Wahoo fans have gotten the sense that Steve Fairchild's offense has been on the conservative side, to say the least. While a QB controversy rages, a central issue in analyzing Greyson Lambert vs. Matt Johns has been finding the correct basis to compare the two. Part of that is answering the question: how much has playcalling that has reigned in the deep pass affected their play?
While it's tough to determine that definitively, ESPN's David Hale provided us with some stats via Twitter on just how conservative UVA's playcalling has been through two games.
It's important to note that the sample size is small and UVA's opponents have been non-ideal to generalize on the rest of the season; Mike London emphasized that the UCLA gameplan was conservative by design to keep the game close (though we may argue that was unwise), and the Richmond game was obviously against an inferior FCS team. That said, FBS teams across college football are also playing similarly mis-matched games, and the early returns for UVA are not good:
More game-plan problems: #UVA has the 6th-highest % of runs on 1st down of AQ teams and the 8th lowest yards/carry average on 1st down runs.— David Hale (@DavidHaleESPN) September 8, 2014
Point being: #UVA has talented D & chance to get bowl eligible, but no evidence the offensive game plan can consistently win games.— David Hale (@DavidHaleESPN) September 8, 2014
Product of all those bad 1st down runs is only pass-happy WashSt has thrown more on 3rd down than #UVA (86%). Thats not helping your QB.— David Hale (@DavidHaleESPN) September 8, 2014
One last note on #UVA: Lambert/Johns are 12-of-18 for 266 w/3 TD, 1 INT on throws of 10+; 31-of-46 for 159, 1 TD 2 INT on throws 5 or less.— David Hale (@DavidHaleESPN) September 8, 2014
To unpackage this a bit, what does Hale's excellent research tell us?
1. UVA is running in "running downs" and passing in "passing downs." In a game where keeping one's opponents off-balance is paramount, the coaches have loved running the ball on first down...and opponents have seen it coming. On third down, the Hoos have finally gone to the air, a time when the defense expects a pass. This just is not a winning long-term strategy.
2. When Virginia does pass, the ball doesn't tend to travel much downfield, another recurring theme of Fairchild's offenses; the defenses are ready, and plays aren't succeeding in picking up yards after the catch.
3. When called upon to throw deeper, Lambert and Johns have done a decent job. In fact, their combined completion percentage is about the same whether they are throwing the ball over 10 yards or under 5 yards. It's definitely true that throwing more passes downfield would probably cause these numbers to diverge. But right now, there's an inefficiency, as the risk we've seemingly avoided in throwing short passes has sapped a great deal of reward.
This inefficiency is the pitfall of calling games conservatively. Coaches are risk-averse by nature, and there's nothing inherently terrible about having a strategy that tends to focus on the running game. (In other words, the fan 5 rows behind me who booed EVERY running play should probably not feel validated.) But there is something wrong when the offense becomes easy for opposing defenses to predict. Mixing in some play-action on first down or hey, even a draw play on third and five every once in a while could work wonders.
Obviously, it's still early in the season, and these patterns can change. But the numbers suggest that the gameplans will need some adjusting as we head into ACC play.