View from the West Balcony


Posted Nov 7, 2004


The Fighting Illini are lucky to have two running backs the caliber of sophomores EB Halsey and Pierre Thomas. Having two backs with different styles like Thomas and Halsey has lead many Illini fans to discuss on the Football Fan Forum which back is the better player and should be getting the majority of the carries for Illinois. In his latest View from the West Balcony, Brumby looks at the play by play data and creates a modified DVOA statistic to compare EB Halsey and Pierre Thomas.

There has always been a running thought through my head, and through the head of many people that I have talked to both in person, and on the IlliniBoard.com Football message board that the Illini would be better off moving EB Halsey out into the slot receiver position, and giving Pierre Thomas the majority of the carries out of the Illini backfield. All I had to base this assumption on was my eyes and what I saw on the football field, so I decided to look at the play by play data for the first ten games of this season to validate my hypothesis that Illinois would be better off served with Pierre Thomas getting the majority of the carries.

I have been reading sites like The Football Outsiders and their associated book, the Pro Football Forecast for the last few months trying to learn more about football, and ways to break down football into the minute details that will allow better comparisons between players. To compare EB Halsey and Pierre Thomas as rushers, I went back to the play by play detail available to me through FightingIllini.com and used a modified version of how the Football Outsiders create their DVOA (Defense Adjusted Value Over Average) to compare Halsey and Thomas.

The system I used was:
Standard Points
  • On first down, if the player got 45% of the needed yards (to either the first down marker or the end zone in and goal situations), they earned one success point.
  • On second down, if the player got 65% of the needed yards (to either the first down marker or the end zone in and goal situations), they earned one success point.
  • On third and fourth downs, the player would only receive a success point if they got a first down.
Bonus Points
  • For every ten yard run, a player will earn three bonus points.
  • For every twenty yard run, a player earns four bonus points.
  • For every forty yard run, a player earns five bonus points.
  • For every sixty yard run, a player earns six bonus points.
Penalty Points
  • For every loss of three yards, a player will lose one point.
  • For every lost fumble, a player will lose four points.
  • For every fumble (not lost), a player will lose one point.
The system used by the Football Outsiders on their web site and in the Pro Football Forecast is much more complex, and utilizes play by play data across the entire league to derive the value above the average player in the league. I did not have the time, nor the inclination to create a mimic of the DVOA, but I liked how they were grading players with it, so I used a slightly modified version of how they generate their success and penalty points for my analysis.

Again, before I show you the highlights of the analysis, and the standard football statistics, I want to state again my hypothesis and show you the standard rushing statistics for both EB Halsey and Pierre Thomas on the first ten games of this season.

My Hypothesis: Illinois would be best served with Pierre Thomas receiving the majority of the carries out of the backfield, and moving EB Halsey to the slot receiver position.

I came to that hypothesis based on what I watched on the football field, and what I saw in the box scores. EB was a much more prolific pass catcher, while Pierre was a better runner when you look at both total yards, and yards per carry.

PIERRE THOMAS
RUSHING STATISTICS
CAR YDS YPC LONG TD
94 577 6.1 69 5
RECEIVING STATISTICS
CAR YDS YPR LONG TD
12 87 7.3 34 1
 


EB HALSEY
RUSHING STATISTICS
CAR YDS YPC LONG TD
102 443 4.3 23 5
RECEIVING STATISTICS
CAR YDS YPR LONG TD
17 95 5.6 12 0
 


Just looking at these numbers, probably the most shocking thing is that both Pierre and EB both have about the same number of yards receiving out of the backfield, and Pierre has the only touchdown between the two running backs. Even with that slight anomaly from what I viewed on the field, these basic statistics do help in proving that Pierre should be Illinois' main ball carrier.

But now what happens when I look at the success points per play for each running back using the system I described above? After looking through the play by play data, and marking down each play with down and distance, yards gained, and result into an Excel spreadsheet, I was ready to go with an analysis. I will not bore each of you with the details of each play, but I will break down the derived rankings both by game and by the entire season to date.

  Success Points Success Points
per Rush
 
FLORIDA A & M
EB Halsey 17 1.13  
Pierre Thomas 19 1.36  
UCLA
EB Halsey 16 0.76  
Pierre Thomas 3 0.50  
WESTERN MICHIGAN
EB Halsey 16 0.80  
Pierre Thomas 12 1.09  
PURDUE
EB Halsey 21 1.62  
Pierre Thomas 11 1.38  
WISCONSIN
EB Halsey 4 0.50  
Pierre Thomas -1 -0.20  
MICHIGAN STATE
EB Halsey 1 0.25  
Pierre Thomas 25 1.19  
MICHIGAN
Pierre Thomas 14 0.78  
MINNESOTA
EB Halsey 2 0.29  
Pierre Thomas 0 0.00  
IOWA
EB Halsey 10 0.50  
INDIANA
EB Halsey 1 0.25  
Pierre Thomas 35 1.67  


Just looking at these by game statistics, Pierre Thomas was more successful gaining yards on the ground than EB Halsey in the Florida A & M, Western Michigan, Michigan State, and Indiana games. EB Halsey was more successful in gaining yards towards an Illinois score than Pierre Thomas in the UCLA, Purdue, Wisconsin, and Minnesota games.

EB's most "successful" game based on the success point statistic that I decided to use was Illinois' 38-30 loss to the Purdue Boilermakers with 1.62 success points per rushing attempt in that game. The most "successful" game that Pierre Thomas had based on this same measure was this week's win over the Indiana Hoosiers with 1.67 success points per rushing attempt.

The table below shows the above numbers summed up over the entire season.

  Total
Success Points
Total Rushes Success Points
per Rush
EB Halsey 83 102 0.81
Pierre Thomas 118 94 1.26


Now I don't claim that this research tells me everything I need to know about both Pierre Thomas and EB Halsey, but I think it adds support to the hypothesis I stated above. When you look at the success points across the whole season, with each rush Pierre is 150% more successful than EB.

Hopefully, next season, whoever the Illinois head coach will be will notice that both Pierre and EB need to get their hands on the ball, but that Pierre is better with his hands on the ball out of the backfield than EB. When you bring in the addition of Rashard Mendenhall to the Illini backfield, the rotation gets even more crowded than with just Halsey and Thomas and full back Jason Davis. I think next spring would be the perfect time to move EB Halsey into the slot receiver where he can be very effective, and then Illinois can use the combined rushing attack of both Pierre Thomas and Rashard Mendenhall.



Related Stories
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 -by IlliniPlaybook.com  Oct 5, 2004
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 -by BadgerNation.com  Oct 1, 2004

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