Big plays: A follow-up

Thearon W. Henderson

A follow-up on the 114 big plays charted that did not finish in the end zone.

A previous piece entitled Anatomy of a Big Play was a simplistic breakdown of the 213 charted plays from the 2012-13 college football season that resulted in gains of 40 or more yards. While information regarding particular backfield formations, quarterback alignments, pass distance, and yards after catch can be useful to a particularly niche audience, at the end of the day, points on the scoreboard is what everyone cares about.

As discussed in the previous piece, 99 of the 213 big plays charted during last year’s college football season resulted in a touchdown on that particular play. What we promised at the end of the article though was that a future inspection of the 114 remaining drives in which a big play occurred, and see how those drives eventually concluded. Well, here is the data:

Result Drives % of Total Drives
Touchdown 73 64.0%
Turnovers (Interception, Fumble, T/O on Downs) 18 15.8%
Field Goal 17 14.9%
Missed Field Goal 3 2.6%
Punt 2 1.8%
Game Ended 1 0.9%
TOTAL 114 100%

The most impressive stat is that 64% of the drives that included a non-touchdown big play, still ended up in the end zone on that particular drive. While the offenses didn’t necessarily score on the play of 40 or more yards, there were great odds that a touchdown was coming after a big plays shifted field position.

If you combine the previously-discussed 99 big plays that went for touchdowns with the additional 73 big-play drives that eventually resulted in a touchdown, 172 of 214 charted drives that involved big plays ultimately finished in the end zone. Simply put, from the games we charted during the 2012-13 college football season, if an offense had a drive that contained a gain of 40 or more yards, 80.8% of those drives resulted in a touchdown.

If you dig a little further, you’ll see there were 17 field goals that concluded drives including big plays. If you add the 17 field goals to the aforementioned number of drives ending in touchdowns (172), you’ll find that 189 of the 213 total drives (88.7%) that included a big play this past season resulted in some sort of scoring for the offense.

A surprising find in the data was that there were actually more big play drives that ended in a turnover (interception, lost fumble, turnover on downs) than resulted in a field goal. While only 11.3% of a big play drives failed to result in some type of points, there were several key failures that helped shape the national championship picture.

Take Alabama for example. The Crimson Tide’s inability to turn big plays into points nearly cost them a chance to play for the national title. Twice during the fourth quarter of their only defeat of the season, a 29-24 loss to Johnny Football's Texas A&M squad, the Crimson Tide failed to convert big plays into points.

First, trailing 23-17, quarterback A.J. McCarron completed a 50-yard pass to Amari Cooper and swung momentum Alabama’s way. But the momentum would only last for one play. On the very next play from scrimmage, running back T.J. Yeldon lost a fumble after an 8-yard gain and squandered an opportunity to go take the lead.

Two drives later, McCarron threw a game-sealing interception on fourth-and-goal from the two-yard line while trailing, 29-24, with under two minutes remaining. That wasted opportunity followed a 54-yard completion from McCarron to receiver Kenny Bell. At the time of their loss, it looked as if Alabama’s inability to turn those two big plays into points would ultimately cost them a chance to defend their crown. But that remained the case for just one week, when the Oregon Ducks had their own problems capitalizing on a big play and ultimately fell 17-14 in overtime to Stanford.

In stark contrast to the failures of Alabama, whose struggles took place late in the game, falling to convert a big play into points early in the contest against Stanford turned out to haunt the Ducks down the stretch.

Midway through the first quarter, Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota ripped off a 77-yard run that left the Ducks threatening in the red zone. Four plays later, Mariota was stopped for no gain on fourth-and-2 and subsequently turned the ball over on downs to Stanford. While no one knows how the game would have eventually played out had the Ducks gotten points on that particular drive, coming away with no points obviously hurt Oregon in the surprisingly low-scoring affair.

While many defenses believe in the ‘bend but don’t break’ mantra, meaning they are willing to give up some yards but will buckle down and limit points surrendered, the data shows that if a big play occurs, points are very likely follow. Next season be sure to look for teams squandering scoring opportunities following a big play. Who knows, it may once again determine who plays for the national championship.

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