Who gets and stops explosive passing?

February, 25, 2011
2/25/11
4:43
PM ET
Coaches love talking about explosion plays. You want to get a lot of them and give up very few.

We looked at offensive explosion plays -- plays of 20 or more yards -- on Tuesday and defenses that prevented explosion plays on Wednesday. Thursday we looked at explosion plays in terms of rushing offense and rushing defense. Today, we'll look at explosion plays in terms of passing numbers.

So here's how the Pac-12 stacked up in 2010 (again, thanks to ESPN Stats & Information). The number to the left is national rank. The number to the right is the total number of explosion plays in the passing game in 2010.

14. Stanford... 48
18. Arizona... 46
37. Oregon... 43
40. Arizona State... 42
40. Utah... 42
54. Oregon State... 38
61. Washington State... 37
65. USC... 36
80. Colorado... 32
91. Washington... 30
100. California... 28
120. UCLA... 11

No surprise Stanford is on top with quarterback Andrew Luck, but Arizona at No. 2 proves that Nick Foles isn't just a dink-and-dunk passer. Some might use this as further evidence that USC's Matt Barkley and Washington's Jake Locker were "overrated."

Oh my, UCLA. Very, very bad.

Some other thoughts.
  • UCLA was dead last in the country, and only Army in 2008 -- six! -- produced fewer explosion plays in the passing game over the past three seasons.
  • To put the awfulness of the Bruins' downfield passing game into perspective: Every conference team more than doubled the number of passing explosion plays the Bruins produced, and Colorado was one play short of having NINE teams at least triple the Bruins.
  • And the blame shouldn't fall on Kevin Prince: In 2009, the Bruins produced 35 explosion plays in the passing game with him as the starter for much of the year.
  • Keep in mind that Oregon got 43 passing plays of 20 or more yards with a first-year starter at quarterback. Even though the Ducks lose their top two receivers, don't be surprised if that number goes up in 2011 in Darron Thomas' junior season.
  • Oh, and anyone remember Jeremiah Masoli? Last year, the Ducks ranked 67th with 36 explosion plays in the passing game.
  • Downfield passing was a clear area of improvement for Foles in 2010. The year before, the Wildcats connected on just 31 passing plays of 20 or more yards.
  • In 2009, California had 48 explosion plays in the passing game, which ranked 18th in the nation and No. 1 in the Pac-10. Discuss, Cal fans.
  • In 2008, with Luck redshirting behind Tavita Pritchard, the Cardinal had only 18 explosion plays in the passing game, which ranked 113th in the nation. In Luck's first year as the starter, 2009, that number perked up to 47, which ranked 25th in the nation.
  • Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett has his critics, but over the past two years the Razorbacks produced 123 explosion plays in the passing game. In 2008, they had 45.
  • In 2008, Tulsa had 82 pass plays of 20 or more yards, most over the past three years. In its 14-game schedule, that means the Golden Hurricane averaged just under six such plays per game. Tulsa is also the only program to rank in the top 10 each of the past three years.

But does piling up explosion plays in the passing game correlate to winning? Short answer: Yes. Here's the top 10 in 2010 with the team's record in parentheses to the right.

1. Hawaii... 80 (10-4)
2. Boise State... 63 (12-1)
3. Arkansas... 62 (10-3)
4. San Diego State... 60 (9-4)
5. Oklahoma... 59 (12-2)
5. Oklahoma State... 59 (11-2)
7. Tulsa... 57 (10-3)
8. Tennessee... 54 (6-7)
9. UAB... 53 (4-8)
10. North Carolina State... 52 (9-4)

That's two losing teams -- though Tennessee was a bowl team -- and eight with at least nine wins and five with 10 or more. Nice mix of AQ and non-AQ teams, too.

Now on to defense, starting with the Pac-12.

The number to the left is national rank. The number to the right is the total number of passing explosion plays yielded in 2010.

6. California... 25
16. Stanford... 29
23. Washington... 31
27. Arizona... 32
27. Colorado... 32
27. Arizona State... 32
41. Oregon...33
41. Washington State... 33
58. UCLA... 36
91. Oregon State... 41
96. Utah... 42
102. USC... 44

Well, USC gave up 30 TD passes, most in the conference by five, so the Trojans in the cellar shouldn't be a surprise. Utah is completely rebuilding its secondary heading into 2011 -- so does that many Utes fans feel better or worse about their standing here? A little surprised Washington did well in this measure. And this is another reason for Cal fans to feel good about defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast.

Some other thoughts:
  • First of all, the difference between No. 23 and No. 41 is two plays, so there should be a little bit of skepticism about writing too much into these numbers.
  • Obviously, the Trojans' young secondary didn't do well digesting Monte Kiffin's Tampa-2 scheme in Year 1.
  • USC gave up 30 explosion passing plays in 2009 and just 14 in 2008, which is the lowest total over the past three years by six.
  • Stanford's pass defense was a big question heading into 2010. Why? In 2009, it gave up 44 passing plays of 20 or more yards. So the improvement this past season was dramatic, and probably one of the big reasons the Cardinal defense took a huge step forward.
  • Tip of the cap to Washington State: In 2009, it gave up 47 explosion plays in the passing game, which ranked 110th in the nation. So the improvement in 2010 was dramatic. Of course, the Cougars did give up 29 explosion plays in the running game, which ranked 117th in the nation.
  • Utah gave up 28 explosion passing plays in 2009, so there was fairly significant regression in 2010.
  • No team ranked in the top 10 three consecutive years, though TCU, Florida and Ohio State consistently ranked highly.
  • In 2008, Nevada gave up 70 explosion plays in the passing game. That's 11 more than the second worst total over the past three years. That means Wolf Pack fans had to endure 5.4 big passing plays per game thrown against their defense. Still, Nevada did finish 7-6.

But does limiting passing explosion plays on defense correlate to winning? Short answer: Pretty much. Here's the top 10 in 2010 with the team's record in parentheses to the right.

1. Pittsburgh... 20 (8-5)
2. LSU.. 21 (11-2)
3. TCU... 22 (13-0)
4. Kent State... 23 (5-7)
5. West Virginia... 24 (9-4)
5. Texas... 24 (5-7)
6. Florida... 25 (8-5)
6. California... 25 (5-7)
6. Nebraska... 25 (10-4)
6. Temple... 25 (8-4)
6. Syracuse... 25 (8-5)
6. Boise State... 25 (13-1)

Only three of these 12 teams posted losing records, and they each went 5-7. That said, four won just eight games, so success in this stat doesn't correlate to elite status. Auburn gave up 44 explosion plays in the pass game and it went 14-0 and won the national championship. Virginia Tech gave up 45 and won the ACC.

Still, here's a guess that most defensive coordinators would rather rank at the top of this list than at the bottom.

Ted Miller | email

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