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Summer Vacation: Underdog Strategies and the ULM Warhawks

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We've completed our run through the state of Texas, and now we head east.  Confused? Don't miss the definitions and footnotes at the bottom.

A couple of years ago, Malcolm Gladwell wrote one of the more interesting, well-discussed sports articles in recent memory, "How David Beats Goliath." It talks a lot about the full-court press in basketball and why underdogs use it to great success.

Redwood City’s strategy was built around the two deadlines that all basketball teams must meet in order to advance the ball. The first is the inbounds pass. When one team scores, a player from the other team takes the ball out of bounds and has five seconds to pass it to a teammate on the court. If that deadline is missed, the ball goes to the other team. Usually, that’s not an issue, because teams don’t contest the inbounds pass. They run back to their own end. Redwood City did not. Each girl on the team closely shadowed her counterpart. When some teams play the press, the defender plays behind the offensive player she’s guarding, to impede her once she catches the ball. The Redwood City girls, by contrast, played in front of their opponents, to prevent them from catching the inbounds pass in the first place. And they didn’t guard the player throwing the ball in. Why bother? Ranadivé used that extra player as a floater, who could serve as a second defender against the other team’s best player. "Think about football," Ranadivé said. "The quarterback can run with the ball. He has the whole field to throw to, and it’s still damned difficult to complete a pass." Basketball was harder. A smaller court. A five-second deadline. A heavier, bigger ball. As often as not, the teams Redwood City was playing against simply couldn’t make the inbounds pass within the five-second limit. Or the inbounding player, panicked by the thought that her five seconds were about to be up, would throw the ball away. Or her pass would be intercepted by one of the Redwood City players. Ranadivé’s girls were maniacal.

The second deadline requires a team to advance the ball across mid-court, into its opponent’s end, within ten seconds, and if Redwood City’s opponents met the first deadline the girls would turn their attention to the second. They would descend on the girl who caught the inbounds pass and "trap" her. Anjali was the designated trapper. She’d sprint over and double-team the dribbler, stretching her long arms high and wide. Maybe she’d steal the ball. Maybe the other player would throw it away in a panic—or get bottled up and stalled, so that the ref would end up blowing the whistle. "When we first started out, no one knew how to play defense or anything," Anjali said. "So my dad said the whole game long, ‘Your job is to guard someone and make sure they never get the ball on inbounds plays.’ It’s the best feeling in the world to steal the ball from someone. We would press and steal, and do that over and over again. It made people so nervous. There were teams that were a lot better than us, that had been playing a long time, and we would beat them."

Chris from Smart Football responded by applying some (but not all) of Gladwell's ideas to football.

[W]hat strategies would be good underdog, high-variance strategies? Here are some possibilities. ...

  • Passing. It's very clear that passing is a higher-variance (and higher reward) strategy than running. The nature of passing can vary (if you only throw bubble screens that does not entirely count) but passing repeatedly is an underdog strategy. Now, good passing teams can reduce risk, throw safer passes, and the like. All good. And there is an open question with what mix of passes: Deep ones? Short ones? What blend is correct? That can be sorted out later. The bottom line though is that passing is a high variance strategy that can give an underdog a better chance of winning -- and a better chance of messing up and getting creamed. ...
  • High variance defense. This is a difficult question. On the one hand, the defense could go for a blitzing, press type defense that might grab turnovers and get opportune stops, on the theory that you only need a few of these to get an underdog advantage. On the other hand, to an underdog each touchdown given up could be backbreaking, and in any event shortening the game by forcing the offense to march the ball up the field methodically, using up the clock, might be better. Yes people like to talk about "if we have the ball, they can't score" but that mistakes time of possession with possessions. If the underdog can force the favorite to use up a lot of clock and, at minimum, not score a touchdown, and then the underdog can somehow pull of a touchdown itself, then huge advantage to the underdog. On the other hand, pressing defenses that give up big plays periodically might play right into the Goliath's hands because it can score without taking much time off the clock. There is more to this but that is enough for some preliminary thoughts. Likely some mixed strategy is best. ...
So those are some options. Interestingly, it could be argued that on offense, the best strategy might be something like the flexbone or another triple-option offense like Paul Johnson uses: it has big play potential (and thus can be a substitute for passing), yet carries the benefit of keeping the clock going, which works against pass-first underdogs.

The reason I'm bringing this up in a discussion of Louisiana-Monroe should be quite obvious -- ULM is one of the biggest 'Davids' in college football.  The resources at the two Directional Louisiana State schools (UL-Monroe, UL-Lafayette) are, like the money, minimal, and to win at a program like ULM means taking anything but a direct approach.  Former coach Charlie Weatherbie tried his best, run-run-running his way to reasonable success -- the Warhawks won between four and six games in each of his last six seasons -- but could never quite break into the contending class in the Sun Belt (the nation's most David-like conference).  He gave way to Todd Berry in 2010; Berry's last head coaching stint: a failed four years at fellow underdog Army.

In 2010, Berry did his best to do things a bit off-kilter -- running when opponents expected the pass, passing when opponents expected the run, keeping things fast-paced (possibly not the best idea for an underdog), employing the underdog-friendly 3-3-5 defense, etc. -- and the results were decent; despite low overall quality, ULM won five games, three by a touchdown or less, and came within a one-point loss to UL-Lafayette of finishing bowl-eligible.

With a wealth of experience returning in 2011, ULM could quite possibly do as good or better this year, but ... what is the ceiling of a program like ULM?  With iffy facilities and little recruiting draw, can Berry -- or any other coach -- at least build a steady Sun Belt contender?  Or is the ceiling more like "a perfect storm leads to 7-5 and a one-time New Orleans Bowl bid"?

2010 Schedule & Results*

Record: 5-7 | Adj. Record: 2-10 | Final F/+ Rk**: 98
Date Opponent Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L
11-Sep Arkansas 7-31 L 9.3 - 28.0 L
18-Sep at Arkansas State 20-34 L 31.8 - 32.9 L
25-Sep SE Louisiana
21-20 W 13.2 - 36.8 L
2-Oct at Auburn 3-52 L 12.7 - 36.8 L
9-Oct Florida Atlantic 20-17 W 21.9 - 34.4 L
16-Oct at Western Kentucky 35-30 W 20.9 - 33.4 L
23-Oct at Middle Tennessee 10-38 L 11.1 - 34.3 L
30-Oct Troy 28-14 W 23.8 - 14.6 W
6-Nov at Florida International 35-42 L 30.4 - 35.6 L
13-Nov at LSU 0-51 L 6.9 - 32.9 L
20-Nov North Texas 49-37 W 40.0 - 28.6 W
27-Nov UL-Lafayette 22-23 L 17.6 - 27.4 L
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
Points Per Game 20.8 101 32.4 97
Adj. Points Per Game 20.0 110 31.3 96

By no means was ULM a great team in 2010, but with a super-young team, Berry did a good job in manufacturing a 3-2 record in games decided by a touchdown or less.  In all, the Warhawks went 5-4 against non-SEC teams; the good news for 2011 is that there are no SEC squads on the schedule ... the bad news is that they've been replaced by Florida State, TCU and Iowa.  Good luck with that.

The highlight of 2010 had to be the somewhat shocking 28-14 win over Troy in late-October, the one game in which ULM allowed fewer than 27.4 Adj. Points.  That win gave them a shot at six wins and bowl eligibility, but they couldn't pull off tight games against Florida International and the rival Ragin' Cajuns of Lafayette.


Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
OVERALL 109 105 110
RUSHING 115 114 115 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 89 67 96 111
Standard Downs 113 105 114 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 82 80 85 99
Redzone 100 79 107
Q1 Rk 117 1st Down Rk 112
Q2 Rk 114 2nd Down Rk 98
Q3 Rk 93 3rd Down Rk 105
Q4 Rk 79

Returning ten starters from the 109th-ranked offense is, of course, only so much of a good thing.  But the Warhawks really did feature an efficient passing game (efficiency AND explosiveness is a bit much to ask), and most of the components return in 2011.  Quarterback Kolton Browning was stellar for a redshirt freshman, passing for 2,552 yards (61.9% completion rate, 6.8 per pass) and 18 touchdowns to 12 interceptions.  All of his primary weapons are back -- Luther Ambrose (752 yards, 6 touchdowns, second-team all-conference), Tavarese Maye (505 yards, three touchdowns, and 103 rushing yards) and Anthony McCall (479 yards, two touchdowns).

In all, ULM's play-calling was interesting in 2010 -- they passed a little more frequently than average on standard downs, but they ran a lot on passing downs; how much of that was by design, and how much of that was Browning scrambling (he attempted 137 rushes) is hard to tell.  Regardless, Browning was thrown into the fire early in his career, and his results were encouraging.  A few extra big plays would be a good thing, but I'm not sure who's most likely to provide those.  Maybe Maye, who was utilized in the run game and broke off an 82-yard reception at one point.

Other tidbits:

  • All five starting linemen return, though none were strong enough to warrant too many all-conference votes.
  • The lone lost starter was running back Frank Goodin, but let's just say that his 438 yards (3.3/carry) were the definition of "replaceable."  Backup Jyruss Edwards (375 yards, 4.5/carry) and others should be able to, at the very least, put together a rushing attack no worse than last year's (which is good, because it's hard to get too much worse than 115th in Rushing S&P+).


Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
OVERALL 74 76 73
RUSHING 81 86 78 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 73 72 73 72
Standard Downs 81 80 80 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 89 82 92 75
Redzone 56 37 67
Q1 Rk 92 1st Down Rk 104
Q2 Rk 71 2nd Down Rk 75
Q3 Rk 63 3rd Down Rk 69
Q4 Rk 88

Rocky Long had a steady run of success with New Mexico, based in part around his unique 3-3-5 defense.  As with the 3-4, it allows you to attack from any number of angles, only, it sacrifices size (which underdogs often do not have) for a little more speed.  The results are encouraging, at least at the mid-major level.  They were for ULM, anyway.

From 2005 to 2009, ULM had only once finished higher than 94th in the Def. S&P+ rankings; only once had they produced either a Success Rate+ or PPP+ rating that ranked better than 83rd.  They were solid across the board (for a Sun Belt defense) in 2010.  They were semi-efficient, and unlike most teams at this level, they were actually as adept at preventing big plays as they were at the success rates aspect of the game.

With nine starters coming back in 2011, they could see more of the same.  They must replace safety and tackle machine Alex Ibe (57.5 tackles, 2.5 TFL/sacks, 3 INT), but virtually everybody else returns for a second year in this system.  As you can probably tell, I love the 3-3-5 for mid-majors (I saw Rocky Long's 3-3-5 fluster Chase Daniel a bit in 2006 and completely baffle Blaine Gabbert last fall), and I love that ULM is utilizing it.

Other tidbits:

  • College football has another Ken Dorsey.  The squatty (6'0, 270) defensive end was great on the three-man line, producing 12.0 TFL/sacks and garnering second-team all-conference honors).
  • The Warhawks' LB corps loses Theo Smith (34.0 tackles, 6.5 TFL/sacks, 1 INT), but they get Jason Edwards (64.5 tackles, 6.0 TFL/sacks) and Cameron Blakes (66.0 tackles, 11.0 TFL/sacks, 1 INT) back for another go-round.
  • Robert Nelson looks like a relatively solid cornerback.  He had 50.0 tackles, which is almost a red flag for a cornerback, but he has nice play-making potential (5.0 TFL/sacks, 2 INT, 7 passes broken up).

UL-Monroe's 2010 Season Set to Music

Naturally, "The Underdog" by Spoon.  The best Billy Joel song of the last 20 years ... and Billy Joel neither wrote nor performed it.

(I'm not the only one who hears Billy Joel in this song, right?)

Fun Stat Nerd Tidbit

As we'll see below, ULM was basically your "league-average" Sun Belt team and has been for most of the last four years.  The Sun Belt is, to say the least, not a high-ceiling conference ... but what is the ceiling for a Sun Belt team?  Here are your best Sun Belt teams from the last six seasons:

Top Ten Sun Belt Teams According to F/+ Rankings, 2005-10
1. 2007 Troy (+0.9%, 58th in 2007, 333rd overall, 8-4)
2. 2008 Troy (+0.7%, 59th, 336th, 8-5)
3. 2009 Troy (-0.4%, 59th, 351st, 9-4)
4. 2009 Middle Tennessee (-1.9%, 62nd, 384th, 10-3)
5. 2010 Florida International (-2.3%, 66th, 388th, 7-6)
6. 2010 Troy (-3.3%, 69th, 404th, 8-5)
7. 2010 Arkansas State (-4.7%, 70th, 430th, 4-8)
8. 2007 Florida Atlantic (-7.0%, 78th, 481st, 8-5)
9. 2006 UL-Monroe (-8.6%, 82nd, 511th, 4-8)
10. 2007 Middle Tennessee (-10.1%, 87th, 530th, 87th)

And for what it's worth, ULM's 2010 defense was the 11th-best Sun Belt D of the last six years.

Summary and Projection Factors

Below is a small handful of projection and change factors most pertinent to the Football Outsiders' preseason projections you will find in this summer's Football Outsiders Almanac 2011.

Four-Year F/+ Rk 108
Five-Year Recruiting Rk 116
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin**** -6 / -7
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 18 (10, 8)
Yds/Pt Margin***** +4.9

Eighteen returning starters and one of the highest 2010 YPP margins in the country suggests that ULM's 2011 ceiling could be rather high ... for ULM, at least.  The Warhawks' overall record is still only going to be so good with the three aforementioned sacrifices built-in losses to Florida State, TCU and Iowa.  But all five home games (yes, five ... be thankful you root for a major conference team and continue to take your 6-8 tailgate opportunities home games for granted) are winnable, as are road trips to North Texas, UL-Lafayette and Florida Atlantic.  The Sun Belt has improved in recent years (five of the conference's seven best teams from 2005-10 played in the last two seasons), but ULM might be able to do some damage.  The margin for error will always be thin, but there are some interesting pieces -- and well-utilized underdog strategies -- here.




* For more on the 'Adj. Score' and 'Adj. Record' measures below, feel free to read this Football Outsiders column. Adj. Score is a look at how a team would have performed in a given week if playing a perfectly average team, with a somewhat average number of breaks and turnovers. The idea for the measure is simple: what if everybody in the country played exactly the same opponent every single week? Who would have done the best? It is an attempt to look at offensive and defensive consistency without getting sidetracked by easy or difficult schedules. And yes, with adjusted score you can allow a negative number of points, which is strangely satisfying.

** F/+ rankings are 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.

*** What is S&P+? Think of it 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.

**** Adj. TO Margin is what a team's turnover margin would have been if they had recovered exactly 50 percent of all the fumbles that occurred in their games. If there is a huge difference between TO Margin and Adj. TO Margin (in other words, if fumbles and unlucky bounces were the main source of a good/bad TO margin), that suggests that a team's luck was particularly good or bad and might even out the next season.

***** Phil Steele has long tracked Yards Per Point as a means of looking at teams that were a little too efficient or inefficient the previous season. A positive Yds/Pt Margin means a team's offense was less efficient than opponents' offenses, and to the extent that luck was involved, their luck might even out the next year.