Receiving Through the Regular Season

Stats after today’s 38-21 Apple Cup win over Washington State.

Player             Tgt  Cth  Yard    C%     Y/T
-----------------------------------------------
Aguilar             58   36   521   .621    9.0
Kearse              70   42   501   .600    7.4
Williams            39   33   408   .846   10.5
Johnson             32   26   330   .813   10.3
Smith               18   15   208   .833   11.6
Campbell             3    2     8   .667    2.7

Player             Tgt  Cth  Yard    C%     Y/T
-----------------------------------------------
Seferian-Jenkins    50   36   479   .720    9.6
Hartvigson          13    8    30   .615    2.4
Hudson               1    1     2  1.000    2.0

Player             Tgt  Cth  Yard    C%     Y/T
-----------------------------------------------
Polk                30   29   324   .967   10.8
Callier              7    6    37   .857    5.3
Sankey               6    6    14  1.000    2.3
Tucker               2    2    12  1.000    6.0
Amosa                2    1     7   .500    3.5
Fogerson             2    1     3   .500    1.5

Over the last four games, true freshman Kasen Williams has emerged as the Huskies’ best receiver. For the season, he leads all UW wideouts in catch percentage and is second to No. 5 receiver Kevin Smith in yards per target. Williams also is tied for the team lead in touchdowns with six despite playing sparingly the first half of the year.

Chris Polk added his fourth receiving touchdown and finished the year nearly perfect in terms of catching the football. Let’s also update where he stands on the leaderboards we posted four games ago:

Player              Year   Rec    Yds     YPC
---------------------------------------------
Greg Lewis          1989    45    350     7.8
Greg Lewis          1990    20    345    17.3
Hugh McElhenny      1951    --    339      --
Chris Polk          2011    29    324    11.2

Polk’s pace slowed a bit until the Apple Cup, but he’s still got a chance to become the all-time leading receiver among Husky running backs with a good bowl effort. Polk has also moved into third place in Washington history in yards from scrimmage, surpassing his own mark from last season.

Player              Year    GP    Rush    Rec     Yds
-----------------------------------------------------
Corey Dillon        1996    12    1695    304    1999
Greg Lewis          1990    11    1407    345    1752
Chris Polk          2011    12    1341    324    1665
Chris Polk          2010    13    1415    180    1595

Given that Polk is averaging nearly 140 yards from scrimmage per game, he stands an excellent chance of moving past Greg Lewis and coming up with the second most prolific season ever for a Husky running back.

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Have the Huskies Regressed?

After beating Colorado on Oct. 15, the University of Washington football team stood 5-1 and unbeaten in conference play. The Huskies climbed back into the rankings for just the second time in recent memory. Since then, Washington has won just once in five games. Now, the Huskies need to beat rival Washington State in the Apple Cup just to ensure a winning season. The polls are a distant memory.

Obviously, the schedule has been a factor. Before Saturday’s disappointing performance in Corvallis, Washington’s three losses had all come against teams ranked in the top 10 in the country this week — two of those three on the road. Have the Huskies really gone backward, or is the issue simply a matter of schedule?

To try to answer that question, I turned to Jeff Sagarin’s ratings. Using his Predictor rating for each team (the better measure of team quality) and adjusting for home field, I came up with projections for how Washington should have been expected to fare in each game. Graphically, here’s what that looks like:

In this case, because we’re looking at the expected point margin from the Huskies’ perspective, the hardest games are naturally at the bottom and the easiest games at the top. Naturally, Washington’s three easiest games came in the first six weeks of the season, while the top-10 matchups have been the most difficult. One interesting note is that if the Huskies had been perfectly consistent all season, they would actually have a worse record — 5-6 instead of 6-5. While Washington “should” have beaten Oregon State, wins over California and Utah were both unexpected given the Huskies’ overall level of play.

Now, let’s add in the actual results to come up with a schedule-adjusted measure of Washington’s game-by-game performance. That looks like this:

To some extent, there’s a parabola shape to the trend. The Huskies best stretch of the season by far came from Weeks 4-6, when they beat two solid Pac-12 foes in Cal and Utah and crushed Colorado more easily than expected. Before then, Washington had been no better than average and poor against Eastern Washington.

Over the last five weeks, it’s a little more difficult to show a pattern. The Huskies played relatively well against Arizona and as expected against Oregon. However, this stretch also includes the season’s worst two games, at Stanford and Oregon State.

One factor the statistics cannot incorporate is how the opponent was playing at the time of each game. When the Huskies beat the Bears, they were struggling. Only within the last five weeks or so has California surged behind an improved defense. Utah had backup quarterback Jon Hays getting his first D-I experience. While Washington deserves credit for slicing up a good Utes defense, Hays played about as poorly as expected in the second half. It took him several weeks to get comfortable, at which point Utah began to contend in the Pac-12 South. By contrast, the teams that were probably better at the time than the numbers indicate are the Huskies’ last two opponents. USC showed its strength last week in Eugene and Oregon State got a big first half from James Rodgers, who has been limited much of the season coming back from a knee injury.

Factoring that all in, I don’t think Washington was ever nearly as good as the record showed. The Huskies played at a top-25 level for precisely one game, at Utah. Until last Saturday, they had a single terrible performance, at Stanford. Basically every other game since the opening win over Eastern Washington had been within the amount of variation to be expected from game to game.

I’d basically throw out Saturday’s game in terms of evaluating Washington’s progress because Nick Montana started at quarterback. Since Montana posed almost no threat to the Beavers’ secondary, Oregon State was able to load up against the run and shut down Chris Polk after the first quarter. The Huskies’ defensive woes were to be expected given the way teams like Cal, Eastern and even Colorado have been able to move the football in the past. The two differences were that the Washington D was unable to get the stops in the red zone that had saved Nick Holt‘s unit in the past, and that Price wasn’t there to help the Huskies outscore their opponent in a shootout.

With Price presumably back as the starter on Saturday for the Apple Cup, we’ll have a better read on whether the team has really gone backwards. By the Sagarin method, the Huskies should be favored by 5.9 points against Washington State. A loss would be a sure sign Washington has in fact regressed, but a win would still allow the Huskies to head into bowl season on a positive note.

Never the Twain Shall Meet

To start today’s post, let’s go all the way back to December 2007. My family, all of us Huskies, was sitting around discussing the possibility of traveling to a bowl game or the NCAA Tournament. My brother, frustrated by my cynicism about the chances of that happening in the near future, boldly declared that both football and men’s basketball will enjoy postseason play during the upcoming season.

Had my brother done more research into the University of Washington’s history in the revenue-generating spots, he might have been a little less confident. In the 43 years since the Athletic Association of Western Universities reconstituted itself as the Pac-8 (eventually to become the Pac-10, the Pac-12 and perhaps someday the Pac-16), the Huskies have reached the NCAA tournament and played in a bowl game during the same academic year just six times — a three-year span from 1983-84 through 1985-86, back-to-back years in 1997-98 and 1998-99 and again last season.

It’s worth noting that standards for postseason play in both sports have changed dramatically in the last four decades. So it was that in 1971-72, Jim Owens‘ charges could go 8-3 on the gridiron while Marv Harshman‘s first hoops team went 20-6 and neither advanced to the postseason. (Sadly, the CBI wasn’t around to take the basketball team when it was snubbed by the NIT.) Still, the issue runs deeper than that. Take a look at a graph of Washington’s records in the revenue sports dating back to 1968-69:

The two graphs look somewhat inverted. Basketball performance makes a “U” or a “V” — strong in the ’70s and early ’80s, then down most of the ’90s before bouncing back in the 2000s. Meanwhile, football obviously peaked in the ’90s and has struggled since.

The inverse relationship between UW’s performance in football and men’s basketball becomes even more obvious when we chart the two records against each other:

For the most part, there’s a downward-sloping line, indicating that basketball does worse as football does better and vice versa. The correlation between the two winning percentages is -0.34, reflecting this inverse relationship and indicating that about a tenth in the variation in the Huskies’ basketball record could be predicted just by knowing how the football team performed the previous fall.

So far, 2011-12 is an outlier on the graph. I’m going to confidently predict that Lorenzo Romar‘s team will not finish the season undefeated. Nevertheless, this has a chance to be one of the best combined seasons for Washington revenue sports. Given the stability of the basketball program and the upward trend in football under Steve Sarkisian, there is every reason to believe the Huskies can have success in both sports in years to come. The target is 1984-85, when Don James led the football team to a rare Orange Bowl victory and Harshman’s last team won the Pac-10 behind Detlef Schrempf and Christian Welp.

There is an upside to having basketball and football teams constantly going in opposite directions, and it’s that Washington has rarely been bad in both sports at the same time. In fact, just once in the Pac-X era have the Huskies finished below .500 in both football and men’s basketball during the same academic year: 2007-08, the very season my brother predicted their success.

UW Receiving Through 11/12

Updated advanced receiving stats after the USC game.

Player             Tgt  Cth  Yard    C%     Y/T
-----------------------------------------------
Aguilar             50   31   466   .620    9.3
Kearse              57   36   429   .632    7.8
Johnson             32   26   330   .813   10.3
Williams            31   25   280   .806    9.0
Smith               16   13   169   .813   10.6
Campbell             3    2     8   .667    2.7

Player             Tgt  Cth  Yard    C%     Y/T
-----------------------------------------------
Seferian-Jenkins    37   26   377   .703   10.2
Hartvigson          13    8    30   .615    2.4
Hudson               1    1     2  1.000    2.0

Player             Tgt  Cth  Yard    C%     Y/T
-----------------------------------------------
Polk                26   25   280   .962   10.8
Callier              6    5    32   .833    5.3
Sankey               5    5    13  1.000    2.6
Tucker               2    2    12  1.000    6.0
Amosa                2    1     7   .500    3.5
Fogerson             2    1     3   .500    1.5

Total              283  207  2438   .731    8.6

A few notes:
– Finally, an incomplete pass to Chris Polk. Polk dropped a ball at the line of scrimmage to end his perfect receiving season.
– A 53-yard touchdown did wonders for Kevin Smith‘s yards per target, now good for second on the team.
– After taking over for the banged-up Keith Price, Nick Montana preferred to check down against the fearsome Trojans blitz. Just five of his 15 passes were thrown to wide receivers. According to the official play-by-play, four had no target at all, two went to Bishop Sankey and a full four were thrown to the busy Michael Hartvigson, accounting for nearly a third of his targets all season.

Evaluating UW’s Receivers

Saturday’s frustrating Husky loss to Oregon was accompanied by as much grumbling in the stands as I can remember since the end of the Tyrone Willingham era. Some of those complaints were directed toward senior wideout Jermaine Kearse, who had just three catches for 24 yards. Never the most sure-handed receiver, Kearse has had trouble with drops lately. The game’s highest-profile drop came from sophomore Kevin Smith, who had a touchdown in his grasp midway through the fourth quarter only to see the ball go through his hands. Washington subsequently turned the ball over on downs and never threatened again.

In the wake of those issues at receiver, as well as the ascension of a healthy Kasen Williams to co-starter with James Johnson, I wanted to take a deeper look at the Huskies’ receivers by charting all passes thrown to them. Using play-by-play, I counted the number of incomplete passes targeted to each receiver. I also counted penalties drawn, which ought to be credited to the receiver just like a catch.

This gives us the opportunity to look at two statistics that allow us to evaluate receivers more accurately. The first is catch rate, a Football Outsiders invention that simply looks at the percentage of all passes in his direction a player catches. Naturally, players who run deeper routes are going to have lower catch rates, so it’s also important to consider yardage, which I’m measuring with yards per target — which, again, includes penalties.

First, let’s benchmark things with overall team statistics:

Player             Tgt  Cth  Yard    C%     Y/T
-----------------------------------------------
Total              256  186  2291   .727    8.8

Note that these differ from the Huskies’ team statistics in that interceptions are not included. So too are a handful of passes that were not listed as intended for any specific receiver (throwaways). Taking these away, Keith Price‘s accuracy is amazing. Nearly three-quarters of targeted passes have been completed for almost nine yards per target. Player stats should be taken in that context.

First up: wide receivers.

Player             Tgt  Cth  Yard    C%     Y/T
-----------------------------------------------
Kearse              53   34   467   .642    8.2
Aguilar             49   30   461   .612    9.4
Johnson             32   26   330   .813   10.3
Williams            26   20   236   .769    9.1
Smith               15   12   116   .800    7.7
Campbell             3    2     8   .667    2.7

It’s not surprising that the Huskies’ slot receivers have caught a higher percentage of passes thrown their way than starters Kearse and Devin Aguilar. What is interesting is that Johnson has still averaged the most yards per target of any receiver. Inside routes have been effective for Washington this season.

Of the starters, Aguilar actually has caught a lower percentage of the passes thrown his direction than Kearse. Aguilar has done more with his receptions than Kearse. That’s really the bigger difference from Kearse’s successful junior season — the big plays that were Kearse’s trademark are gone this year. He’s averaging just 12.3 yards per catch, down from 16.0 as a junior and 17.3 as a sophomore. In part, Jake Locker‘s ability to throw the deep ball was probably a better match for Kearse’s skills. However, Kearse has also let some opportunities to make long receptions get away. He has certainly been guilty of drops, which are not generally tracked. (The Stanford play-by-play was more detailed and did show one drop, by Kearse.)

To his credit, Kearse has been the only Husky receiver who has forced opponents to commit penalties. He’s drawn a pair of pass interference calls and two holding penalties. The only other penalty on an eligible receiver I found was a pass interference call against Michael Hartvigson in the end zone that went for three yards. (One technical note: those penalties are not shown as targets above because they shouldn’t count against catch rate, but they are factored into yards per target.)

What are we to make of Smith catching 80 percent of the passes thrown his way but averaging just 7.7 yards per target? I’d attribute that to the ineffectiveness of Washington’s bubble screens and other throws at the line of scrimmage. Williams also has a series of those catches for one or two yards, so his above-average yards per target might be more impressive than it looks.

Player             Tgt  Cth  Yard    C%     Y/T
-----------------------------------------------
Seferian-Jenkins    32   22   329   .688   10.3
Hartvigson           9    6    17   .667    1.7
Hudson               1    1     2  1.000    2.0

No advanced statistics are necessary to see how productive Austin Seferian-Jenkins has been this season. The Huskies aren’t really using Seferian-Jenkins in a traditional tight end role, as he’s averaging a healthy 15.0 yards per catch, second only to Aguilar on the team. In terms of yards per target, he’s tied with Johnson for second. Hartvigson has generally only been an option following play action in short-yardage situations.

Player             Tgt  Cth  Yard    C%     Y/T
-----------------------------------------------
Polk                24   24   280  1.000   11.7
Callier              5    4    23   .800    4.6
Tucker               2    2    12  1.000    6.0
Amosa                2    1     7   .500    3.5
Fogerson             2    1     3   .500    1.5
Sankey               1    1     0  1.000    0.0

In terms of yards per target, no Husky receiver has been better than running back Chris Polk. Granted, a 70-yard touchdown against California probably has something to do with that. (Other than that catch, Polk is averaging 9.1 yards per target.) Remarkably, Polk has caught every targeted pass in his direction. I think there was one pass he didn’t catch, but it was overturned by a roughing the passer penalty. The rest of the backs have gotten sparing use in the passing game, though it’s worth noting that Tim Tucker had more catches on Saturday than Washington’s other fullback, blocking specialist Jonathan Amosa, has all season. Not bad for a guy who is also third on the depth chart at middle linebacker.