Southern Miss Vs. Nevada, Hawai'i Bowl 2011: Big Plays Aplenty

HOUSTON - DECEMBER 03: Quarterback Austin Davis #12 of the Southern Miss Golden Eagles looks for room to run against the Houston Cougars at Robertson Stadium on December 3, 2011 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)

Southern Miss is fighting distractions after a dominant performance against Houston. Can Cody Fajardo and the Nevada Wolf Pack spring a sneak attack? Rest assured, however: there will be plenty of big plays to go around. There always are in the Hawai'i Bowl.

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

Southern Miss put together one of the best mid-major performances of the season with their complete and utter destruction of Houston (on the road, no less) in the Conference USA title game, but they also lost to UAB two weeks prior in one of the worst performances of the year by any good team. Plus, only one team in the last seven years has lost its coach to a bigger job, then had him continue to coach them in the bowl game (2005 Boise State, which lost to Boston College in the MPC Computers Bowl). The Broncos put up a pretty good fight for the guy who had already announced he was breaking up with them. Will the Golden Eagles do the same?

Team Record AP Rank 2011 F/+ Rk 2011 Off.
F/+ Rk
2011 Def.
F/+ Rk
2011 S.T.
F/+ Rk
Southern Miss 11-2 22 21 40 19 24
Nevada 7-5 NR 66 43 75 107
Team Pace Rk Covariance Rk MACtion Rk Schizophrenia Rk
Southern Miss 26 100 20 57
Nevada 2 13 42 47

When you look at the above ratings, really, two categories should stand out quite a bit: special teams and variance. Behind a solid punting game (in both kicking and returning) and a place-kicker who has made huge strides, Southern Miss has lodged a Top 25 special teams rating. Nevada: not so much. Meanwhile, Southern Miss has played its best games against its best opponents; Nevada has been the opposite. That suggests Nevada won't necessarily have a great performance (in front of tens of Nevada fans) in the bag tonight. If Southern Miss gives departing coach Larry Fedora their full effort and attention, the Golden Eagles win. If not? Then Cody Fajardo and Brett Roy could become household names tonight ... at least until the next bowl kicks off in two days.

When Southern Miss Has The Ball…

Team F/+
Rk
S&P+
Rk
FEI
Rk
Success
Rt+ Rk
PPP+
Rk
Rushing
S&P+ Rk
Passing
S&P+ Rk
Southern Miss Offense 40 38 66 65 47 72 42
Nevada Defense 75 50 95 29 64 69 34
Team Std. Downs
Run %
S.D.
S&P+ Rk
Pass. Downs
Run %
P.D.
S&P+ Rk
Southern Miss Offense 61.8% 72 31.1% 26
Nevada Defense 56.3% 37 34.2% 79
National Average 69.1% 30.9%

Southern Miss' offense is one of the more unique in college football. They throw a lot on standard downs -- about eight percent more than the national average -- but they are conservative and only somewhat effective in doing so. But they consistently bail themselves out on passing downs, and they do so, in part, by running a decent amount with their interchangeable running backs. Desmond Johnson (347 yards, plus-2.8 Adj. POE), Jamal Woodyard (683 yards, plus-0.3 Adj. POE), Tracy Lampley (450 yards, minus-2.3 Adj. POE) and Kendrick Hardy (426 yards, minus-0.2 Adj. POE) have all carried the ball at least 59 times this season. Hardy was the workhorse before injuring his shoulder and missing two months, but they have all been equally decent. Lampley is a unique dual threat, in that he has 84 carries and 43 catches thus far. Those watching the Conference USA title game saw that Austin Davis (3,331 passing yards, 440 pre-sack rushing yards) is unafraid of throwing to his running backs, even downfield; still, Kelvin Bolden (55 catches, 674 yards, 71-percent catch rate) and Ryan Balentine (40 catches, 742 yards, 70-percent catch rate) are the most frequent targets. Both are have been ridiculously effective on passing downs -- Bolden averages 9.7 yards per target on passing downs, Balentine 12.2.

Meanwhile, we always know one thing about the Nevada defense: they are going to attack. They won't always attack successfully, but the mentality doesn't change. Their line stats -- 80th in Adj. Line Yards, 62nd in Adj. Sack Rate -- don't suggest dominance, but tackle Brett Roy was named an S.I. All-American with his 18.5 tackles for loss (10 sacks) and six passes broken up. Meanwhile, end Kaelin Burnett (eight tackles for loss) and weakside "WOLF" linebacker Brandon Marshall (7.5 tackles for loss) have each made their share of plays near the line of scrimmage. The Wolf Pack's success rates show that they can seriously limit your gains with the big plays they make; their poor explosiveness numbers (PPP+) show that when they don't make a big play, they are allowing one. It's the same in the secondary, really -- cornerback Isaiah Frey picked off five passes and broke up 13 more, but he still couldn't stop Nevada's pass defense from imploding on passing downs. Rest assured, however: you will see big plays tonight, of one kind or another. You always do in the Hawaii Bowl.

When Nevada Has The Ball…

Team F/+
Rk
S&P+
Rk
FEI
Rk
Success
Rt+ Rk
PPP+
Rk
Rushing
S&P+ Rk
Passing
S&P+ Rk
Nevada Offense 43 28 35 24 57 47 40
Southern Miss Defense 19 21 24 36 27 22 36
Team Std. Downs
Run %
S.D.
S&P+ Rk
Pass. Downs
Run %
P.D.
S&P+ Rk
Nevada Offense 69.2% 46 28.8% 40
Southern Miss Defense 54.8% 26 26.3% 68
National Average 69.1% 30.9%

For a good portion of the season, Southern Miss' defense looked like the best ones from Jeff Bower's rather storied tenure. The defensive line was incredible against the rush (eighth in Adj. Line Yards); end Cordarro Law and "Bandit" OLB Jamie Collins combined for 37 tackles for loss, 24 of the non-sack variety. Tackles Deddrick Jones and Khyri Thornton threw in another 15. The Golden Eagles are ferocious, experienced and efficient, and they have two serious big-play cornerbacks in Deron Wilson and Marquese Wheaton (combined: seven interceptions, 22 passes broken up). Both were dominant against Houston; Case Keenum consistently failed to find open receivers downfield and had to either run for his life or dump the ball to a running back. But the Golden Eagles haven't always been as good on passing downs as they were against Houston, and Nevada's offense is an entirely different kind of beast.

When redshirt freshman quarterback Cody Fajardo took the reins of the Nevada offense a few weeks into the season, things began to click. His stylistic resemblance to former star quarterback Colin Kaepernick (without the ridiculously long legs and ostrich similarities) was stark -- he rushed 109 times for 745 yards and a strong plus-16.9 Adj. POE, and he completed 71 percent of his passes for 1,647 yards; only ... his stats resemble those of Kaepernick from his sophomore or junior season. Fajardo combined with Lampford Mark (728 yards, plus-11.3 Adj. POE) and Stephfon Jefferson (423 yards, plus-7.1 Adj. POE) in the backfield and found Rishard Matthews (91 catches, 1,364 yards, 69-percent catch rate) for big plays in the passing game, and Nevada ripped off five consecutive games of scoring at least 37 points. He aggravated his ankle late in the year and missed the Idaho game (Nevada still won, 56-3, with initial starter Tyler Lantrip), but he is expected to be somewhere near 100 percent tonight.

The Verdict

Southern Miss by 11.4

If Fajardo is at full-speed, Nevada will give themselves a chance. Southern Miss has been fighting distractions in recent weeks, and Nevada's is a unique enough offense to give you fits. There should be big plays on both sides of the ball, but there's no question that Southern Miss is the superior team if they show up ready to go. The Golden Eagles' loss to UAB still gives me pause, however. They were every bit as bad in that game as they were good against Houston. If they are unfocused, Nevada has the big-play ability to quickly put them down a couple of touchdowns. And at that point, all bets are off.

(Okay, real bets aren't off. You're stuck with those. But you know what I mean.)

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

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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