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Graphing the Tide at Miss State: Niblack, Milroe, and ... murderball?

The Tide were respectably efficient and explosive, and that’s a good day in my book.

NCAA Football: Alabama at Mississippi State Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

Box Score: Alabama at Mississippi State

Stat Alabama Mississippi State
Stat Alabama Mississippi State
Points 40 17
Total yards 357 261
Rush yards 193 154
Rush attempts 43 35
Yards per rush 4.5 4.4
Pass yards 164 107
Pass attempts 10-13 15-27
Yards per pass 12.6 4.0
1st downs 15 15
3rd down eff 5-12 5-13
4th down eff 0-0 0-3
Turnovers 0 3
Tackles 1 2
Sacks 4 4
Penalties-Yds 6-40 3-15
Possession 30:10 29:50

(Ignore the tacklers line again, the play by play for tacklers is incomplete again this week.)

One might be surprised that in a pretty lopsided game, some core stats were even: Time of possession, Yards per rush, 1st downs, 3rd down efficiency ... even sacks. So where was the gap that game us this scoreboard?

Well, some are plainly evident here: total yardage, Yards per pass, and turnovers. But you have to look at a few other factors that aren’t in the traditional box scores, like field position (see that turnovers like, 0 to 3), red zone performance, and efficiency (especially in critical situations). Let’s get into it.

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Team Success Rates over time (cumulative)

This is one of the best SR/XR lines we’ve seen from the Tide this season: things started slowly, but the Tide pulled away on efficiency in the second quarter, and the explosiveness rate (mostly) followed through the second half. That efficiency line is especially encouraging, given that Alabama spent some time in the 3rd quarter looking at a 60% cumulative efficiency (which is quite high) before things drifted again in the 4th quarter (with a new QB).

The Tide’s explosiveness also looks high here compared to our season so far ... but we’ll take a better look at that in “Graphing the SEC” this week, as a more advanced explosiveness metric is not so kind to us.

Meanwhile, Mississippi’s lines aren’t very high! A 35% SR and a 10% XR aren’t going to get it done in many occasions ... though it practically did during Alabama’s listless win against USF a few weeks back.

All in all, these don’t look quite like “cupcake game” charts, but these are solid differentials for the victor on both metrics. Roll Tide.

Rushing and Passing Success (cumulative)

Confession: I was out at dinner during the first half of this game (our 6th anniversary landed on a Saturday, and this dang kickoff was too late). I checked the score a bit of the way through dinner and was relieved at the 14-0 score ... but baffled that Jalen Milroe hadn’t attempted a single pass going into the second quarter. Is this “murderball”?

Now, this chart doesn’t quite respect that drama, as here at Graphing the Tide we count sacks as failed passing attempts — an exception I stand by — so there were in fact a few “attempted passing plays” in the 1st quarter that didn’t involve the ball being passed anywhere.

That would’ve set us up for a pretty depressing Alabama game — the rushing game was playing it’s sad part early on, toobut then things really leapt in the 2nd quarter. That passing line is ridiculous, going from two sacks (0% Passing SR) in the 1st quarter to putting up eight successful passing plays in a row (albeit spelled by mostly-successful rushing plays), with six of those passes being explosive ones, too. That’s amazing.

This was also something of a feature for TE Amari Niblack, who’s shown flashes so far this season but really showed out in this sequence: three of these explosive passes in the 2nd and 3rd quarters were to Niblack (18 yds, 20 yds, 23 yds). From here on out, we call this effect “Niblack Peak.” May we continue to see it on the skyline.

Rushing rate (cumulative)

Wow, this rushing rate. They were running that dang ball! Having a +70% rushing rate through most of a game is not something you expect to see in a “modern” non-option offense. Kudos for letting the offense take what it can get.

You know, if you squint hard enough at the last few charts, you can kinda see that “power running offense that occasionally throws long, especially to TEs” offense that we were jabbering about in the offseason. Again: is it murderball?

Success and Explosiveness by Play Type

These Rush/Pass bars are pretty surprising: the passing game looks excellent and extremely explosive here, but mind that low play count we’re looking at (17 passes to the 39 rushes). I guess if the plan is to pass only to spell the rush, then that’s what we’d hope for.

The rushing line for Mississippi State is concerning (and odd for what we’ve come to understand from the Bulldogs), with a fair efficiency on rushes, and a 13% explosiveness rate on those, to boot. Their rushing game was much more explosive than ours, and at roughly similar volumes.

Play Map: Yards and Result by Play

That concentration of success in the Play Map is as impressive as it was on the Rush/Pass efficiency chart. The 3rd quarter had an echo of it too. And I like the Avg. Extra Yards line in this one ... it’s a strong positive trend (our highest averages from the last few games) after a very first drive.

But ... now I’m a little concerned. Was the offense really only good in the 2nd and 3rd quarters? You can chalk the 4th quarter up to some garbage time effects, but this offense continues to just play well during about half of games (if that much).

On the Miss State side, they had some good sequences, but otherwise the Avg. Extra Yards Line tells their tale ... dead even (and, DOA?) throughout.

Success and Explosiveness by Quarter

And, yep, there it is in the quarters chart. The 1st quarter only featured 10 Alabama plays (and 26 total plays ... that’s low), before Alabama decided to field an apprently-superb offense in the 2nd and 3rd quarters, before morphing into a weird low-efficiency boom-or-bust offense in the 4th. I dunno.

For what it’s worth, Mississippi State didn’t reach league-average efficiencies in any of the 4 quarters. So the defense obviously wasn’t perfect, but they were good and consistent this time.

SR, XR, and Play Count by Drive

The Alabama Drives chart looks about how you’d expect given the last few charts: high efficiencies through that middle chunk of the game. But the play counts are telling: only two drives (12 and 11 plays) broke 5 plays, which is odd. Some of this is about field position — shorter fields mean fewer plays to score — but it’s an odd gap that you don’t see as much of on the Miss State side of the chart (though they had some long drives of their own).

Success and Explosiveness by Down

Huh, I guess for now we’ve seen a pause in the “3rd down spike” that I thought we may have inherited from the Bryce Young years. In this likewise harkening back to the days of yore, this rushing-first offense was slightly more efficient on the early downs but averaged out on 3rd.

At least the Bulldogs were 0/3 on their 4th downs. That’s one of the “hidden factors” that can really affect the field position game. With potential puts instead being turnovers on downs, it means Miss State can put up a pretty acceptable Box score (as we saw) without as reliably turning those metrics into points. This is “efficiency in critical situations,” and the Bulldogs did not have that here.

Success and Explosiveness in the Red Zone

Speaking of “efficiency in critical situations”: the Red Zone! The Tide thankfully reversed the trend from our poor Red Zone performance(s) vs. Ole Miss last week, putting in a more efficient SR in limited Red Zone attempts in this one.

The Bullies didn’t get the memo, though: they were very inefficient in the Red Zone on limited attempts, though they still got some points to show for it.

Success and Explosiveness by Distance to go

Hah, wow! Any regular readers will know that I’m generally mystified by these distance breakdowns, but this one takes the cake. The Tide actually has settled into some trends this season on this chart — good efficiency on short yardage, a weakness in the 7-9 range, and middling success otherwise — but this is a sharp and dramatic reversal of those trends.

What exactly were we doing on plays needing 7-9 yards that was so successful!? An 80% SR with a 60% XR — albeit only on 5 attempts — is hilarious.

Top Rushers

Jase has come around to try to cement his RB1 spot, with another workmanlike performance in this one. A 47% SR isn’t exactly something to write home about, but it’s above average on efficiency and is something you’d be ok seeing for an offense that runs the ball so much. Roydell Williams put up similar numbers on fewer attempts, though with technically less efficiency.

But the real story is the QB running game, with Jalen Milroe going 6/7 for an 86% success rate (!), with a massive explosive rush (another broken play scramble off of a bad snap) in there too. Milroe and Rees must’ve been reading our comments here on RBR ... and guess what we were right again! (Disclaimer: tactic is not the safest and may not work against talented teams, no returns allowed).

Top Passers

Milroe put up another one of these charts, where his team won the game but his passing line is much smaller than the opposing QBs. Here, we see a lovely vestige of the “pass seldom, but well” principle we seemed to follow here: this (9/12) 75% SR and (7/12) 58% XR line is awesome, if only on few passes.

Poor Will Rogers, though ... that’s a really bad line.

Top Receivers

This chart is again a bizarre one for the Tide: this season we’re not seeing breakout receivers or “starters” or leading targets. Instead, we get a surprising amount of distribution — 7 receivers targeted, with 5 of those targets accruing explosive catches — given that only 13 passes were thrown in the game.

But Amari Niblack stands on his own here, going 3/3 XR and SR. For that, he gets the article feature image (despite the rushing-heavy nature of the offense this game).

Unfortunately, we didn’t have reliable Tacklers data yet again, so no tacklers table. (I’ll keep trying when it’s available this season, but I may have to retire it in the offseason if things don’t get better).

Hopefully this is a strategy and a win to build on. I’m a little concerned that a 1-dimensional offense like this is ripe for an(other) upset, but I gotta admit it’s kinda fun to watch. Let’s hope we keep building on the wrinkles and accentuating the challenges of defending our QB-as-primary-rusher offense.

Roll Tide, and on to tougher pastures.