Anatomy of a big play

Matthew Emmons-US PRESSWIRE

When you have over 15,000 plays of charted data sitting at your fingertips (due to The 2012 Charting Project), sometimes the most difficult part is trying to figure out what to do with all those numbers. One simply hopes that the data in front of them will tell some type of story. Whether that story reveals something entirely new, or merely strengthens something already thought to be true, what the data will eventually tell us is simply unknown at this point.

Below is pretty straightforward breakdown of all the big plays we charted from the 2012 college football regular season, as well as the bowl season. Future pieces will further discuss the impact of such big plays, but the charting and commentary below provides a 10,000-foot view of 213 fully charted plays that gained 40 yards or more this past season.

Backs in Backfield, 2012 Big Plays
# of Backs # of Big Plays % of All Big Plays
0 11 5.2%
1 131 61.5%
2 63 29.6%
3 8 3.8%
TOTAL 213 100.0%

The breakdown of big plays by the number of backs in the backfield was almost identical to that of the breakdown of overall plays by the numbers of backs in the backfield – a figure first discussed in The No-Back Formation: College Football’s Curveball piece.

  • No-back formations made up 5.4% of the total plays charted, while producing 5.2% of all big plays.
  • Single-back formations made up 60.5% of the total plays charted, while producing 61.5% of all big plays.
  • Two-back formations made up 29.5% of the total plays charted, while producing 29.6% of all big plays.
  • Three-back formations made up 4.5% of the total plays charted, while producing 3.8% of all big plays.
# of Backs # of Big Plays Pass Run
0 11 9 (81.8%) 2 (18.2%)
1 131 89 (67.9% 42 (32.1%)
2 63 43 (68.3%) 20 (31.7%)
3 8 2 (25.0%) 6 (75.0%)
TOTAL 213 143 70
  • The pass/run ratio of all big plays charted was just about 2:1 (143 to 70).
  • In no-, single- and two-back sets, there were considerably more passes for big gains than runs (141 to 64).
  • But in three-back sets, six of the eight big plays were runs -- including the single longest play charted this season. See below:

Alignment Of Quarterback:
Shotgun (57.7%)
Under Center (28.6%)
Pistol (13.6%)

With the ever-growing trend of removing the quarterback from behind and placing him in the shotgun, and more recently the pistol, it only makes since that the majority of big plays occur when the quarterback is removed from under center.

If you were to combine shotgun and pistol formations into one subcategory, there would nearly be a 2.5:1 ratio (152 to 61) of big plays stemming from shotgun/pistol formations compared to those that started from under center.

Yardage of Big Plays (by 10-yard increments)
Yards Gained # of Big Plays
40-49 97
50-59 56
60-69 23
70-79 23
80-89 11
90+ 3

The breakdown of the length of plays over 40 yards was fairly predictable until you got to the 60-69 and 70-79 yard ranges. The amount of big plays cut just about in half for every ten yard increment (97 to 56 to 23), until it held steady at twenty-three at both the 60-69 and 70-79 yard ranges. After that aberration, the total number of big plays between 80-89 yards just about cut in half once again when compared to the previous range (23 to 11).

Negative PYD* Catches Turned into Big Plays
Negative PYD Plays: 11
Avg. Big-Play Gain: 57.6 yards
Touchdowns: 3

* PYD: Pass Yardage, the distance of the pass from the line of scrimmage to the place it is caught.

Eleven times throughout the season, a pass was received behind the line-of-scrimmage (via bubble, quick hitch, shovel pass, screen, etc…) and went for a gain of more than forty yards. Nothing frustrates a defensive coach more than when a quick hitter suddenly bursts open for a momentum-changing gain.

The average gain on the eleven big plays that were initially caught behind the line of scrimmage was an astounding 57.57 yards. Three of those eleven big plays went for touchdowns.

Below is an example of how the perfect offensive play call against a pressuring defense can turn a simple pitch and catch into an eighty-seven yard, game-changing score:

Of the 213 big plays in the sample, 99 resulted in a touchdown. A future piece will focus on the outcome of the remaining 114 drives in which a big play was stopped before the goal line, and determine the likelihood that big plays will lead to points on that particular drive.

Below is an example of why further research is important:

While Michigan didn’t necessary score on the 71-yard bomb shown in the clip, that big play was the main culprit for their eventual touchdown just two plays later. The additional collection of data will be able to provide a much more in-depth explanation of cause and effect than a simple box score reading: Michigan TD Run.

As we continue to dig deeper and uncover trends from this past season, there will surely be some data that refutes or weakens some popular beliefs. Much like a quarterback’s numbers can be skewed by shovel passes and bubbles busting for big gains, the data will likely uncover other misnomers and aberrations. But for now, we just have to decide what all this data is trying to tell us.

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