This started out as a recap. I was going to write on the Northwestern game. I was going to lament the loss of the undefeated streak and fume at the special teams gaffes that sealed the deal for Purdue on Saturday night in Evanston. Oh sure, I knew that with the way the Wildcats were playing, it was highly unlikely that they would remain undefeated. But, for some reason, I thought that if they had to try to go to 6-0 against any conference opponent, Purdue would be the one to do it.
Guess I was wrong.
So, yeah, this was supposed to be a recap. I was on a roll with my writing, and as I was attempting to describe the awfulness that was the NU special teams performance I started to use comparisons. I compared them to the Wisconsin game at Michigan State. And the Iowa game at Arizona. And the Purdue game at Toledo. And the Michigan game against U Mass. The Minnesota game against NIU. The Illinois game against Ohio State. Ohio State against Miami.
That's when I realized, I had a lot of comparisons. Not only did have a lot of examples of special teams failures in the conference this year, but I had them for almost every single team at easy grasp in my memory. Thing is, I couldn't summon up nearly quite as many examples from the 2009 season. This got me to wondering - is the special teams performance in the Big Ten significantly worse this season than it was at this time last year?
So, as I've done before, I got out my trusty spreadsheet and notepad and went to work. I decided that I was going to catalog "special teams errors" in all the games for a four week period in 2010 and compare them to that same four week period in 2009, to attempt to get a feel for whether things really have gotten worse in the conference in the span of a year.
What's a "special teams error" you ask? Well, it's a general term for the things that happen on special teams that go beyond minor mistakes. These are the kind of plays that have the potential to change the outcome of games. In other words, these are the type of plays that often make fans go "Whyyyyyyyyy???" when they see them unfold.
In this category I've included penalties on any special teams play, missed and blocked kicks (punts, extra points, and field goals less than 50 yards), kick returns allowed that are longer than 30 yards, kickoffs or punts that travel less than 20 yards (in non-onside-kick or squib kick situations), kick returns that result in a loss, the ever infuriating fumble on a return (if it resulted in a change of possession or a loss of yardage), and perhaps the worst of all: the kick return allowed for a TD.
There is a bit of arbitrariness to my categories. I set the benchmarks for allowed returns at more than 30 yards because that seemed like the point where the typical fan reaction would turn from "ugh, that's bad" to "oh my god why can't any of you tackle anyone?!" Similarly, I set the standard for a bad punt or kickoff to less than 20 because punts or kickoffs less than that range tend to give opponents unusually excellent field position, regardless of whether they are able to return the ball. I didn't count missed field goals of more than 50 yards because, well, this isn't the NFL and opportunities for field goals that long (not to mention successes) are relatively rare in college football.
I then read all the recaps for all the Big Ten games from weeks three to six in the conference. I used only a four week spread partly because my eyes were getting tired and partly because it seemed to be both an adequate sample size as well as a good mix of non-conference and in-conference games. I was also wary of including the first two weeks of either season, because of the understandable growing pains every team goes through at the beginning of a year. I cataloged every play on special teams that fit my categories above, to the best of my reading comprehension ability. I separated these by team name, week, and play type. I then did the same for weeks three through six of the 2009 season. With my trusty spreadsheet I was able to get comparisons down for all the schools between 2009 and 2010. The results might surprise you.
Conference as a whole:
First, it is true, the Big Ten special teams squads as a whole have gotten worse from 2009 to 2010....
(This shows the weekly average from weeks 3-6 in 2009 and 2010 in the conference)
The average number of special teams errors across all schools in the conference in week three in 2010 was 2.27. In 2009 for the same period it was 2.1. In week four of 2010 the average was 2.9, up from 2.1 in 2009. Week five was similar, featuring an average of 2 even in 2010, up from 1.8 in 2009. In week six of 2010 the conference averaged 2.3 errors, while in week six of 2009 the average was at 1.9.
Are these small changes? Yes. But the changes are there, and it's important to remember that the averages are across all teams in the conference that are playing in a given week. So, if one team has a horrendous game, the conference's average may still remain comparatively low if other teams turn in stellar performances.
In absolute terms, the conference has (by my cataloging) had 97 special teams errors in this four week span, which is up from 83 such errors in 2009. Even more troubling is that the conference as a whole right now has played fewer games in that time span than they did in 2009, due to the shifting of bye weeks. So, we've committed more errors in less time. Let's take a closer look at a team-by-team breakdown in two of the weeks with the biggest changes.
Team by team breakdown:
(These graphs show the team-by-team breakdown of errors in two weeks of the ’09 and ’10 seasons)
In the graphs above, for almost all teams, errors increased from 2009 and 2010. In 2009, there were a few teams that turned in error free performances during week four or six. In 2010, the only error free performances were due to bye weeks.Also of note, in 2010, when teams have bad games they really have bad games. In 2010 Purdue tops the charts with six errors in their week four game, with Illinois (week five) and Northwestern (week six) close behind at five. In 2009, by comparison, no team had a week where they had more than four errors in a single game, and much of the time the numbers were closer to one or two per game.
These are small differences, to be sure, but they are ones that have the potential to be very significant - that one or two error per game difference may be huge if those errors involve allowing opposing teams to score TDs on kick returns or having your own special teams miss field goal and extra point chances.
I was really curious about this last point. I had data in front of me that suggested that the Big Ten was worse in an absolute sense, but I wanted to know where the conference has gone wrong this season. Was the increase in special teams errors from 2009 to 2010 largely harmless? Or was it making differences in Big Ten games?
Error type breakdown:
I decided the best way to figure this out was to break down my data. The graphs below show just how many plays of each category contributed to the error totals in both 2009 and 2010. The percentiles are perhaps a smidge off in some areas, but it's close enough for blogging work.
(This graph shows the percent of total errors for each type in 2009 and 2010)
Looking at these charts, we see interesting trends. The biggest movers in increased percentile have been: short kicks (+6%), penalties (+5%), blocked kicks (+4%), and, disconcertingly, return TDs allowed* (+4%). Meanwhile, the only error category to see a decrease was actually the number of excessive returns allowed, which declined by almost 20%. Don't get too excited, though. The increase in return TDs allowed shows that the conference hasn't really gotten any better at tackling kick returners. Rather, I suspect that the steep decline is partially due to the arbitrary nature of my measurement (remember, returns of 29, 28, 27 yards allowed, etc., are not included in this measurement), and perhaps partially due to irregularities in my counting skills (I'm a law student - what do you want from me? Actual math ability? It's not like I went to med school.)
Beyond the TD stat, I think the combination of missed and blocked field goals and extra points is most interesting. Combined, the conference has seen a 6% increase in those stats. Not only is that alarming, but it's also very significant as those plays are the ones that most directly translate to points off the board, or points for the opposing teams. Blocked or missed extra points or field goals mean points that Big Ten teams don't score, while blocked punts typically give the opposing team excellent field position. The increase in penalties on special teams is also a bit alarming. The conference as a whole has committed nine more penalties on special teams this year than during the same weekly period last year. Again, that's also in fewer games. Those penalties encompass everything from holding calls that wipe out kick returns to roughing the kicker calls that reward the other team with a new set of downs.
The trend is as disconcerting as it is apparent. The conference as a whole has gotten sloppier and it is costing the teams points and, in some cases, victories. These errors could ultimately determine which teams go to bowl games and whether or not they win if they do (a very clear example of this can be seen in last year's Northwestern - Auburn bowl). And don't think that your team is safe just because you have a good record. The data shows that this trend is universal. The teams with some of the best records in the conference (Ohio State, Michigan, Northwestern, Wisconsin) are right there with the teams with the worst (Purdue, Minnesota, Penn State) in total errors . Further, the only team that has actually seen a decrease in the number of special teams errors they've had from 2009 to 2010 is, surprisingly, Indiana.
What it all means:
Okay, so we know this is happening. But the question then is, why is it happening?
I have a few theories on that.
First, the coaching issue. A few teams in the conference lost special teams coordinators during the off-season. Illinois fired and replaced their coordinator. Their small uptick in errors could perhaps be due to growing pains with a new coach. Michigan moved special teams duties to the same assistant who also handles the secondary. Michigan has seen their error rate also sharply increase in the past year. In 2009 they were soundly average and in 2010 only Purdue and Wisconsin have more or the same number of errors. Given the performance of Michigan's special teams and the performance of their secondary, I'm tempted to ask if perhaps the assistant handling both has too much on his plate.
There are also a few schools that did not make coaching changes, which may now be hurting them. Both Wisconsin and Northwestern still have special teams duties partially coached by their head coaches. Both schools have seen more errors this season. Perhaps having a dedicated special teams coordinator would benefit the Badgers and the Wildcats.
Still, I can't rightly blame everything on the coaching. Beyond coaching changes, in impact, I think, is the loss of key personnel. In the last year five of the conference's schools have lost their primary kick or punt returner (or both): Illinois, Indiana, Northwestern, OSU, and Purdue. All but Indiana have seen increases in their error rate.
Even more teams lost either a kicker or a punter heading into this year. Michigan, Michigan State, OSU, Minnesota, PSU, and Purdue are all fielding either former backups or brand new kickers or punters. Two of the biggest category increases in errors from 2009-2010 came in overly short punts and blocked / missed kicks (punts, field goals, extra points) which could certainly be attributed to new kickers.
Yet, as comforting as it is to write off these troubles to new players and new coaches, I'm not fully convinced. The conference hasn't been getting better from its games in week three to those in week six, which you might expect if this was merely a matter of working out the kinks. We saw a slight downward trend as the weeks passed in 2009, whereas in 2010 the number of errors in week six is actually higher than that of week five or week three. I worry that the real culprit is something more systemic, perhaps in the way we delegate coaching duties or recruit players. If that's the case, then the conference may be in real trouble for the rest of the season.
So where do we go from here? Well, I'm not done with special teams yet. Stay tuned for part two of this article, where I compare the Big Ten special teams performance in 2010 to that of other conferences. Are our schools really harmed by a lack of "team speeeed"? Or are other conferences just as bad or worse?
*Though the data indicates that there were no return TDs during this period in 2009, that is only partially correct. There were no TDs allowed on kick returns during that period, but there were two TDs that came off of a blocked punt and a blocked field goal. They have been incorporated into the blocked kick category.