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November 21, 2011

Penalty woes hallmark of Erickson tenure

Like waking up with sleep-paralysis in the middle of a two-week nightmare, many Arizona State fans on the Arizona sideline side of Sun Devil Stadium sat inertly slumped into the bleachers as ASU held possession and a three point lead in the middle of the fourth quarter -- irregular behavior against an arch-rival on a night where even the most apathetic fan rises to be heard.

It was as if those who showed up in predominately black were frozen in a moment of unreality. They could not be experiencing the return of an age-old but now-dormant recurring night-terror -- the sequence of events were too perfectly diabolical. On the other hand, it could not be real-life either. How could it be possible for a team in the year of a long-envisioned return to prominence, a team that dominated USC, a team that less than 14 days ago could have ostensibly clinched the first-ever Pac-12 South had it just managed to keep UCLA's Kevin Prince - that Kevin Prince --from converting a 3rd and 29, be on the verge of losing to the Wildcats -- those Wildcats -- after entering its most important quarter in recent history with a ten point lead?

Not after a humiliating loss to Washington State and its third string quarterback was this something even ASU's worst enemies would wish upon them.

But there were the Wildcats with their knives in-hand, punching, incising, turning and twisting until they found the slowly-beating heart of a most-prized sacrifice.

A season long-ago choreographed, plotted and simulated to finally capture the Valley's full-attention -- aligned perfectly with Cardinals already out of the playoffs and the Suns out of work.

In the end, nothing -- not even the symbols of a long-planned and hard-fought re-birth -- could wiggle out of the cruel grasp of the dark forces in control -- call them football gods.

The seemingly finely-tuned game-day minutia and atmospherics turned into unpinned-hand grenades, one of the many weapons of self-destruction ASU's used since November 5th.

As ASU gave up the ball, and then the lead, the once-apropos musical selection for the Blackout redux -- the Rolling Stones' 'Paint it Black' -- blared through the stadium's antiquated sound-system.

"I see people turn their heads and quickly look away…. I look inside myself and see my heart is black… Maybe then I'll fade away and not have to face the facts… It's not easy facin' up when your whole world is black."

Not by the time Brock Osweiler's desperation pass bounced off receiver Mike Willie in the endzone, not when UA players stormed to midfield to erect their flag despite failed attempts to defend their home turf (surprise )could the depth of emptiness left in the wake of such a remarkable collapse be fully felt by those in and around the football program.

And while the woeful South division still somehow lends the Sun Devils an opportunity to back in, make that fall and crash down a steep mountain like a stunt car into the conference championship game, the jury is out on the current regime -- it's been placed at the scene of the crime and convicted on the basis of irrefutable DNA evidence.

Choke jobs are in the genes.

There's a reason some saw this meltdown coming even before 3-and forever was completed in a situation where only a hail-mary-could-beat-you, well-before 30 seconds of crucial clock were wasted because of incompetence, even before the Sun Devils defense gave up 600 yards of offense to a team that might struggle in Arizona's Division I high-school playoffs.

Here are some facts, starting with one most alluded to, but nevertheless the most shocking.

Since penalty yards began being tracked by the NCAA in 2000, three of Dennis Erickson's last eight college teams including Oregon State, Idaho, and ASU have ranked last in penalty yardage.

It bears repeating: Three times in eight years Erickson's teams have led the country in penalty yardage.

Four of the remaining five years his teams have finished in the bottom 15 in the country, with more than 100 of the 114-120 FBS teams displaying more discipline.

Erickson's best year, 2007, his team finished 76th in penalty yardage.

This year, Dennis Erickson's 9th as a coach since penalty stats were compiled, the Sun Devils rank 119th in the country.

The statistical likelihood of leading or winning anything in which there are more than 100 possibilities or competitors for three or four years in an eight to nine year period would, in some fields and industries, provoke investigations into illicit insider-knowledge or some form of system-gaming.

Outside of the scenario in which a team practiced synchronized helmet-throwing, or implemented a blocking technique like hand-shanking the opponent's throat and Achilles-heels, it's hard to imagine any one team, let alone three different ones under the same head coach, leading the country in penalty yards nearly once-every other year.

There are those who shrug their shoulders at the suggestion that penalties are even relevant.

They believe that there is no correlation between penalties and game outcomes.

Well, in each of the last nine years in which Erickson has coached a college team, FBS teams in the bottom-10 in penalty yards have an overall record of 618-510, a winning percentage of .547.

It's true; a lot of really good teams in the last decade have found themselves among the most penalized in the country.

But, take this somewhat short-sighted analysis a step further.

The numbers tell a much different story when you look at how teams those same teams fared in close games.

In nine seasons including this one, officially 2000-2002, and then 2006-2011, teams in the bottom 10 in penalty yardage had a winning percentage of .589 in games decided by more than eight points.

But in close contests, those decided by eight points or fewer, those same teams have a winning percentage of .467.

A drop of more than 12 percent -- statistically significant.

Suddenly the good teams, well-above average on the whole by any definition, play well-below average in tight ball-games.

Penalties matter.

How have Dennis Erickson's teams fared?

Including his stint in the NFL with the 49ers, Dennis Erickson's overall winning percentage since 2000 in games decided by more than eight points is .546.

Erickson's winning percentage in close games during that time frame? .377

Almost a 17 percent drop, meaning about two games over the course of a full college schedule. Erickson's teams are almost 13 percent worse than the average team in close games.

In games before 2000, Erickson has a career winning percentage of .679 in games decided by more than eight points.

Before 2000, Erickson had a winning percentage of .539 in close games.

Great teams performing slightly above average in close situations.

This year, teams in the bottom 10 of penalty yards have a record of 9-22 in close games. In those 22 close-game losses, the penalty-ridden team is averaging close to 17 more yards in penalties.

Seventeen yards is a lot in a close game. For example, according to statistical analysis done by the website Advanced Stats, having the ball at an opponent's 35-yard line is in itself worth roughly three points. Advancing the ball from there inside the 20-yard line would be worth more than a point.

Penalties matter.

But the deeper questions about why penalty-issues have never been fixed with Erickson's teams despite addressing them in the press on almost a weekly basis cannot be answered without becoming subjective and anecdotal.

Over the coming months and years , depending on Erickson's future, a full-picture will likely come into view.

To many, the typical Erickson narrative typically includes good to great recruiting, and it's true at most every spot relative to recruiting territory and normalized expectations, and then often leading to athletically superior teams with discipline issues. The conclusion depends on how much better Erickson's athletes are than the opponent -- at least that's a common re-telling.

You know the story.

But a 1990 study published in The Research of Personality Journal, authored by Daniel J. Garland (Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University) and John R. Barry (Georgia), might help explain some of the seemingly dueling forces in Erickson's coaching tenure -- impressive recruiting success and under-achieving football teams.

The study examined how certain personality traits of college football players could be used to predict success. It found that the traits most predictive of success for college football players were extroversion, emotional stability, tough-mindedness and group dependence.

Not surprisingly, many of the Sun Devils appear to display very low marks in those personality traits -- helping explain the disparity between athletic talent and performance.

But as it relates to Erickson's perceived relaxed-coaching environment/philosophy, two studies, including the one in 1990, looked at the predictive power of what a college football player wants in a head coach -- the desired and perceived personality traits of his coaching leaders.

One study found that when players preferred and perceived to have a coach with a more autocratic-decision process, by implication a more authoritarian and disciplined approach, the players were more successful in "situations of increased stress and competition."

Previous studies have shown that coaches with a more participatory or democratic approach are preferred by players in low-stress situations.

Under low-stress situations, the players who like more open, democratic-oriented coaches actually performed better than those who preferred more rigid dictators.

One could surmise then that it's not just Erickson's coaching style that leads to breakdowns late in "high-stress" situations, but the kind of players his coaching style attracts.


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