for loss, and top four in run stuffs. Flory is the best of the group as it pertains to stopping the run, but the disparity is negligible. There are no holes. There is no one to pick on. There in nowhere to hide.

If the run game continues to be as poor as it has been over the past few weeks, Troy will have no choice but to turn it over to Sawyer Smith and hope that the good version showed up to play. Since taking over as the starter, Smith has posted three passer ratings above 170 and two below 103, with no in between. There’s no real rhyme or reason to it, either. He was bad against Liberty’s terrible pass defense, but lit up South Alabama and Louisiana’s similarly bad pass defenses. Then he was great against Georgia Southern’s solid pass defense and was terrible against Texas State’s quietly very good pass defense.

At least the offensive line has been a little better in pass pro, ranking 69th in allowed sack rate, but it has still struggled against blitzes, ranking 107th on passing downs. And, while all the receivers have been reliable, the only one that has is above average in yards per target, marginal efficiency, and marginal explosiveness is Damion Willis. Deondre Douglas has been explosive but with below average efficiency. The opposite is true for Sidney Davis. Arguably the second best pass catcher on the team has been Daughtry-Frye.

On the flipside, as good as App State’s run defense is, the strength of the entire team is its secondary, and the numbers reflect that, ranking 10th in the country pass defense S&P+, 25th in marginal efficiency and 7th in explosiveness allowed.

Fortunately for Troy, App State’s pass rush is only average, and schematically they are typically more conservative, playing more bend-don’t break on passing downs than usual, but so far so good as they rank number one in the nation in marginal explosiveness on such plays. Clifton Duck and Tae Hayes are the best cornerback duo in the Sun Belt. Safety Desmond Franklin is tied for the league lead in picks, and Austin Exford is second only to Hayes among the App DBs in marginal explosiveness allowed.

Altogether, the Mountaineer defense is 17th in S&P+, 13th in marginal efficiency and 8th in explosiveness allowed, 18th in drive finishing (points per trip inside the 40-yard line), and 6th in points per drive against, excluding garbage time and clock kills.

Comparatively, Troy is 69th in offensive S&P+, just 95th in marginal efficiency, but 7th in explosiveness, 65th in drive finishing, and 49th in points per drive.

The third and short battle will be key in this one. Troy is 20th in third and short success rate, but struggle to convert from third and medium or third and long. App is solid, 22nd, in third and short defense, but just as good or better at the other distances. Avoiding those uncomfortable blitz downs will be imperative to keep Troy’s offense on the field.

Regardless, the matchup doesn’t look favorably upon Troy, on paper. In all likelihood, the Trojans will have to rely on their stout defense, yet again. The question is, with Zac Thomas back and better than ever, if that will even be enough.

The Thomas-led passing attack ranks 36th in S&P+, 23rd in marginal efficiency and 37th in marginal explosiveness, behind an offensive line that is 47th in allowed sack rate.

In his two games back from injury, one of which was against the very same strong Texas State pass defense that shutdown Sawyer Smith and company, he has completed 75% of his passes for 529 yards, five scores, and no interceptions -- good for a 176.6 passer rating.

His top target, Corey Sutton, has established himself as one of, if not the, premier big play receivers in the league. Fellow sophomores Thomas Hennigan and Malik Williams offer more efficient secondary options, while senior Dominique Heath has been the best of both worlds, offering a combination of reliability and explosiveness from the slot.

Troy’s pass defense will be the best App State has faced all season, with the exception of Penn State and Texas State (and maybe Arkansas State, but it’s splitting hairs). For what it’s worth, those are, obviously, among Thomas’ less impressive performances, but A-State was the only one he was actually bad against.

Nevertheless, it is worth noting that the Red Wolves are the closest to Troy of the aforementioned in the way of pass rushing prowess, even more so than Penn State, and Neal Brown’s defense still ranks a spot higher in sack rate (10th).

As Hunter Reese and company cause all sorts of problems for opposing offenses up front, Blace Brown and the rest of the secondary are rivaled only by their opponents, and maybe Georgia Southern on a good day, amongst the Sun Belt’s defensive backfields.

53rd in pass defense S&P+, Troy is 77th in marginal efficiency and 52nd in explosiveness allowed.

As it pertains to the run game, App State has taken a step back since losing the world beater that is Jalin Moore. With Moore, they averaged 6.5 yards per carry with a 7.8% touchdown rate. Without him, they’re averaging 5.4 yards per carry with a 4.7% touchdown rate. They’re hardly suffering --  the latter yard per carry average would still rank in the national top 20 -- but the disparity is notable.

Still, even with Moore’s production, App State is 81st in rushing S&P+, 95th in marginal efficiency and 4th in marginal explosiveness, behind an offensive line that is blocking for a gain of at least five yards on just 44.3% of attempts (92nd), and ranks 53rd in stuff rate, and 48th and 70th in standard down and passing down line yards per carry, respectively.

In short, this is not a vintage App State offensive line. It’s not bad, but it’s not close to some of the units they’ve produced in recent memory.

Moore’s primary replacement, Darrynton Evans, has been especially hit or miss. Moore ran with a level of efficiency that Evans, nor Marcus Williams, can replicate. Nevertheless, explosive as Moore may have been, and he was well above average in that respect, Evans is putting up a smooth 10.7 highlight yards per carry. Not dissimilar to Troy’s running game, App hasn’t been super steady, but when they reach the second level, they make it hurt.

On the flipside, Troy’s run defense, if not special teams, is the best facet of their game. 17th in S&P+, 37th in marginal efficiency, and 10th in explosiveness allowed, Troy is allowing a gain of at least five yards at a top 30 rate, and is stopping opposing ball carriers at or behind the line of scrimmage at a top 20 rate, whilst ranking 17th and 22nd, respectively, in standard down and passing down line yards per carry given up.

Hunter Reese and Jarvis Hayes both have double digit run stuffs. Trevon Sanders joins those two to round out the top three in yards per carry allowed. Sanders, Reese, and Carlton Martial comprise the leaders in marginal efficiency allowed, and Antoine Barker has allowed the lowest marginal explosiveness average.

All in all, Troy’s defense is 42nd in S&P+, 54th in marginal efficiency and 28th in explosiveness allowed, 39th in drive finishing, and 31st in points per drive allowed.

App State’s offense is 40th in S&P+, 59th in marginal efficiency and 10th in explosiveness, 65th in drive finishing, and 25th in points per drive.

That above drive finishing battle will be integral to the success or failure of each unit. The team that wins that wins the game 75% of the time. If Troy can make App kick field goals, a special teams and field position fight is a fight they can win.

App State is fine on special teams, 50th in S&P+, but Troy is excellent, ranking 13th in the nation. No one aspect of the Trojans special teams unit is especially transcendent, but all of it’s solid. The biggest disparity is in place kicking, where Tyler Sumpter is scoring about .3 more points per kick than expected, based on distance, relative to the average college kicker, which ranks 30th. App State, on the other hand, is .06 points below their expected number, which is 84th. It bears repeating, Troy can’t bring field goals to a touchdown fight, but bringing field goals to a field goal fight is perfectly fine and it’s a fight they can win.

The field position battle, using their season averages, is negligible, but turnovers could also play a role. Troy is 9th in turnover margin, and they’re also 9th in expected turnover margin, so unlike a few of the teams ahead of them, they haven’t been especially lucky. App State, meanwhile, while a little unfortunate with turnover luck, is 48th with an expected TO margin ranking of 31st. The team that wins that battles wins the game 73% of the time.

App State is the favorite, and deservedly so. On paper, their offense versus Troy’s defense should be a heckuva fight, but their defense ought to largely stifle the Trojans. Then again, the games aren’t played on paper, and as outlined above, though App State has more matchup advantages, a few of the ones that Troy should have typically carry heightened importance.

It’s hard to fault anyone for picking App State, particularly given how well Zac Thomas has played since his return. I, for one, though, have learned my lesson about going against Neal Brown.

Jim Johnson - Editor of Southern Pigskin, Producer of "Three & Out", and host of "Explosive Recruiting" on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. E-mail: jim@espncoastal.com Twitter: @JimJohnsonSP