Is Iowa's slow pace a key to victory?

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Football Study Hall, which is an excellent blog if you are a statistics nerd, had in interesting post the other day on Adjusted Pace. The basic idea behind Adj. Pace is to look at how many offensive plays a team runs during a game. Adj. Pace is defined by the author using these terms:

A simple regression formula was used to determine how many plays a team would be expected to run given their run-pass splits. The teams were then ranked according to the difference between their actual plays and their expected plays.

You would probably expect this watching Iowa's rather methodical pace...Iowa clocks in as the 5th slowest team in the country (the post has a full rundown of all FBS teams). Given Iowa's pass/run split, you would expect the offense to run about 69.3 plays per game. In reality Iowa's average was just 61.6 (FCS games weren't included, i.e. against Eastern Illinois) and Iowa only broke the 69.3 mark three time (against Iowa State, Ball State, and Northwestern). Against Minnesota Iowa didn't even reach 50 offensive plays.

On the flip side, I took a look at the pace of Iowa's opponents and if it changed against Iowa. For the most part it was pretty close...the Hawkeye's opponents averaged 70.2 plays per game against Iowa versus a season averaged of 68.8 plays. In 8 games of 12 games Iowa kept opponents on pace or below with their season average. The glaring exceptions were Michigan, Northwestern, and Missouri who each ran about 10 more plays against Iowa than their average. These three teams really exploited Iowa's bend-but-don't-break cushion on defense and were satisfied moving down the field in small chunks.

OpponentIowa PlaysOpp PlaysOpp Ave
ISU706968.9
Ariz596973.8
BSU735062.8
PSU586566.9
Mich588672.3
Wisc676466.2
MSU585962.8
Ind627071.7
NW718272.2
OSU566968.8
Minn497368.6
Mizz588670.5

How does the defense fit in?

I don't think there is a whole lot the defense can do to dictate the pace of the other team's offense. In some circumstance, like the ISU game last year, the defense was forcing so many 3-and-outs that the Cyclones slowed down so they weren't giving the ball back after running less than a minute of the game clock. And conversely, when the defense was playing poorly and obviously tired, teams pushed the pace which we saw some in the Northwestern game.

For the most part though, the offense dictates the pace. However, Iowa playing bend-but-don't-break defense has a similar effect as a slow paced offense...it helps limit the number of positions per game. If a team is going to score on Iowa, then they are going to have to sustain a long drive that runs time of the clock. For example, Missouri ran 86 plays against Iowa but that totaled just 11 drives. They had 4 drives that lasted longer than 2 minutes but resulted in no points.

So, why does Iowa do this?

I don't think Kirk Ferentz runs one of the slowest offenses in the country just for fun (because, let's be honest, it can be kind of un-fun to watch at times and I am hopeful that the coaches are very deliberate in these types of decision). I believe there are some very valid reasons to slow the game down.

The "keep the other offense off the field" argument
This is kind of a "duh" argument, but here it is anyway. A slower pace on offense should boost a team's time of possession which keeps the other team off of the field longer. A team can't score on you if they're not on offense (for the most part), so this makes a lot of sense. Plus, it gives the defense longer to rest and stay fresh (that didn't seem to help much last year unfortunately). Conversely, the opposing defense should also tire out more. Though they may not face as many total plays, their time between rests is longer. This is a decidedly different strategy than teams like Oregon or Oklahoma use to tire defense. Their offenses run at blazing speed and though they may not be out on the field as long, they don't have much time to rest between plays.

The time of possession numbers add up...though Iowa's opponents ran 80 more offensive plays in 2010, the average time of possession tilted in the Hawkeye's favor 30:11 to 29:45.

The "keep the score low and close" argument
Less plays generally means fewer points and lends itself to a lot of low-scoring and close games. Though it can be at times frustrating, it means that Iowa is in position to win every game. It allows Iowa to stay within striking distance against Ohio States of the world. When things are going well and the close games tilt in Iowa's favor, then there is a season like 2009...4 wins by a TD or less. When things are going bad, it's more like last year...5 losses by a TD or less.

These types of games also play towards Iowa's strength. Iowa does not typically have the offensive firepower to hang with most teams in a shootout. But Iowa does have the defense (usually) to make key stops in tight games.

The "overly complicated increased variability" argument
This argument stems off of an excellent post on BHGP a few years ago that tried to explain why the "Lickliter Way" is effective (in theory...obviously not in practice, at least not at Iowa). The main argument is that a slower pace increases the variability of the game's outcome. Now, this is great when you're the underdog because it means you have a better chance at getting lucky.

Let's simplify the game of football and put some numbers to this. Football basically is just a series of drives. Each drive has an outcome that is either in favor of one team or another. So let's say that if a team "wins" more drives than the other over a course of a game, then that team wins the game. I couldn't find any exact numbers on this, but I believe the average number of drives per game is somewhere around 26-28.

Against a better team, suppose that Iowa has only a 40% chance of winning any given drive. Using a binomial distribution (if you remember that from your stat class) you can calculate the probability of winning the game based on the number of drives. If the game was just one drive, then Iowa would have a 40% chance of winning. If the game bumped up to 3 drives, then the chance of winning drops to 35%. If the pace of the game was rather fast, and there were 31 possessions, Iowa's chance of winning would be 13%. However, if Iowa can limit the number of possession to just 23, the odds of winning jump back up to 16%.

That wasn't a great example or anything, but it illustrates the point: the underdog increased its chance of winning by shortening the game.

OpponentIowaOpp
EIU1110
ISU1312
Ari1615
BSU1212
PSU1213
Mich1312
Wisc109
MSU1312
Ind1210
NW1213
OSU1010
Minn1012
Mizz1211

Does it actually work?

It's hard to say that this strategy definitively leads to more wins. I do thinks it's apparent though, that Iowa more often than not dictates the type of game that will be played. It's going to be low-scoring, defense-oriented, and close. And, if that is not the type of game the opponents wants to play, then I think it's certainly an advantage.

The strategy also aligns with Iowa's underdog mentality and may help explain why in years where expectations are low the Hawkeyes perform better. The "increased variability" argument boiled down to giving the underdog its best chance. So, in years where Iowa is favored in many games, it allows the opponent to get lucky and steal a win. And conversely, in years where Iowa is not favored in games, it gives them their best chance.

A few last quick thoughts:
  • Less possessions makes big plays a bigger factor. Iowa's defense is set up around not giving up big plays and on offense often uses play-action to set up long passes.
  • The "shorter" game length could also put more of an emphasis on execution (rather than just running a bunch of plays and hoping one works), which is something that Iowa prides itself on.
  • Iowa's methodical pace on offense generally allows for the quarterback to audible out of bad plays. This was something Stanzi was noticeably good at the past couple of years.
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