Jahvid Best has long been a highlight reel machine running the football, but one of the knocks on him has been a reputation for a lack of toughness. It was felt that, for all his speed, when you needed tough yards up the middle, Best wasn't the guy to give them to you. For every 20+ yarder he broke off, there were far too many runs up the middle for a yard or less, the sort of maddening inconsistency that can really stall an offense. Saturday night vs. the Maryland Terrapins, I think he took a good step forward towards remedying that.
To illustrate what was, I picked a game at random from last year: Cal's Emerald Bowl victory over Miami (FL). Jahvid Best finished that game with 186 yards and 2 TDs on 20 carries, a stellar 9.3 yards per carry average. In busting runs of 15, 19, 25, 28, 32 and 42 yards, he left television audiences breathless with his talent, cementing his status over the offseason as a darkhorse Heisman candidate. However, those 6 carries listed above also accounted for 87% of his yards on the night. Meanwhile, fully half of Best's carries vs. Miami (10 of 20) went for a yard or less -- a recipe for 2nd & long, 3rd & long, and stalled drives all night.
What I'd like to do now is illustrate a more concrete way of measuring the consistency of the running game. To do that, I'm going to introduce the concept of 'success rate'.
Success Rate is the standard for a lot of the stats I use. I've modified it slightly so that there's roughly a 44% chance of 'success' on any given play. Here are the rules according to down:
1st Down: 50% of necessary yardage. If it's 1st-and-10, you need 5 yards for 'success'. Football Outsiders use 40% for 1st down, but with the games I've entered, that led to a 1st down success rate of about 51%. Bumping the requirements to 50% led to the 44% rate for which I was aiming.
2nd Down: 65% of necessary yardage (rounded up to the nearest yard, of course). If it's 2nd-and-10, you need 7 yards for 'success'. 2nd-and-15? 10 yards. This makes sense, really, because to succeed regularly on 3rd downs, you need to stay at 3rd-and-5 or less. Getting most of the way there on 2nd downs sets you up infinitely better for 3rd down.
Football Outsiders uses 70%, but the success rate for that was around 42%. Weakening the requirements slightly got me into the range I was looking for.
3rd and 4th Downs: 100% of necessary yardage. I figure this requires no explanation.
I think this describes a fairly intuitive definition of what most football observers would determine a 'successful' play to be, at least under normal conditions. Applying this standard to Best's Emerald Bowl numbers, we find that just 11 of his 20 rushes (55%) were successful; the rest of them left the Bears in a lurch, facing 2nd or 3rd & long and needing a big play to keep the drive alive. Not that you could really pin all the blame on Best, as the rest of the Bears' running game wasn't any better. Add in Shane Vereen's 8 carries and Jeremy Ross' end-around, and Cal was still successful on just 16 of 29 rushing attempts, still a 55% average.
And as I did more research, it turns out that, despite all the misfires, a 55% success rate is actually pretty good, at least for our Bears. Only 3 times last season did the Bears have success at a greater rate, all against terrible teams (Colorado State, Stanford, and an amazing 71% success rate vs. Washington, who had by that time given up on both their season and their coaching staff). The mean was about 46%, and that included some terribly unsuccessful days vs. Maryland (36%), USC (25%) and Oregon (22%, with 3 fumbles in the rain).
Versus Maryland last Saturday, however, the Bears found a lot more success on the ground, and more importantly, they found it more consistently. All the major media outlets will focus on Best's 73-yard touchdown run, but I was equally happy to see Best gain 4, 5, 6 yards up the middle. Much of the credit, whenever you're running the ball, has to go to the offensive line, and this time was no exception. They opened holes and pushed defensive linemen around all night long, whether the ball carrier was Best, Vereen, Covaughn Deboskie-Johnson, Brian Holley or Peter Geurts.
Jahvid Best only had 10 carries Saturday night vs. Maryland before taking a seat, but those were some highly successful carries, picking up great yardage on 7 of them, an excellent 70% success rate. While Shane Vereen was less of a gamebreaker than Best, with rushing totals that weren't nearly as impressive (48 yards on 10 carries), the carries he did get were successful at an equally impressive rate (7 of 10). Throw in a couple more miscellaneous carries from Holley and Isi Sofele before Cal pulled all the starters and went into 'run straight into the line' mode, and Cal's running game posted a very impressive 73% success rate (16 of 22) for the game, better than any performance last year.
Speaking of Brian Holley, I was particularly impressed with the one carry he did get, wherein he drove forward straight into the line to pick up a yard on 3rd and 1, and then kept his center of gravity low and his feet moving to carry would-be tacklers forward for an additional four yards. Just like a fullback is supposed to do. As a group, Cal's run game was a perfect 4/4 on 3rd and short conversions, a statistic that makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside.
There are certainly nits you could pick with Cal's overall performance on Saturday night, but not much you could say against the run game. We don't yet know how good (or bad) Maryland's defense is relative to the rest of Division I-A, and we certainly don't want to get ahead of ourselves after one game, but I think this years' group could be better than last years', even without Alex Mack. Add in a confident Kevin Riley and an improved receiving corps, and the 2009 edition of the Bears offense could end up being very, very special.