Run/Pass Ratio with QB Uncertainty under Heupel

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Our community Expected Win Total Machine has the Vols at 6.60 projected wins this week, down just a hair from 6.74 a week ago. This reflects the conversations I bet you’ve had this week: yeah, we won by 32, but it didn’t look great all the time. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh got all the good feelings out in their 51-7 win over UMass. And so, right on cue with SP+ and the opening line in Vegas, this week our community gives the Vols a 49.2% chance to win on Saturday. That’s down from 58.4% last week.

Much of that comedown involves Tennessee’s passing game. Against Bowling Green, the Vols had 64 rushing attempts and 24 passing attempts, running the ball on 72.73% of their snaps. It’s not a byproduct of the blowout: Hendon Hooker got a pass attempt when he came in the game with 2:33 to play, Joe Milton’s touchdown to Cedric Tillman was on the series before, and Heupel tends to keep running his offense.

But Tennessee’s 72.73% run ratio was higher than any game Heupel coached at UCF. If you look at the highest run ratios from his time there, almost all of them correlate to uncertainty at quarterback:

OpponentYearRunRun Pct.PassPass Pct.
Bowling Green20216472.73%2427.27%
ECU20185572.37%2127.63%
Navy20185271.23%2128.77%
USF20185870.73%2429.27%
Florida Atlantic20194770.15%2029.85%
Memphis20186268.89%2831.11%
  • Against East Carolina in 2018, McKenzie Milton was a late scratch after tweaking his ankle the week before. Darriel Mack got the start and went 12-of-20 for just 69 yards. But the Knights won easily 37-10.
  • The only one of these that doesn’t involve quarterback uncertainty is the 2018 Navy game, but that one might be attributed to Navy being Navy. The Midshipmen ran it 63 times and threw it twice; UCF may have responded in kind in a game when tempo going against them would’ve been especially damaging. It worked: UCF won 35-24.
  • 2018 South Florida is the game Milton was seriously injured in, going down after just 10 pass attempts. It was again Mack off the bench, this time going just 5-of-14 for 81 yards. But again, it was no threat: UCF won 38-10 against a 7-5 South Florida squad to finish the regular season undefeated again.
  • 2019 against FAU and Lane Kiffin was the first start for freshman Dillon Gabriel. He went just 7-of-19…but dropped bombs on his completions, finishing with 245 yards through the air. And UCF rolled, 48-14. Gabriel, the very next week against Stanford: 22-of-30 for 347 yards, four touchdowns, no interceptions in a 45-27 win.
  • In the 2018 American title game the week after Milton went down, Mack was much better too: 19-of-27 for 348 yards, two touchdowns, and no interceptions to run UCF’s undefeated streak to 25 games.

So sure, whenever one of Heupel’s teams runs it as much as we saw Thursday night, there’s usually uncertainty at quarterback involved. But two very important pieces of good news: UCF still won all of those games with such a high run rate, including some incredibly meaningful victories. And, with Mack and Gabriel, there was a bunch of statistical progress from one week to the next, again in incredibly meaningful games UCF also won.

It’s fair to call UT’s quarterback situation uncertain after Milton’s first performance, and easy to see why Heupel kept running it so often. But it’s also encouraging to see how UCF still found ways to win on the ground…and how much more certain the quarterback position looked soon after.

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Andrew Cooper
Andrew Cooper
1 month ago

I’m not trying to be overly optimistic. However, it did seem to me that Bowling Green was dropping a lot of people into coverage and choosing not to get beat by the big play. My study of Heupel suggests that he’ll gladly take whatever you give him. BG gave up the run and UT simply took it.

We’ll see what happens when someone can take away 1 thing and still put up a fight elsewhere.