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Behind the Numbers: Bryan Harsin vs Air Force

It’s all about the quarterbacks, bay-bee!

Boise State v Nevada Photo by Jonathan Devich/Getty Images

Every Bronco fan enters Air Force week with a healthy dose of trepidation. Boise has always had a kind of fearful respect of triple-option teams, dating back to the days when Rice ran up stupid numbers on an unsuspecting Bronco defense in 2001. The Broncos didn’t take that beating without an accompanying lesson, however, and promptly returned the favor in 2002.

With that historical backdrop of beatdown, adapt, return beatdown, the Bronco/Falcon ‘rivalry’ in the Mountain West is even more of an anomaly for Bronco fans. For three years in a row from 2014-2016, the Air Force Academy Falcons had their way with Bryan Harsin’s Broncos, forever scarring the psyche of an entire fanbase.

What happened in those three years? What changed to finally allow the Broncos to overcome the walking nightmare that is Air Force week? Assuming correlation DEFINITELY equals causation, OBNUG’s intrepid stats team took a Tustian dive into the numbers to find out the answer.

Seeing as Air Force is a service academy, here’s your Bottom Line Up Front briefing: for Boise State to win, there needs to be at least 4 different players with a pass attempt in the game, and the combined completion percentage needs to be above 60%

Fig. 1

Most casual observers will tell you the secret to beating the triple option is defensive assignment discipline. While that is undoubtedly a factor, our stats guys are here to tell you that it’s deeper than that.

If you look at the 2014-2016 years for both teams (and the combined stats for those years) you can clearly see that QB accuracy suffered in every BSU loss, especially for Boise State. Clearly, a major factor in beating the triple option is quarterback accuracy combined with receiver capability. To win, the Broncos will need an accurate passer and a bevy of talented receivers combining for a completion percentage of over 60%.

Another major factor in the Bronco wins was the amount of gunslingers taking shots downfield. You’ll notice that in both wins, there were a combined 4 players with pass attempts in each game. This stat is harder to predict, as sometimes it means a QB has been ineffective, but other times it’s a trick play with backups.

Boise State has tried both solutions in recent years, playing a backup QB and slotting in a receiver for trick plays, and combined with Air Force’s recent merry-go-round at quarterback, the 4 gunslingers per game has resulted in two Boise State wins.

With these stats in mind, how has the 2019 season stacked up so far? Are the Broncos trending towards a statistical win probability?

Fig. 2

Well, it’s a mixed bag, but it looks like the Boise State offensive quality assistants saw the same things we did. Clearly, Bryan Harsin is prepping for the necessary QB swaps, and Hank Bachmeier’s accuracy has been almost exactly on par for what is necessary to beat Air Force. Having Chase Cord get into the game last week was a masterstroke, to say nothing of warming up Jaylon Henderson in case the Falcons stick with their starter.

One might even go so far as to say that the tighter results in games 1 and 2 this season might be attributed to the failure to meet all the conditions of an Air Force win. Game 3’s failure to hit the combined 60% completion rating is more explicable when you factor in Portland State’s FCS status and how they tanked the combined numbers, not Boise State.

All things considered, it looks like the stars are aligning statistically for a narrow Boise State win, but we wouldn’t bet on it.

Things to watch for a Boise State win over Air Force:

  • Combined 60% completion rate
  • 4 or more players attempting a pass
  • Bonus: kickoff returns should average between 18 and 24 yards
Fig. 3

There’s not a lot of data to crunch here, but it’s fairly specific; that said, who’s gonna say no to John Hightower housing another kickoff?

  • Double Bonus: if Air Force punts 9 times, the Broncos are screwed. Seriously.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Please do not make any bets, prop or otherwise, on the statistical data contained in this article. We are pretty sure the stats team just drank a lot of caffeine and discovered the Conditional Formatting rules in Excel.