Noel Mazzone’s Offense Getting Up to Speed

In his fourth year as offensive coordinator at UCLA, is Noel Mazzone’s offense finally starting to operate at an elevated tempo?

When Mazzone came to UCLA from Arizona State before the 2012 season, one of the things he wanted to do was run a spread formation, uptempo offense, similar to what has gained attention around the country as the Hurry-Up No-Huddle (HUNH) run in places like Baylor, Texas Tech, and Oregon. This system seeks to run plays so quickly one after the other that defenses can neither substitute personnel efficiently nor make complex play-calling adjustments, leaving defenders scrambling to keep pace with the offense and be in position before the snap. It has the added benefit of wearing down a defense, and you’ll often see HUNH offenses pull away in the last 20 minutes of gametime as the pace of play takes its toll on the defense.

I did notice in that first 2012 season that the offense seemed to be moving a bit quicker. A rule of thumb I’d been taught for watching a football game on DVR/TiVo delay was to hit the ‘skip ahead 30 seconds’ button right as a guy is tackled, and you’ll pretty reliably pick up the action just as the next play is snapped. It worked for when I’d rewatch UCLA games (or get caught up if I had a conflict and had to tape the first few minutes of the game) until Mazzone showed up. Starting in 2012 I noticed pretty quickly that a 30-second skip when we were on offense would blow right through the following play because the Bruins were allowing less time to elapse between the end of one play and the beginning of the next. Tempo.

But even still we never seemed to move as fast as some of the teams we were facing – Houston, Oregon, Baylor, Washington State, Colorado, Cal. But that seems to have changed this year. The offense is moving at a pace I’ve not seen a Bruin offense operate before. One of you also brought that up to me on Twitter in response to my post earlier this week on coaching decisions:

That jibed with what I was seeing, so I ran the numbers, somewhat. There are a number of different ways to measure pace: total plays, plays per minute of possession, seconds per play, etc. The best that I know of is probably the Adjusted Pace stat developed by Bill Connelly of Football Study Hall and Football Outsiders. However, it’s unfortunately not available for me to dig through and compare across seasons. I’ve had to settle for seconds per play, which is a very rough calculation of total time of possession divided by the combined number of rush attempts and pass attempts on offense.

There are a number of problems with this approach, as it doesn’t account for penalties, kneel-downs, end of half, garbage-time, special teams, or numerous other factors which could play into a true measure of how fast the offense runs. However, I don’t have access to the kind of data (or time to parse the data I have) at a level of granularity that would capture those things. So don’t take these numbers as authoritative; I’m mainly interested in trends and comparing from year to year.

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I ran the numbers two ways, just as a cross-check. Total seconds/play is the combined time of possession for the season divided by the total number of offensive plays run. Average seconds/play is an average of the game-by-game seconds-per-play measure across the season. So the numbers are within rounding error margins of one another. For reference, the fastest offenses in the nation run at a sub-20 seconds/play rate, some as fast as 18. The slowest run in the 27-30 range, and the median seconds/play of the 128 Division I-A teams is around 23.

Sep 19, 2015; Pasadena, CA, USA; UCLA Bruins running back Nate Starks (23) hugs running back Paul Perkins (24) after he scored in the fourth quarter of the game against the Brigham Young Cougars at the Rose Bowl. Ucla won 24-23.Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

So these numbers have UCLA operating in the first three seasons of Mazzone’s offense at about the national mid-range in terms of tempo. I wanted to run the 2011 numbers as a comparison, but I couldn’t find reliable data, so I can’t confirm here that that was an improvement from previous offenses. One interesting note is that in those first three years, there is no correlation between offensive pace and whether the Bruins won or lost. They averaged 23.79 sec/play in their victories and 23.11 sec/play in their losses.

But you’ll notice that the pace has indeed picked up so far in 2015. The Bruins ran a play every 21.77 seconds against UVA, one every 18.64 seconds against UNLV, and one every 19.07 seconds against BYU. This puts them in that top 10-15 range nationally in offensive pace. (I can’t say for sure because I’m not going to run the numbers for all 128 teams across the first three weeks. Sorry.) Who knows if this is because of the teams they’ve played, because of the general experience of the offense, because Josh Rosen is a better fit than Brett Hundley for what Mazzone wants to do, or whatever reason. It will be interesting to keep track of this stat throughout the season. I’ll plan on reporting out at season’s end whether the Bruins sustain this higher tempo or if this is merely a product of small sample-size.