The first year of the #AshEra is in the books following the 31-13 loss to the Maryland Terrapins (6-6; 3-6). The Scarlet Knights finished the season 2-10 overall and winless in Big Ten Conference play. While the results are certainly not what everyone had hoped for, first year rebuilds are always difficult, so let’s take a closer look at how the season played out versus the previous year under former head coach Kyle Flood.
In 2015 the Scarlet Knights went 4-8 overall, while winning only one Big Ten game against Indiana which required an impressive 25 point comeback in order to do so.
Field Position: In a previous post we discussed the importance of starting field position versus your opponent:
We all know starting at your opponents 20 yard line is extremely significant as it almost guarantees at least three points, but how significant is starting at your own 37 yard line versus say your own 27 yard line? Very, and here is why. The average number of drives per team this year has been 14 drives. If the average starting field position differential is ten yards this represents a total of 140 yards, not an insignificant amount by any stretch.
In that post we mentioned that teams who won the field position battle won 72% of their games. Starting average field position is extremely important and the concept is rather simple; starting drives closer to the opponents end zone requires less yards to score points.
The chart below compares starting field position for 2016 and 2015. In 2016 the Scarlet Knights on average lost the starting average field position battle by -8.16 yards, compared to -3.39 yards in 2015. The disparity was greater for conference games in both 2015 (-9.73 yards) and 2016 (-10.84 yards). This disparity puts added pressure on not only the offensive, but the defense as well who has to defend a shorter field compared to the opposing defense.
Special Teams: One of the major contributors to losing the starting field position battle which is often overlooked, is special teams. For the comparison below I focused only on conference games due to this year’s much more difficult non-conference schedule.
In 2015 the Scarlet Knights averaged 23.17 yards per kickoff return, two of which were returned for touchdowns. With the loss of return man Janarion Grant to injury, 2016 kickoff return numbers decreased significantly averaging only 16.74 yards per kickoff, none of which were returned for touchdowns. Similarly, average yards per punt return fell from 8.33 yards to 3.79 yards. There were no punt returns for touchdowns in conference play in 2016, compared to one touchdown return in 2015.
The kicking game also regressed with the average yards per kickoff decreasing from 59.85 yards in 2016 to 55.48 yards in 2015. Average yards per punt also decreased from 41.49 yards per punt in 2015 to 37.12 yards in 2016.
Special teams coverage also regressed as the chart below shows: The Scarlet Knights gave up 17.97 yards per kickoff return in 2015, compared to 25.06 yards per return in 2016. Additionally, special teams coverage gave up two TD’s during conference play in 2016.
Case in point was Maryland’s 83 yard punt return for a touchdown that should have been returned for zero yards, however missed tackles led to a touchdown and an early 14 point deficit. When depth is lacking on the defensive side of the ball it is magnified on special teams as it was this year.
Offense: The Scarlet Knights offensive struggles have been well documented, that is no secret, but I would be remiss if I did not offer some perspective as to why. First let’s look at the rushing offense. Average yards per carry decreased from 3.42 yards to 2.93 yards in conference play, but let’s not forget that Robert Martin was not 100% healthy this year. The passing game saw the largest drop off in production, with average yards per attempt falling from 6.99 yards to 4.94 yards. In summary, average yards per play decreased from 5.07 yards to 3.74 yards. Yes, that is a rather large regression, but back to my original point as to why; the loss of Janarion Grant to injury, as well as losing arguably one of the best Big Ten wide receivers in 2015 to the NFL Draft. The loss of these two playmakers was felt across several facets of the game. The return game clearly suffered, speed on offense suffered, and the deep play threat was all but eliminated allowing defenses to load the box and force the Scarlet Knights to pass. Certainly the lack of offense does not rest solely on the loss of Grant and Carroo, but they played an integral part of the offense last season and Grant started the year off strong before succumbing to a season ending injury, ironically on an explosive play that we are so used to seeing with Janarion Grant.
Let’s take a closer look at offensive production per receiver so I can show you what I am talking about:
In 2015 Leonte Carroo hauled in 39 receptions for 809 yards and 10 touchdowns, representing 101.13 yards per game. Andre Patton had the second highest production averaging 36 yards per game. Replacing a receiver like Carroo is extremely difficult for a team WITH depth, let alone the Scarlet Knights whom lacked the depth at the wide receiver position, especially after losing the most dynamic playmaker on offense Janarion Grant, who improved his receiving yards per game from 29.33 yards in 2015 to 52.50 yards per game in 2016. Andre Patton increased production by 2.33 yards per game, however Carlton Agudosi’s production decreased dramatically from 34.78 yards per game in 2015 to 7.42 yards per game in 2016. The bright spot was Jawuan Harris who had 39 receptions for 481 yards and 3 touchdowns, representing 40.08 yards per game, essentially negating Agudosi’s decreased production from the year prior.
Tight-end production fell from 302 yards in 2015 to 91 yards in 2016. Receiving yards by running backs increased marginally from 224 yards to 239 yards.
While I am not advocating that the offense had a stellar year, however replacing receivers like Carroo and Grant is not easy, and those “missing” yards simply don’t get offset by other receivers when depth is lacking.
For comparative purposes I ran the same analysis as above, however I removed both Carroo and Grant from the analysis. Not surprisingly without Grant and Carroo, average receiving yards per game in 2015 would have been 109.92 yards, versus this year without Grant the average receiving yards per game actually improved to 120.75 yards.
Defense: The defense definitely had it struggles at times, but also showed some signs of promise, especially pass defense, which has been a nightmare over the last few seasons. Again, I looked at conference games only due to strength of schedule similarities. In 2015 the Scarlet Knights rushing defense allowed 5.10 YPC on the ground, compared to 6.12 YPC in 2016. Pass defense improved allowing 8.29 yards per attempt in 2015 to 7.73 yards per attempt in 2016.
Defensive line play improved as the Scarlet Knights registered a total of 21 sacks this past season versus 14 sacks in 2015. Additionally fumble recoveries increased from 3 in 2015 to 6 in 2016.
We have mentioned here previously that this is MAJOR rebuild, and we must not lose sight of that. Look at a team like Colorado and the success they are enjoying this year. Look at P.J. Fleck, did you know he went 1-11 in his first year? Do you recall Greg Schiano going 1-11 in his first year as Rutgers Head Coach as well? These things take time and judging an entire staff after only year given what Coash Ash inherited is nearly impossible.
Let’s enjoy the off-season and see how this staff closes out the 2017 recruiting class. National Signing Day will be here before you know it!