The Tail of the Backs: Notes on the Running Backs and Playing Time

By the time you finished reading the title of this post (be it through feed-reader or through the site itself), you probably came under the assumption that I was going to talk about the UT running backs and how Foster seems to get all the carries while Vol Nation seems to think that Hardesty and Creer should be more involved.  Well, as it turns out, you'd be right.  Like you, I'm a little puzzled over the whole thing.  So I decided to find a few quotes from the coaches and see if the prevailing logic fits the pattern.

VS. NORTHERN ILLINOIS

"It's almost impossible," Drayton said. "We have three dynamic runners in the backfield. (Fifty) reps, you tell me. If you got the solution, I'm all ears."

 -- Stan Drayton, running back coach

"We just didn't have many plays."

 -- Phillip Fulmer, head coach

"As we've done in the past, the hot player will play, the guy that's running, protecting, doing all those things the best," Fulmer said. "But they'll all play."

 -- Phillip Fulmer, head coach

“Arian is still the starter and if he goes out there and plays well and we’re moving the football, we’ll keep him in there."

 -- David Clawson, offensive coordinator before the UNI game.

Sure, the lack of plays idea sounds pretty good.  Last year, the college game averaged close to 70 plays per offense per game, while UT has fallen considerably short of that.  The game against UNI was the lowest number of plays to date - 49 according to NCAA.com - and the last three games all "featured" a UT offense with fewer than 60 plays each game.  In fact:

Rush_per_game_averages_medium

From NCAA.com

 

This year, UT is getting a number of rushes per game that's comparable to 2007, 2005, and 2003.  2006 is the lowest, but is also the year of the hideous clock rules.  So, despite the reduced number of plays, it hasn't crippled the number of rushing attempts in each game.  And looking at each game:

2008_5-game_rushing_stats_medium

In graphic form:

Play_distribution_medium

Yeah, I borrowed it from myself.  Sue me.

The number of rushes per game is nearly constant, except for the UAB blip where UT spent most of the second half killing the clock.  It's the passing game that has seen a loss of plays - hardly a surprise when you consider the soap opera that has been the quarterback position.

So to answer Drayton's question:  I'd distribute the ball at least as equally as during the Auburn game.  There, Hardesty and Creer both saw significant action, and there was only one more rushing attempt.  Wanna see?

Auburn_and_uni_rushing_medium

From NCAA.com

Personally, I prefer the distribution in the Auburn game.  The QB rushes include sacks, and I wouldn't mind seeing that number drop anyhow, but the RB spread is much better in the Auburn game.  And actually, if you remove the QB rushing "attempts", you see that there was one fewer attempt in the Auburn game than in the UNI game.  So yeah, the "not enough attempts" concept doesn't really float for me.

As to Clawson's comment:  I don't really think that 69 total yards of rushing offense constitutes "moving the ball".  I will, however, grant that it's not totally Foster's fault:  UNI did stack the defense against the run to force Stephens to beat them.  (Fortunately, he did just that.)  So maybe the YPC is not the best metric in the UNI game, since 8- and 9- man fronts are difficult to run against, but there's still no compelling reason not to split time.  At least, there's no reason that lines up with the comments made by the staff.  Had they simply said:  "We're trying to get Foster to break the rushing record, so he's getting the carries.", I'd be far less skeptical.  But the comments just don't match the situation.

“We have four backs that we have great confidence in, … but there’s not enough footballs.”

 -- David Clawson

Ok, now that I agree with.  There aren't enough footballs [plays].  In the Wake Forest - Clemson game, Wake had 82 plays while Clemson had 58.  The Wiz of Odds had been keeping track of the plays/game average across the NCAA, though I haven't seen an update in a while.  But the early figures tracked at about a 5% loss in plays, while recent games feel closer to 8%.  This comes despite the assertion from the NCAA that the rules should not reduce the number of plays.  Umm, yeah.

Back to the point:  the plays are there, they're just reduced.  If Hardesty and Creer are going to get carries, then Foster is not going to have 30 carries in a game.  Whatever the plan is, it's going to have to account for that when the offensive personnel is sent onto the field against Georgia.

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