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Tipping Points: Virginia

This essay is Part 3 of a series of about 12 detailing the plight of Syracuse Football 2005. The structure of the essays is derived from the looking glass erected by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. For more information about Gladwell's book and the data used for the following examination, check out this previous essay.

Final Score: 24-27
Box Score

Tipping Points: Virginia

Unlike Syracuse’s games against West Virginia and Buffalo, the battle with Virginia saw no glaring statistical anomalies that one could peg as absolute reasons why Syracuse won or lost. Rather, the tilt against the Cavaliers turned on one statistical category – yards per drive – and the two stats that residually create an advantage in that category – yards per rushing attempt and third down efficiency.

Yards per drive is a statistic of paramount importance. To possess the football allows for an offense to: a) create greater opportunities to score, b) deny an opponent the most efficient opportunity to score (via an offense), c) fatigue an opposing defense, and d) rest the offense’s own defense. Thus, longer drives are inherently more efficient, and efficiency, above all else, is the easiest road to victory.

Against Virginia, Syracuse was absolutely demolished on a yards per drive basis sitting at the wrong end of a 34.667 to 21.000 disparity. Even with Brendan Carney’s golden leg, with a discrepancy this pronounced, field position could never be flipped, thus creating a great burden on a terrible offense to try and flip the field on its own.

As for yards per drive contributing to an offense’s opportunities to score, Virginia’s advantage in the category was substantial. It is a general premise that every 12 yards an offense generates equates to approximately one point. Considering each team’s yard per drive numbers, Virginia was generating about 2.9 yards per drive while Syracuse was only creating approximately 1.75 points per offensive outing.

To neutralize this advantage, Syracuse would have needed to convert turnovers into immediate defensive points or tremendous field position. This, of course, never happened, and since the game ultimately came down to each offense needing to win the game for its team, Virginia was at a great advantage.

With the tipping point effectively identified, the question turns to how Virginia was able to dominate in that category. The answers to that question come in two different, but symbiotic, offensive aspects.

The primary reason Virginia was able to dominate in yards per drive was the Cavaliers ability to run the football. With Marques Hagans and Peerman running all over the football field, Virginia was able to accumulate a 6.2 yards per carry average. The Orange, on the other hand, was limited to only 2.2 yards per rushing attempt.

Virginia was so competent at running the football compared to Syracuse’s incompetence at the same task, Syracuse’s slight advantage in the passing game was rendered moot. The Orange was able to outpace the Cavaliers in yards per pass attempt (differential) (1.04), yards per attempt (6.62 to 5.58), and yards per completion basis (10.12 to 9.06). But since Virginia was able to rely on a much more effective method at moving the chains, the Cavaliers’ inability to defeat the Orange through the air was insignificant.

While differences between offensive attacks may lead to reasonable inferences as to why Virginia was able to dominate in yards per drive, the most important inference is fairly subtle.

When a team can effectively run the football, manageable third down situations are bound to result. Running the football effectively on first and/or second down creates a situation where third and short can result. This, consequently, provides the offense greater opportunity to exploit either the run or the pass to move the chains on third down.

In this game, the advantage of diversity on third down greatly inured to Virginia’s benefit. With a vast majority of Virginia’s third downs occurring with only minimal yardage to left gain to move the chains, the Cavaliers were able to outpace (and outrun) the Orange in third down efficiency by over 25% (59% to 33%).

Essentially, Virginia was able to use its ability to run to convert all those third and manageables. Syracuse, on the other hand, when faced with third and manageable, could not rely on its ground game to move the chains since it was only picking up 2.2 yards per carry.

The relationship, therefore, should be blindingly apparent:
• The ability to pound the football creates greater opportunity to convert third downs;
• The ability to convert third downs creates greater opportunity to extend drives; and
• The ability to extend drives creates greater opportunity to score points.

Since Syracuse couldn’t even compete in the first aspect of the syllogism, there was no way the Orange offense (or the defense for that matter) could create circumstances necessary for victory.

The one statistical irregularity that doesn’t quite shake straight with the above commentary is drive efficiency factor (DEF). In this statistical category, the disparity between Syracuse and Virginia was very close (1.75 to 1.889). The question, therefore, is why Syracuse was able to stay so close to Virginia in DEF while getting destroyed in yards per drive.

It appears that this irregularity can be explained by Syracuse’s advantage in the turnover game. DEF is premised on tempering points factor by turnovers per drive. When that value is determined, it is multiplied by four, since a turnover denies an offense two points while providing the opponent with two of its own (thus the four point swing). With Syracuse forcing Virginia to commit three turnovers in the game, Virginia’s DEF was significantly impacted.

Thus, the relative closeness between Syracuse’s DEF and Virginia’s DEF is attributable to Syracuse’s defense, rather than Syracuse’s offense.

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