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Statistical In-Ferentz: Three-second Rule

Iowa's offense is caught in a vicious cycle of quick throws and is suffering as a result.

Horace E Cow

Watching the Penn State game from the stands, I was convinced that James Vandenberg must have been under constant pressure. On nearly every play, he seemed to be rushing to get the ball out as quickly as possible. Why else would he be in such a hurry if he didn't have a Nittany Lion breathing down his neck? After re-watching the game, though, it became clear that this wasn't the case. Vandenberg was not under significant pressure against Penn State -- in fact, Penn State rarely blitzed. Rather, Vandenberg's quick release seemed to be Iowa's consciously chosen strategy.

To understand what Iowa was doing, I decided to look at two simple measures: 1) how long Vandenberg took to release the ball, and 2) whether he was under pressure when he released the ball. Both of these numbers are admittedly subjective, and come down to my own "one Mississippi" count or a spot judgment of whether Vandenberg had a man in his face. Also, I only went through the third quarter, because the fourth quarter was essentially garbage time (well, maybe the second and third quarter were too, but I looked at them anyway). I also decided to look at Penn State on the same two measures, just to see how a more successful offense compared. Here's what I found:

  • IOWA Avg. time to throw: 3.3 seconds
  • IOWA % Throws pressured: 39%
  • IOWA Avg. time to throw on pressured passes: 3.5 seconds
  • IOWA Avg. time to throw on non-pressured passes: 3.1 seconds
  • IOWA # throws <= 3 seconds: 18 (64% of throws)
  • IOWA # throws >= 3 seconds: 10 (36% of throws)
  • PSU Avg. time to throw: 3.8 seconds
  • PSU % Throws pressured: 38%
  • PSU # throws <= 3 seconds: 13 (35% of throws)
  • PSU # throws >= 3 seconds: 24 (65% of throws)
  • PSU Avg. time to throw on pressured passes: 4.2 seconds
  • PSU Avg. time to throw on non-pressured passes: 3.6 seconds

So basically Iowa took less time to throw on average, threw more quick passes, and took less time to throw on both pressured and non-pressured passes. They were also pressured just about as often as Penn State. This conforms to what I saw re-watching the game, and to what most people have noticed about Iowa's offense under Greg Davis: it is filled with quick-hitting plays, usually five-yard outs by the wide receivers. Many of the plays are so quick-hitting, in fact, that it's hard to imagine Vandenberg making any other read but the immediate throw to the outside given the short drop, the quick release and the precisely timed route. In this sense, many of Iowa's throws are more akin to wide receiver screens than actual routes.

Penn State had their share of quick timing routes as well, but also managed to incorporate several slow-developing plays. The Nittany Lions had seven throws that took five seconds or longer (including the first touchdown of the game); Iowa had zero.

It's hard to say that James Vandenberg or Iowa's offense has thrived under such a quick hitting scheme. In fact, Iowa's offense seems to be an ill-fitting mash-up of two conflicting styles of offense: 1) Iowa's traditional stretch running play/play-action off the stretch running play, and 2) quick hitting routes, mainly to the outside. The quickness of Iowa's passing game is reflected in their yards per completion stats: right now, Iowa averages 9.9 yards per completion, 117th in the FBS. By contrast, here are Iowa's averages and ranks for the past nine years (per

  • 2011: 13.6 yds/comp. (#17)
  • 2010: 12.5 yds/comp. (#40)
  • 2009: 13.8 yds/comp. (#16)
  • 2008: 12.7 yds/comp. (#28)
  • 2007: 11.5 yds/comp. (#67)
  • 2006: 12.6 yds/comp. (#47)
  • 2005: 12.5 yds/comp. (#46)
  • 2004: 12.1 yds/comp. (#71)
  • 2003: 12.3 yds/comp. (#65)
In the past, defensive backs and linebackers would need to respect the threat of some form of the deep throw, knowing that cheating up too far could result in a completion over their heads. This year, these same defenders can rest assured that most of the time Iowa will either run the ball, play-action and throw the ball short, or throw the ball short. Without the threat of a long or even a medium throw, defensive backs can afford to play tight coverage, and linebackers can afford to take very shallow drops. This might explain why Iowa's offense hasn't seen an increase in its completion percentage -- something that might be expected for an offense predicated on short, "easy" passes. In fact, Iowa's completion percentage has dropped noticeably, from 58.9% last year to 54.7% this year.

All of this is probably obvious to any fan who has watched Iowa play, but I thought it might be useful to put some concrete numbers to the phenomenon. It's not clear why Iowa has pursued such a strategy. If I had to guess, I would say that it's just Greg Davis' predilection, but it's possible the coaches believe the offensive line just can't hold up on longer plays, or that they don't have the speed at the receiver position to threaten deep. Right now, however, Iowa seems stuck in a vicious circle where Iowa's quick routes encourage defenses to cheat in, which forces James Vandenberg to get his throws off even quicker, which encourages defenses to cheat in more, which forces Vandenberg to hurry even more, etc. Given that dynamic, it's no wonder that he's getting a case of the yips.