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Analytics: What Can We Learn From Phil Longo’s Play-Calling Tendencies?

Analytics breakdown of the new look Wisconsin Football Offense under Phil Longo: analyzing his 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Down Play-Call Tendencies.

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Wisconsin Badgers football Offensive Coordinator Phil Longo
Wisconsin new offensive coordinator, Phil Longo, has his first interview session with reporters at the McClain Center in Madison, Wis. on Jan. 5, 2023.

I’m so excited to bring you Part Two of my Pre-Season Series: TOP 10 Wisconsin Football Stats you need to know for the 2023 Season! For Part 1 read it here.

For more of my thought’s around Phil Longo’s Offensive Philosophy & some interesting differences from the former Offense. Read it here.

Theme #9: Phil Longo’s 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Down Play-Calls

One of my biggest gripes with the coaching staff, specifically with the offensive staff. Was what I thought of as a lack of creativity and, frankly, predictability in their play calls. With a particular emphasis on their 1st Down play-calls. Which I thought lacked a good amount of Play-Action/RPO, given they ran the ball on 71% of 1st Down Snaps. And by only offsetting that with 9% of 1st Down Snaps Play-Action/RPO passes, IS NOT the appropriate mix.

And it showed in the Yards Per Attempt (YPA) numbers…

Just really striking stuff, and a true shame that it wasn’t exploited or more well-balanced last Season. A lot of easy yards were left on the table!

Now let’s dive into Phil Longo’s Play-Calling, that’s the future, and that’s what matters NOW!!!

Wisconsin Football Potential 1st Down Play-Calls Under Phil Longo:

First, I want to look at 1st Downs by Play_Type by first looking at Motion vs. No Motion. Then at the mix of RPO vs. No RPO + Play-Action vs. No Play-Action. Then I want to go a level deeper and see how those evolve when we add in Run vs. Pass. As well as how heavy the box was (7 or More vs. 6 or Less) and how those aspects influenced the Play-Call. Then finally, do we see any differences in outsized/diminished returns from a Yards Per Attempt (YPA) perspective when taking all of these aspects into account?

Let’s Look at Motion vs. No Motion:

  • Only about ~13% of 1st Down Play-Calls Utilize Motion
    • A very similar story with Red Zone Play-Calls
    • This may be something we will need to get used to with a reduction in Motion Used

Now Let’s Look at RPO/Play-Action vs. No RPO/Play-Action:

  1. We can see a significant uptick in RPO & Play-Action Plays >30% vs. <10% for UW in 2022

Let’s go that layer deeper…

  1. It looks like a solid amount of run vs. 6 or less in the box
    1. A BIG chunk of that is RPO, which is fantastic!!
  2. It looks like there is still too much running vs. 7 or more in the box
  3. It looks like there aren’t enough RPO/Play-Action passes vs. 7+ man boxes

Do these assumptions/assertions hold true while looking at the YPA data?

Impact on YPA:

Well….No

  1. Passing vs. 6 or less worked better than vs. 7 or more??
  2. Also, running vs. 7 or more in the box had better YPA than 6 or fewer in the box runs???

This doesn’t make very much sense at all. What it looks like is the old adage for Wisconsin. “You know we’re going to run it, and you still won’t stop us”.

Just sub in “Pass” for “Run” with Longo, and it holds.

But you have to ask yourself why Longo could do this and the 2022 Wisconsin Football Team couldn’t. I think it comes down to one thing.

Options:

When you’re running the ball, you have minimal options the defense has to manage. Sure, you can motion and have Jet-Sweep, Quick Option, Tripple Option, FB Dives, etc. But at most, you have 2-3 Options the defense has to account for. Not to mention the space that has to be covered is very limited. This allows for the defense to become EXTREMELY aggressive if it’s a good bet you’re going to run.

Conversely, with passing, you can have 5, sometimes 6 options if you have a mobile QB (Mordecai). And the space they have to cover can be as large as 55 X 53.5 Yards. That’s a big ole plot of land. Now, obviously, the length of that field can be shortened with blitzes and pressure on the QB (Less time to throw = fewer yards a receiver can predictably get open downfield). But that would be an overly aggressive strategy for a defense. Therefore you can dependably get more favorable matchups in the passing game with good route schemes that attack the whole field. Add on top of that the fact that Longo relies heavily on RPOs. This adds another element to combat a potentially overly aggressive defense, in particular, the LBs. Who now have to make a split-second decision on nearly 30% of 1st downs, get to the LOS or drop back to cover? It causes conflict in decision-making and can buy the offensive players a half second more of time & space to make a play.

This is why Longo was averaging a gaudy 6.47 YPA on 1st Downs to UW’s 5.6 YPA in 2022.

Wisconsin Football Potential 2nd Down Play-Calls Under Phil Longo:

Now let’s look at his 2nd Down Play Calls.

Let’s Look at Motion vs. No Motion:

  • Still a limited amount of Motion

Now Let’s Look at RPO/Play-Action vs. No RPO/Play-Action:

  1. A little less RPO than 1st Down Calls
  2. Combining Play-Action & RPO gets you >25%!! Keeping that Defense off-balance

Let’s go that layer deeper…

  1. Longo just doesn’t see very many boxes with 7 or more in them, REGARDLESS of Down!
    1. Braelon Allen (and Chez) are LICKING their CHOPS!
  2. I love to see that Passes vs. 7 or more in the box is more than Runs!!

Again. Do these assumptions/assertions hold while looking at the YPA data?

Impact on YPA:

Largely yes!

  1. We can see Runs vs. Lighter Boxes (6 or less) have much better returns than runs vs. Heavy Boxes (7 or more)
  2. Passing, particularly Play-Action Passes vs. Heavy Boxes, Yielded the greatest YPA returns (DUH!!)
    1. You load that box against Braelon & Chez. Prepare to get BURNED!!
  3. All Passes vs. Light Boxes still returned higher YPA than Runs vs. Light Boxes…THAT’S SCHEME & LONGO MAGIC!!
    1. The crazy part is with Braelon & Chez + a substantially more talented O-Line than UNC…
    2. We should maintain Passing Efficiency but gain better Running efficiency by letting those two loose vs. light boxes!!

Wisconsin Football Potential 3rd Down Play-Calls Under Phil Longo:

Finally, let’s look at Longo’s 3rd Down Play Calls.

Let’s Look at Motion vs. No Motion:

  • Minimal Motion…It’s a CONSISTENT THEME!

Now Let’s Look at RPO/Play-Action vs. No RPO/Play-Action:

  • You see a considerable dip in Play-Action/RPO on 3rd Down for Longo (Orange & Pink Columns become non existent)

Let’s go that layer deeper…

  1. A bit less running on Light Boxes…3rd & Longs???
  2. What concerns me is that R/P %’s are about even with Heavy Boxes…
    1. I don’t care about the down or distance…it doesn’t make sense to Run vs. a Heavy Box, especially with this Scheme and QB
  3. Minimal Play-Action/RPO, which we already pointed out

Again, the most important question is. Do these assumptions/assertions hold while looking at the YPA data?

Impact on YPA:

YES. YES. AND YES.

  1. Passing vs. Heavy Boxes has a gigantic outperformance to the average…
    1. I will be shouting from the rooftops all year!! If your gaps in YPA on Passing vs. Running on 3rd Down are this wide
    2. KEEP PASSING THE BALL
    3. Exploit the heck out of the wrong choice by the Defense. Every. Single. Time.
  2. An interesting thing I also noticed was the convergence of Run vs. Pass YPA on Light Boxes.

Bring on the Wisconsin Football Season:

Look, nobody is perfect. Nor is Phil Longo, but I’ll tell you this…His overall offensive Scheme/Philosophy is exactly what the Wisconsin Football Offense needed.

Add in Tanner Mordecai. Add in C.J. Williams, Will Pauling, and Bryson Green, along with Dike, Bell, and Lewis. Oh, and I almost forgot to mention the two STUD Running Backs we have in Braelon Allen & Chez Mellusi. This has all the set-up to be the deepest skill position group in Wisconsin Football History. All be it, one position group is coming into camp slightly thinner. That being the TE Room, but it’s nothing Riley Nowakowski who received high praise from Longo in his Presser, can’t help cover. So even if that room gets off to a slow start, those aforementioned Skill Position Players will be able to pick up that slack…and then some!

If you take anything away from this analysis, take this. Phil Longo is a MASTER at his craft. And although there are still significant opportunities for him to improve that I see. I think he’s at the top of College Football regarding Offensive Philosophy & Scheme. He also has recruited the talent to match that scheme. This still allows him to have high-powered offenses year in and year out, hiding those rare sub-optimal play calls.

Which is a fantastic place to be as an Offensive Coordinator!

On Wisconsin!


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Gard Your Fickell is a leading authority on Wisconsin Badgers analytics, specializing in dissecting the intricate data behind football and basketball. With a deep passion for the game and an analytical mindset, Gard Your Fickell offers readers a unique perspective on the Badgers performance.

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