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Inside the Numbers: Breaking down the passing

Throughout the season we’ve been tracking certain statistics that don't appear in the box scores. Here are some numbers through six games of what I hope will further emphasize what’s working and what isn’t, who’s producing and who needs to step up in the Penn State passing game.

Bolden has had success on the move this season.

Quarterbacks

Robert Bolden’s Passing Breakdown

Formation/Type: Completions - Attempts - Comp. % - Yards - TD - Int
Shotgun: 33 of 54 - 65% - 305-0-3
Under center: 63 of 117 - 54% - 872-4-4
Three Step Drops: 14 of 29 - 48% - 146-0-1
Play-Action: 19 of 33 - 58% - 375-2-0
Outside the Pocket: 19 of 31 - 61% - 316-2-1

From looking at the numbers, It's clear Bolden has more success out of the shotgun than under center, although part of the higher completion percentage can be attributed to running more of a short-horizontal passing game when in shotgun and a vertical passing game from under center. Nevertheless, with a struggling ground game, more shotgun and designed rollouts may be necessary to generate more offense in the second half of the season.

For the season, Bolden has completed 56 percent of his 57 passes thrown on first down for 467 yards, with two touchdowns and no interceptions. That's an impressive 15 yards per completion, which is important because (1) PSU needs to figure out a way to pick of large chunks of yardage. (Through six games Penn State has just 21 offensive plays of 20 yards or more, which puts them on pace for its fewest total since 2004) and (2) it will keep the true freshman Bolden out of obvious passing situations on third down, which has been an achilles heel in the three losses.

In Penn State’s three wins, Bolden is completing 75 percent of his passes on third down, going 21 of 28 for 264 yards with both a touchdown and and interception (in which Derek Moye fell down against Youngstown State). He converted half (14 of 28) of those third downs. In the losses, Bolden is completing just 37 percent of his passes, 10 of 27 for 77 yards and three picks. As a result, Penn State has converted only 17 percent (5 of 29) of the time.

Receivers
Receptions - Targets - Success Rate
Brett Brackett - 21-29-72%
Devon Smith - 17-26-65%
Justin Brown - 13-22-59%
Derek Moye - 22-38-58%

As expected, Brett Brackett and Devon Smith both have the highest success rates - with Brackett primarily working over the middle and Smith catching short crossing routes and swing passes out of the backfield. Derek Moye, who clearly has been Bolden’s favorite target, has a similar rate to Justin Brown – both receivers who catch most of their passes outside the hash marks.

The real shocker here has been the decline in senior Graham Zug’s production. After catching 45 passes and seven touchdowns in 2009, Zug has just four receptions for 49 yards and no touchdowns at the midway point of the 2010 season. With 22 targets, his 22 percent success rate is the lowest on the team for any player who has been targeted more than 5 times, and he also leads the team with 3 drops.

In the past there have been receivers (Freddie Scott, Tony Johnson) who have had promising seasons followed by disappointing ones, but Zug’s drop-off is historically baffling. In Penn State football history, there have been 15 occasions in which an underclassmen caught at least 40 passes in a season, and only once has that receiver failed to catch at least 30 balls the following year (Kenny Jackson, who still managed 28 receptions with Doug Strang taking over for Todd Blackledge).

In fact, since Penn State joined the Big Ten, the largest decrease in a receiver’s catches from 1 season to the next was Corey Jones (1998-1999: 24 rec. decrease) but that was due to a hamstring injury that forced Jones to miss eight games.

There are a lot of factors into Zug’s decline in production, but one interesting development has been the elimination of the bubble-screen from Penn State’s passing game. If you recall, Zug had quite a few of his receptions on this play in 2009, such as the Ohio State game (7 rec., 96 yards) which included a 31-yard gain on a Zug bubble-screen during the second quarter.

In the 2010 season, I’ve only tracked one bubble screen - which was thrown during the third quarter of the Illinois game and fell incomplete, intended for Justin Brown. Not only has Zug had success with this play, one would think that Devon Smith would be the ideal player to get the ball out to quickly in space.

The move of Chaz Powell back to cornerback appears was a logical one. The need for Powell’s athleticism and talent on defense (with Derrick Thomas out for the season) outweighs his production at wide-receiver. His three receptions on nine targets for 11 yards help support that.

Even last season, Powell had just two receptions of 20 yards or more (the 79-yard touchdown against Iowa and a 51-yard reception against Eastern Illinois). He is a dynamic player however, as noted by his 26.6 career average on kick returns, which is currently the fifth-highest in school history.

At the midpoint of the season, it will be intriguing to see if the coaches can use the bye week to reverse some of these trends to spark the offense in the second half of the season.

Will the coaches allow Bolden to throw more on first-down? Can the offense generate enough of a ground game to build on the success they've had on play-action? Will they use more shotgun and designed rollouts for Bolden? Can Bolden increase his accuracy on simple 3-step drops? Will Graham Zug develop into a trusted possession receiver with Bolden like he was with Clark?

We’ll all get a good look on Saturday against Minnesota, which has the nation’s 64th ranked pass defense.

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