The 2011 Virginia football team charged to the Chick-fil-A Bowl on the strength of a strong defense, methodical offense, and an uncanny ability to win close games.1 Mike London received significant credit for this turnaround due to his perceived ability to strike a perfect balance with a highly motivated yet disciplined and consistent team. The 2011 team avoided foolish and untimely penalties,2 hung onto the ball,3 and "got off the field" when prudent.4
On the heels of the Chick-fil-A Bowl trip, London's 2012 team is one competent kicker away from being winless against FBS competition.5 Blame has been attributed to a very young defense, a surprisingly poor offensive line, special teams, Michael Rocco, then Phillip Sims, London / Lazor mishandling the offense in general, and basically every other area capable of receiving blame.6 But in which area is the team most dramatically underperforming? Are they simply getting beaten up and down the field, or are uncharacteristic disciplinary issues and mistakes really crippling this team?7
I wanted to devise a method for evaluating the game-to-game effect of issues and mistakes related to special teams, turnovers, and penalties, which I'll lump into the category of "ancillary problems." More specifically, I wanted to analyze: (1) whether these "ancillary problems" have contributed significantly to the poor record, (2) whether the "problems" of this season are, as perceived, much worse than in London's prior two seasons, and (3) whether the "problems" are getting worse as the season wears on.
[Measuring Ancillary Problems]
To create a sense of the effect of such issues I separated a final score based on yards alone from the actual outcome of the game. The thought is, yards are a pure measurement of the offensive ability to move the ball and the defensive ability to prevent its movement, the two basic keys to football success. The difference between the "yards score" and actual score should thus capture the special teams, penalties, and turnover performance. I standardized my analysis to Virginia and Mike London by comparing yard difference to point difference over his prior two seasons as head coach. This data appears in the graph below.
The line and corresponding equation dictate expected point difference based on yard difference with an average influence of special teams, turnovers, and penalties.8 Before using this equation for an analysis of 2012 problems, I wanted to note a particularly interesting aspect of this graph. Check out the intercept of the line. A yard difference of zero yields a five point loss.9 Based on London's reputation and the 2011 team's apparent tendency to pull out last-minute wins against the flow of the game, this shocked me.10
[The 2012 Standardized London Performance Gap]
I analyzed 2012 performances by comparing the actual final score to the projected "yard score" according to the equation from the above graph. I'll refer to the difference as the Standardized London Performance Gap (SLPG11). The chart below shows the SLPGs for each of the games in 2012.
The trend in 2012 SLPG is depicted in the below graph.
The team actually got off to a good start by outperforming the yard difference overall in games 1 through 4. The clutch Penn State win certainly helps here.12 The Georgia Tech game is also a "positive" since they were just thoroughly outplayed; the terrible score had more to do with getting run over by the triple option than penalties, turnovers, and other mistakes.
Things go south in game 5.13 In this loss, the team out-gained Louisiana Tech by 240 yards, or nearly as much as they out-gained Richmond in a 24 point win. The yards projection suggests they should have won by 24. They lost by 6, and began an unsightly stretch of the four most mistake-filled games of the season. It's difficult to overstate just how badly mistakes destroyed the team against LA Tech and Duke.
SLPG shows that it's not a stretch to say Virginia's "ancillary problems" are the primary catalyst for turning this season into a nightmare. The London-based yards projection suggests that the team should be 5-3.14 The one silver lining in the depressing orange graph is the upward trend over the last four games. The pace of continued improvement in games 5-8, which the bye should only help, would roughly return the team to an even SLPG this weekend against NC State. Fixing these problems still might not be enough to secure a first ACC win, but it would certainly be a start.
1 5 of their 8 wins were by 7 points or less; 4 of the 8 were by 3 points or less. Their closest loss was by 6 points, and their next closest was by 11.
2 They were penalized at a nearly identical rate to their opponents
3 Well, sort of. They actually committed more turnovers than their opponents last year, .6 more per game. This year is just much worse at 2.0 more per game.
4 The proof for this claim is just that "GET OFF THE FIELD" didn't become a thing until this year
5 Imagine reading THAT at the start of the season.
6 I'm looking at you, "guy who carries the extra footballs on the sideline"
7 as the title suggests, I think it's the latter
8 For instance, consider the high and low point differences near the -100 yard difference. The high one, a win, means that the Hoos won the turnover battle, obtained better field position through special teams and penalties, or both. The low indicates that these ancillary issues made a bad yard difference appear worse.
9 London's teams need to out-gain their opponents on average by more than 50 yards to win.
10 London's motivational cop stories may not have been that influential after all
11 Looks like "slipping," not completely by accident.
12 And yes, if you remember, the game winning drive was quite clutch. I couldn't watch the game live but was still excited enough to watch the entire thing taped despite knowing the score. Hard to believe at this point in the season.
13 And not in the good "BBQ and seersucker" kind of way
14 Losses to Penn State, Georgia Tech, and TCU. Note that this is almost exactly where everyone thought they would be.