By Mark Fought, BlueGoldSports.com Data Analyst
Bowl games ideally seek to match up teams that will produce entertaining games. Even better is when a bowl can put together a game with teams that appear to be rather evenly matched. In the 2014 Liberty Bowl the game’s organizing committee appears to have succeeded on both fronts.
Let’s take a look at just some of the similarities between the Mountaineers and the Aggies:
- Offensively, Texas A&M averages 34.4 points per game (ppg); West Virginia averages 33.2 ppg.
- Both teams rank in the Top 35 of Division 1 in total offense. West Virginia comes in at No. 11 with 502.1 yards per game (ypg); the Aggies, while not quite as proficient, are a very respectable 449.3 ypg, good for 31st place. (Rankings can be found at http://www.ncaa.com/stats/football/fbs/current/team/21. Per that web site, the rankings are current as of 27 December 2014.)
- In terms of passing efficiency, both terms are among the NCAA Div. 1 statistical leaders, with the Aggies at No. 23 (a 147.47 rating) and WVU not far behind at No. 36 (141.72).
- In terms of yards per completion, Texas A&M comes in at 68th place with 11.86 yards per completion (ypc), while West Virginia is almost identical at 11.80 ypc, good for 71st place.
- Defensively, the numbers are also nearly identical in terms of points allowed per game (ppg), as West Virginia gives up 26.2 ppg; Texas A&M yields 27.2 ppg.
- The Aggies are just completing their third season in the SEC and are still transitioning to a new conference home, much like West Virginia is transitioning to just its third season in the Big 12 after several seasons in the now defunct Big East football conference.
- Both schools are in the Top 20 in all-time Division 1 victories, with WVU at 14th (719 total) and the Aggies at 17th (709 total).
- In terms of RPI rankings (http://realtimerpi.com/college_football/ncaaf_power_rankings.html) West Virginia is 36th; Texas A&M is 40th.
- On the RPI website noted above, in terms of strength of schedule, WVU is rated at 56.04; Texas A&M is rated at 58.67.While the teams are similar in many respects, there are many differences, as well. Note the following disparities:
- The most glaring differences are in ball control and rushing defense.
- West Virginia was its own worst enemy, ranking 115th (according to the NCAA’s statistics website) with 28 turnovers lost. Conversely, the Aggies are tied for 44th with just 19 turnovers lost.
- The Aggies’ run defense was atrocious, coming in at 112 in the NCAA rankings in yielding 223.5 ypg. (That may be a major reason that former Defensive Coordinator Mark Snyder became a “former” Defensive Coordinator following the Aggies’ regular season finale.) Conversely, WVU was a much more respectable 65th while allowing 162.6 ypg.
- The Aggies do a much better job of getting to the quarterback, as they average 2.75 sacks per game (tied for 27th in Div. 1) versus WVU’s 1.5 sacks per game (101st in the NCAA).
- While the points-per-game numbers are nearly identical, the statistic for total defense yields a big difference. West Virginia’s defense, which is much improved over the prior two seasons, checks in at No. 57 in giving up 388.6 ypg, the Aggies check in at No. 102 while giving up 449.0 ypg.
- Much has been made of West Virginia not yielding a second half touchdown pass at all in 2014. That contributed to WVU being the 21st best Division 1 team in pass efficiency defense with a rating of 112.14. On the other hand, the Aggies are at No. 63 with a rating of 127.49.
- The Aggies were much more efficient in the red zone, scoring on 38 of their 44 possessions for an 86.4 percent success rate. 30 of their 44 possessions resulted in touchdowns – a 68.2 percent rate at finding the end zone. West Virginia had a similar number of red zone opportunities at 46 and was successful at scoring 80.4 percent of the time – not far off of the Aggies success rate – but the touchdowns-in-the-red zone number is more revealing. In that regard, WVU was only able to find the end zone just 25 times – a dismal 54.3 percent success rate. Luckily, WVU had the right leg of Josh Lambert to bang home 12 field goals in the red zone, but the Mountaineers would have much preferred to cross the goal line than settle for field goals.
- West Virginia’s rushing attack is a respectable 42nd in Div. 1 with 187.5 ypg ; Texas A&M is tied for 92nd with 142.8 ypg.
- West Virginia practically had no punt return unit at all, finishing 124th in the NCAA with a paltry 3.24 return yards per game. WVU fans often held their breath on punt return catches and celebrated anything on the right side of a non-fumble. Texas A&M was on the opposite end of the spectrum, sitting in the 12th position with 12.95 ypg.
- The Aggies were more disciplined with penalty yardage of just 46.75 ypg – 41st – while West Virginia was 92nd at 59.33 ypg.
So, what do the numbers tell us about the keys to the game for both squads in the 2014 Liberty Bowl? Do the numbers give any insights into what coaches Holgorsen and Sumlin, respectively, might be scheming for the opposition? Perhaps.
West Virginia will likely look to exploit the porous Aggies run defense and take advantage of a now healthy Rushel Shell, along with the other stable of backs (Wendell Smallwood, Andrew Buie, Dustin Garrison and Dreamius Smith), and take some of the pressure off of new (relatively speaking) starting quarterback Skylar Howard. If WVU can get the Aggies’ linebackers and safeties playing closer to the line of scrimmage in run support it could open up opportunities for Kevin White and Mario Alford to get free for downfield strikes. With White likely to face double teams and perhaps Alford, as well, a drawn in Aggie defense might create space for Jordan Thompson to excel out of the slot position.
Defensively, WVU will look to defend the pass first and the run second, given the Aggies rather mediocre rushing attack. With the success it had in blitz packages in the second half of the season look for the Mountaineers to bring extra bodies on passing situations in an attempt to rattle Aggie quarterback Kyle Allen, who hit his stride in the latter part of the season (8 TD passes in the last 3 games).
On defense, the Aggies will hope to take advantage of a WVU offensive line that showed vulnerability to allowing its quarterback to be sacked (WVU was 83rd in Division 1 in sacks allowed at 2.33 per game). Sensational freshman defensive end Myles Garrett (6’-5”, 255) is also now healthy after missing time late in the season. All he did in 2014 was erase Jadeveon Clowney’s SEC single-season sacks record. The Aggies moved Garrett around all season (i.e., rushing him from both the weak and strong side) and replacement Defensive Coordinator Mark Hagan may line Garrett up on WVU left tackle Adam Pankey, who showed some susceptibility to speed rushes as the season wore on, and let Garrett tee off in obvious passing situations. WVU must be aware of Garrett on every play.
West Virginia must protect the football better than it has throughout the season, where it was abysmal, and any semblance of a Division 1 punt return unit would be an added bonus. WVU must also cash in with touchdowns on red zone opportunities. As the length of the field essentially shrinks in the red zone, limiting the repertoire of passing options, the offensive line must create lanes for WVU’s rushing corps to pick up yardage inside the 20.
Numbers are just that – numbers. Football games are won and lost by players who rise to the occasion or fall short, and by the decisions of coaches and officials. Whichever team avoids turnovers, establishes a running game, defends the pass best and avoids costly penalties will likely emerge as the winner of the 2014 Liberty Bowl.