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How NC State football has stayed ahead of the analytical curve

Take the field with the Wolfpack

Experience the excitement as NC State takes the field before the Wolfpack's ACC home opening victory over Syracuse at Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh, NC Saturday, Sept. 30, 2017.
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Experience the excitement as NC State takes the field before the Wolfpack's ACC home opening victory over Syracuse at Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh, NC Saturday, Sept. 30, 2017.

Rob Ash used to be Dave Doeren’s coach. In one way, he still is.

Ash, after 42 years of coaching, took a job in January as the director of coaching development for Championship Analytics, Inc.

CAI, a statistical analysis company founded by a pair of Northwestern graduates in 2011, uses thousands of games of data to help coaches with fourth-down decisions, when to go for a 2-point conversion and how to manage the clock.

It’s the data-based concepts of “Moneyball” applied to college football. Instead of “going with your gut” or trying to do the math on the sidelines in the rush of the moment, CAI’s “Game Book” provides its subscribers with 50-plus pages each week of color-coded charts, which cover dozens of scenarios, and is backed by win probability odds.

“Better insights, better decisions, more wins” is the company’s tagline.

This is the third season Doeren has used CAI’s service but the first he is reunited with Ash, Doeren’s coach at Drake University. Ash helps prepare the customized weekly gameplans for the company’s clients.

“We text and talk periodically,” Ash said of Doeren. “It’s exciting for me to get a chance to work with him, but he’s the man in charge. He does pretty well on his own.”

N.C. State (5-1, 3-0 ACC) enters Saturday’s game at Pittsburgh (2-4, 0-2) ranked No. 20 in the country.

A little help from an old friend

Doeren and Ash, 66, go back almost 30 years. Doeren played tight end at Drake, a Division II school in Des Moines, Iowa, from 1990 to ’93. Two years later, Ash hired Doeren as a defensive assistant.

“He’s a good man,” Doeren said. “He gave me my first job.”

Doeren worked for Ash, as a linebackers’ coach and eventually defensive coordinator, for three years before going to Southern California in 1998 as a graduate assistant.

Doeren moved on and started his path to his first head-coaching job at Northern Illinois in 2011. Ash stayed and won 125 games in 18 years at Drake.

Ash moved up a level, to the Football Championship Subdivision in 2007 and won 70 games, and made the playoffs four times, in nine years at Montana State.

During the 2014 season, Ash was one of only three college coaches who subscribed to CAI’s service. He recommended to Doeren, who had finished his second season at N.C. State, to try it.

“He said, ‘I know you like the science behind things, you might want to just listen to them. It’s not the end-all, be-all, but it’s really interesting,’ ” Doeren said.

The NC State Wolfpack, after five consecutive victories, head to Pittsburgh to face the Panthers. The News and Observer's Joe Giglio explains why Pack fans need to take their worrying down a smidge.

How it works

Ash and his group (his son Scott is the director of football strategy) prepare pages of spreadsheets each week for their subscribers.

“We don’t diagram plays or get into how to block a certain defense,” Ash said.

The “how” is left up to the coaches on the field, but CAI provides the information to help “coach the coaches,” as Ash put it. The cells of the spreadsheet are color-coded with recommendations based on the statistical analysis of your team’s performance, the opponent’s performance and the national averages.

There are a lot of variables used before the computer spits out the recommendations. Each week, the recommendations are tailored for that specific opponent. The 2-point chart for the Louisville game, with potent quarterback Lamar Jackson on the other side of the field, is different than say for the Furman game.

The are no percentages in the cells on the spreadsheet, but the color-coding is based on win odds. There are six colors on a fourth-down chart inside the 35-yard line: Green is go for the first down, lighter green is recommended go, yellow is kick a field goal, lighter yellow is recommended field goal, red is punt and purple is recommended punt.

On the 2-point chart: Green is go for two, yellow is recommended go for two, red is kick the PAT, white is neutral and purple is take a knee.

CAI prepares the charts and then emails them to the teams. Under NCAA rules, coaches aren’t allowed to use electronics on the sideline or in the press box. So Kriss Proctor, N.C. State’s quality control assistant, has to print out the pages and put them in a three-ring binder.

When it’s time for a key fourth-down decision or 2-point try, the charts are consulted.

“Trust the chart,” Ash said.

Don’t just trust your gut

Fourth-down decisions, in particular, were of interest for Doeren. He gambled often with his first N.C. State team. Short-handed and outmanned in a winless ACC season in 2013, Doeren was willing to take more risks.

The Wolfpack was 14-of-31 on fourth down in 2013. Doeren went to the other extreme the next season, only going for it 10 times on fourth down in 13 games (and converted five times).

In his first season with the CAI subscription, which costs N.C. State $10,000 annually, Doeren’s team went 19-of-31 on fourth down, better than a 16 percent increase from the ’13 season.

“It has been great for us,” Doeren said. “It doesn’t always work, obviously the defense can stop you, but at least you know you’re doing it for the right reason.

“The odds are in your favor. If they don’t work out they don’t work out, but it’s better than saying ‘Hey, I just went with my gut.’ 

In six games this season, N.C. State has converted on 7 of 10 fourth-down tries and is 1-for-1 on 2-point tries.

Ahead of the trend

Like “Moneyball” in Major League Baseball or Daryl Morey’s statistical revolution in the NBA, analytics are starting to take off in college football with Ash’s help.

Ash has used his connections in the coaching world to help the company grow. CAI’s subscribers went from three in 2014, to 15 the next year and up to 60 teams, including 38 at the Bowl Subdivision level, this season.

Saturday’s game with Pittsburgh will feature two teams who use CAI’s service. Pittsburgh assistant Charlie Partridge is also one of Ash’s former players at Drake.

No worries about playing favorites, Ash said, that’s not how the numbers work.

“That’s the beauty of our system, the numbers are impartial,” Ash said.

Joe Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio

To go or not go?

The past two ACC games, N.C. State coach Dave Doeren has been in a late-game situation where he had to make a key decision about a 2-point conversion. How Championship Analytics, Inc. helped him make both decisions:

Oct. 5: vs. Louisville

Score: N.C. State 30, Louisville 19

Time: 10:07 in the fourth quarter

Decision: Go for 2.

A traditional 2-point chart, at this point in the fourth quarter, suggests Doeren should have kicked the extra point to make it a 12-point game. That way, Louisville can’t tie the game with a touchdown (plus 2-point conversion) and a field goal.

However, a traditional chart – which football coaches have relied on as long as the game has been played – does not factor in the opponent. CAI’s chart does.

Rob Ash, the director of coaching development for CAI, cannot talk about the specifics of any 2-point chart his company specifically prepared for N.C. State. He can, however, point out the obvious: Louisville has Lamar Jackson, the 2016 Heisman Trophy winner, at quarterback.

So the premise behind going for 2, up 11 with about 10 minutes left, is simple: Jackson is capable of putting up points in a hurry. Louisville scored 54 points against N.C. State in 2016. These are all factors when the chart is prepared before the game.

And, as Ash repeatedly points out, CAI’s mission is to provide its clients with “the best statistical pathway to victory.”

There are multiple scenarios involved in turning the cell “green,” including anticipating Louisville going for 2 on its next touchdown, but in short the decision boiled down to: kicking the PAT amounts to playing for a tie and going for 2 is playing for the win.

Ryan Finley completed a pass to running back Nyheim Hines for the successful conversion and N.C. State took a 32-19 lead.

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N.C. State quarterback Ryan Finley (15) passes to Nyheim Hines (7) for a 2-point conversion during the Wolfpack’s 39-25 victory over Louisville at Carter-Finley Stadium Thursday, Oct. 5, 2017. Ethan Hyman ehyman@newsobserver.com

Sept. 30: vs. Syracuse

Score: N.C. State 32, Syracuse 17

Time: 9:52 in the fourth quarter

Decision: Kick the PAT.

There’s slightly more gray area in this one. A 2-point conversion by N.C. State would have made it a 17-point lead or a three-score game. Essentially, the game would have been over. That would have been a highly aggressive call.

A 16-point lead, just kicking the PAT, overwhelmingly put the odds of a win in N.C. State’s favor.

CAI calculates the success rate of a 2-point try at 45 percent. So the probability of Syracuse successfully converting consecutive 2-point tries is 20.2 percent.

Later in the game, the math might have pushed the cell on the chart to “green,” not that Ash is willing to divulge any insider information.

“You’ll never know,” he joked.

Watch a time-lapse as NC State's Reggie Gallaspy beats two Syracuse tacklers on his way for a 10-yard touchdown run during the Wolfpack's victory over the Orange at Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh, NC Saturday, Sept. 30, 2017.

Joe Giglio

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