University of New Mexico football should not be underestimated. It would be easy for our young Scarlet Knights athletes to look past the Lobos once the Mountain West Conference foe lost star running back Teriyon Gipson and defensive stud Dakota Cox to concussion protocols this week.
After all, Gipson is largely responsible for a unit that ranks 7th in rushing offense in all of Division I play. His 243 yards from 20 carries represents the best yards per carry (12.15) for Division I running backs who have at least 20 carries. Gipson’s four touchdowns also make him the highest scorer on the Lobos offense. The next backs up for head coach Bob Davie are Tyrone Owens and Richard McQuarley, who he hopes will pickup the slack. Owens has produced 124 yards from 26 rushes and McQuarley has rushed for 67 yards on 18 carries.
Personally, I would caution RU nation about sophomore running back Diquon Woodhouse whose 71 yards on 7 rushes gives him the second best yards per carry at 10.1 among UNM running backs. From a Hit Yards Opportunity rate, Woodhouse’s 26.9 is even better than Gipson’s 20.7. Hit Yards Opportunity measures the portion of a given run that is credited only to the running back (first five yards are credited to the offensive line “doing its job”), a metric that Bill Connelly at Football Outsiders and SB Nation utilizes.
Regardless of who carries the ball for the Lobos its offensive line has done a solid job blocking thus far in their 2016 campaign. Looking over SB Nation’s Football Study Hall statistics, adjusting for standard down plays (defined as first downs, second-and-7 or fewer, third-and-4 or fewer, and fourth-and-4 or fewer), the line ranks 24th in Division I in Line Yards per Carry, which accounts for per-carry line yardage crediting both runner and blocker, and 37th in IsoPPP, an advanced stat that measures “explosiveness.”
I would like to emphasize IsoPPP because its a statistical measure, I will repeatedly examine throughout this post. For an in-depth explanation read this. In this “explosiveness” figure, a point value is assigned to every yard line based on the number of points an offense could expect to score from that particular field position. Those score expectations are derived from a data-set referenced as a team’s “Success Rate.” Football Outsiders classifies Success Rate, or successful plays, in college football where 50% of necessary yardage on first down, 70% on second down, and 100% on third and fourth down that results in “moving the chains” for another first down.
It should also be noted that UNM ranks first in the FBS in giving up zero sacks on standard downs.
When adjusting the IsoPPP measure for opposing offenses, this is where the RU defense has struggled thus far this season. The unit ranks almost dead last, 123rd, in preventing first downs from opposing offenses on standard down plays. If the Lobos running backs do manage to rip significant chunks of yardage, RU leading tackler DB Kiy Hester will need to keep them from turning into huge gains. The team will probably have to take a “bend but don't break” approach this Saturday.
Hester and fellow defensive back Anthony Cioffi and linebacker Trevor Morris lead the defense in tackles, 11, 10, and 10 respectively. Hester’s and Cioffi’s disciplined tackling has produced a ranking of 7th among Division I defenses in DB Havoc Rate, which is a percentage of plays in which the D-back field either recorded a tackle for a loss, forced a fumble, or defended a pass (intercepted or broken up). The game could be won or lost in the dynamic between UNM runners and RU’s backfield tackling.
Edge: Rutgers. While we should see the UNM running back committee move the ball on the ground, I expect RU’s 9th ranked red zone defense to bend, but not break. The Scarlet Knight defensive line also does a respectable job in Stuff Rate, a percentage of runs where the runner is tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage, in which RU is ranked 24th. However, in critical third and fourth down situations with two yards or less to go for a first down or touchdown, the D has a subpar ranking 77th in Power Success Rate.
Overall, while the Scarlet Knight backfield may stop opposing runners, they have struggled against the passing game at times. It is currently tied for 54th in Division I in Passing Yards Allowed, while advanced stats found here also portray the unit in a somewhat positive light against the pass. However, I believe the game against FCS level Howard University last week probably skewed the numbers against actual talent.
Two advanced stats shed light on my suspicion. One, the Passing Down IsoPPP, which again is a measure derived from determining the equivalent point value of every yard line, is horrid (for passing downs successful plays are considered second-down with 8 yards or more to go or third- or fourth-down with 5 or more yards to go for a first down). RU ranks 82nd against PD IsoPPP, which means opposing teams are able to achieve first downs or scoring in long yardage situations against the Scarlet Knights.
The RU defense also has a problem with stopping run plays that make first downs in typical pass down situations. It ranks 115th in Pass Downs Run Rate. This could prove problematic against certain formations, such as the Wildcat. In light of this I suspect that the Lobos, at times, will field backup quarterback Lamar Jordan in wildcat packages. Last year Jordan ran for 940 yards, ranking third on the team, while scoring 9 TDs. He even managed to throw 5 TD passes in 1,045 yards of passing. This Saturday, perhaps even starting quarterback Austin Apodaca will gain a few yards on the ground.
Outside of wildcat and traditional run plays, there is not too much to fear from the UNM passing attack, as it ranks 78th in Division I in Passing Success Rate (see aforementioned Success Rate definition) and is tied for 113th in overall NCAA passing offense. However, the Scarlet Knights’ issues in coverage may provide the Lobos an opportunity to improve those numbers.
The loss of UNM linebacker Cox is also significant. He leads the team in tackles with 15.5, which accounts for 15% of all team tackling. He has also recorded one sack, one interception, and one forced fumble. Senior linebacker Donnie White, who is also no slouch, will look to pickup the slack and add to his 1.5 sacks and eight tackles.
Overall, the Lobos defense also uses a bend but don’t break approach, which is revealed by its miserable ranking of 118th in Standard Downs Success Rate and exceptional 29th ranking in Standard Downs IsoPPP. Its red zone defense is ranked 93rd however.
The UNM D also poses problems in terms of quarterback sacks ranking 15th in Standard Down Sack Rate and 32nd in Passing Down Sack Rate. Defensive lineman Garrett Hughes leads the team with 2.5 sacks and 2.5 tackles for losses. The Lobos defense is particularly terrible in the DB Havoc Rate, which will give senior wide receiver Janarion Grant (also used in running plays) and junior running backs Robert Martin and Josh Hicks opportunities for big plays if they can break free from the line of scrimmage. Last week Grant earned the Big Ten Special Teams Player of the Week Award. My colleague Aaron Breitman wrote about it here.
I’m pretty confident we will see more fireworks from Grant, Martin and Hicks, as the UNM defensive line havoc rate is ranked a paltry 82nd. The only thing that may contain the RU running game will be linebacker play, which again has suffered the loss of Cox. Overall, the team’s LB Havoc Rate ranks 21st in Division I.
I believe Chris Laviano will have a mediocre game against the UNM defense, which has a knack for preventing big plays ranking 25th in Passing Down IsoPPP. Laviano leads an offense that stinks in the same category on the offensive side, ranking second to dead-last at 127th in Division I.
Connelly and crew at Football Study Hall give Rutgers a 65% probability of defeating the University of New Mexico while Vegas odds favor RU by 5.5.