Boise State Vs. Arizona State, Las Vegas Bowl 2011: Stable Vs. Unpredictable

FORT COLLINS, CO - OCTOBER 15: Quarterback Kellen Moore #11 of the Boise State Broncos delivers a pass against the Colorado State Rams at Sonny Lubick Field at Hughes Stadium on October 15, 2011 in Fort Collins, Colorado. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

Boise State is disciplined in all the ways Arizona State is not, but the Sun Devils are unpredictable and unstable enough to make this game worth watching, one way or another.

NOTE: Confused? See the quick glossary at the bottom.

Picking regular college football games is hard enough. Things don't tend to work out very well any time you attempt to guess how a large group of 19-22 year olds is going to react to life and/or football on a Saturday afternoon. But bowl games double down on the motivation factor, and the Maaco Las Vegas Bowl is full of question marks in this regard. Boise State could have played in a BCS bowl but instead faces a 6-6 squad. Arizona State just hired a new coach but will still be led onto the field by their last one, and they are one of the most unpredictable teams in the country anyway.

If equally motivated and ready, Boise State wins easily. We'll see if that actually transpires.

Team Record AP Rank 2011 F/+ Rk 2011 Off.
F/+ Rk
2011 Def.
F/+ Rk
2011 S.T.
F/+ Rk
Boise State 11-1 8 4 7 7 2
Arizona State 6-6 NR 37 30 60 22
Team Pace Rk Covariance Rk MACtion Rk Schizophrenia Rk
Boise State 21 88 47 55
Arizona State 34 112 44 93

Two or three months ago, it appeared that either or both of these teams could be headed for a BCS bowl. It took a series of losses to keep Arizona State out of the Pac-12 title game, and it took a skin-of-the-teeth two-point conversion and a missed field goal (not to mention an injury to running back Doug Martin) to drop Boise State from the ranks of undefeated teams. In retrospect, their narrow loss to TCU quite possibly kept them out of the national title game.

Instead, these two squads meet in Vegas to play in a pre-Christmas bowl game. The star power is high in this one, as is the general level of disappointment.

When Boise State Has The Ball…

Team F/+
Rk
S&P+
Rk
FEI
Rk
Success
Rt+ Rk
PPP+
Rk
Rushing
S&P+ Rk
Passing
S&P+ Rk
Boise State Offense 7 8 26 10 10 32 6
Arizona State Defense 60 60 62 52 59 67 50
Team Std. Downs
Run %
S.D.
S&P+ Rk
Pass. Downs
Run %
P.D.
S&P+ Rk
Boise State Offense 58.0% 19 28.3% 14
Arizona State Defense 54.7% 61 32.5% 62
National Average 69.1% 30.9%

Generally, the thing about a school like Boise State is that, while they have figured out how to win games and execute at an extremely high level, they aren't necessarily supposed to do so with pro-worthy, big-time skill position talent. Ian Johnson, for instance, was an All-American running back for the Broncos, but he has bounced around from practice squad to practice squad in the pros. Last year's Boise State offense -- which featured two receivers (Austin Pettis and Titus Young) who have combined for 67 catches in the NFL as rookies -- was particularly interesting in that regard.

And that makes this year's performance from quarterback Kellen Moore ridiculously impressive. While his per-pass production has indeed fallen (from an elite 10.0 to a still strong 8.7) upon losing two big-time talents, his completion percentage has risen from 71 to 74 percent, his interception rate and passer rating have remained almost exactly the same, and he has thrown more touchdowns. This year's go-to target, Tyler Shoemaker (91 targets, 59 catches, 959 yards, 15 touchdowns), has played the role of Titus Young quite well, and Moore has spread the love; eight Broncos have at least 18 catches this season. Throw in running back Doug Martin (232 rushes, 1,148 yards, plus-11.2 Adj. POE), and you've once again got yourself a top-10 offense. While viewers should watch tonight's game to celebrate the accomplishments of Moore and Boise's other seniors, they should also watch for the simple fact that the offense is really dynamic, clinical and, yes, fun to watch.

For better and for worse, Arizona State's defense is pretty fun to watch, too. They have picked off 13 passes, they have forced 18 fumbles (fifth-most in the country), and with an identity based around hard-hitting (and completely unstable) middle linebacker Vontaze Burfict (54.0 tackles, 7.0 tackles for loss), they make a lot of big plays. They also suffer quite a few breakdowns. If Burfict isn't obliterating a running back, if free safety Clint Floyd or cornerback Deveron Carr aren't making nice plays on the ball, if tackle Bo Moos isn't blowing up the interior of an offensive line ... then Arizona State is probably giving up a big play. In theory, a precision offense like Boise State's should be able to frustrate the Sun Devils and very much keep them on their heels. But the ASU defense still has quite a bit of upside and could rally to make plenty of plays themselves.

In the end, it could be dependent on line play -- Boise State's offensive line ranks first in the country in Adj. Sack Rate and 74th in Adj. Line Yards, while Arizona State's defensive line ranks in the middle of the pack (58th and 56th, respectively) in both categories.

When Arizona State Has The Ball…

Team F/+
Rk
S&P+
Rk
FEI
Rk
Success
Rt+ Rk
PPP+
Rk
Rushing
S&P+ Rk
Passing
S&P+ Rk
Arizona State Offense 30 31 24 45 33 29 47
Boise State Defense 7 3 30 4 7 6 5
Team Std. Downs
S&P+ Rk
Rk Pass. Downs
S&P+ Rk
Rk
Arizona State Offense 52.1% 40 22.3% 28
Boise State Defense 60.2% 8 29.7% 17
National Average 69.1% 30.9%

Hey, did you know Arizona State quarterback Brock Osweiler is really tall? And get this: receiver Aaron Pflugrad is really short! LOL!

The conversation about Arizona State's offense tends to stall beyond the "fun facts!" category, but like the ASU defense, it has been fascinating to watch. Too inefficient to succeed regularly but explosive enough to often bail itself out of trouble, the offense is a pass-first unit indeed led by the big Osweiler (3,641 passing yards, 63-percent completion rate, 24 touchdowns, 12 interceptions). They are one offense on standard downs -- quick (and usually ineffective) passes to receiver Jamal Miles (85 targets, 60 catches, only 361 yards), with a reasonably hefty dose of Cameron Marshall (219 carries, 1,038 yards, 18 touchdowns, plus-20.1 Adj. POE). -- and a completely different one on passing downs. When the passes to Miles do not work, Osweiler aims downfield and often finds Gerell Robinson (96 targets, 64 catches, 1,156 yards, six touchdowns), Mike Willie (66 targets, 36 catches, 455 yards, three touchdowns) and Pflugrad (62 targets, 40 catches, 620 yards, five touchdowns). They want to be an efficient, somewhat horizontal offense, but when forced to go downfield, they turn into something better.

How Arizona State chooses to attack Boise State should be interesting because the physical Broncos should have little trouble reining in a horizontal attack. The Broncos consistently have one of the best, most underrated lines in the country, and this year is no different (they rank second in Adj. Line Yards, seventh in Adj. Sack Rate). Led by senior ends Shea McClellin and Tyrone Crawford (combined: 67.0 tackles, 23 tackles for loss) and a deep stable of tackles, the Broncos consistently dominate the line of scrimmage and should make life hard on Marshall and the run game. So the game will likely be foisted onto the shoulders of Osweiler, Robinson and the big-play receivers. Boise State's secondary was banged up all season but still managed to post strong pass defense numbers, but ASU's receiving corps is deeper than most and will test Boise's own depth and stability.

The Verdict

Boise State by 16.7

Boise State holds advantages in all three phases of this game (including, yes, special teams, which cost the Broncos a shot at the national title), and if they show up ready to impress in the final game for one of the nation's most accomplished senior classes, they should not struggle for too long. They are disciplined in all the ways that Arizona State is not. But the Sun Devils are so deliciously unpredictable and unstable that you never feel confident picking for or against them. Whether a tight game or a blowout, this one should be entertaining.

 

 

--------------------

A Quick Glossary

Covariance: This tells us whether a team tends to play up or down to their level of competition. A higher ranking means a team was more likely to play well against bad teams while struggling (relatively speaking) against good ones. (So in a way, lower rankings are better.) For more, go here.

F/+ Rankings: The official rankings for the college portion of Football Outsiders. They combine my own S&P+ rankings (based on play-by-play data) with Brian Fremeau's drives-based FEI rankings.

Pace: This is calculated by going beyond simply who runs the most plays. Teams that pass more are naturally inclined to run more plays (since there are more clock stoppages involved), so what we do here is project how many plays a team would typically be expected to run given their run-pass ratio, then compare their actual plays to expectations. Teams, then, are ranked in order from the most plays above the expected pace, to the least.

Passing Downs: Second-and-7 or more, third-and-5 or more.

PPP: An explosiveness measure derived from determining the point value of every yard line (based on the expected number of points an offense could expect to score from that yard line) and, therefore, every play of a given game.

S&P+: Think of this as an OPS (the "On-Base Plus Slugging" baseball measure) for football. The 'S' stands for success rates, a common Football Outsiders efficiency measure that basically serves as on-base percentage. The 'P' stands for PPP+, an explosiveness measure that stands for EqPts Per Play. The "+" means it has been adjusted for the level of opponent, obviously a key to any good measure in college football. S&P+ is measured for all non-garbage time plays in a given college football game. Plays are counted within the following criteria: when the score is within 28 points in the first quarter, within 24 points in the second quarter, within 21 points in the third quarter, and within 16 points (i.e. two possession) in the fourth quarter. For more about this measure, visit the main S&P+ page at Football Outsiders.

Schizophrenia: This measures how steady a team's performances are throughout the course of a full season. Teams with a higher ranking tend to be extremely unpredictable from week to week. For more, go here.

Standard Downs: First downs, second-and-6 or less, third-and-4 or less.

Success Rate: A common Football Outsiders tool used to measure efficiency by determining whether every play of a given game was successful or not. The terms of success in college football: 50 percent of necessary yardage on first down, 70 percent on second down, and 100 percent on third and fourth down.

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