Gary Doran

Finding That “One Thing” for Winning Football Games


In the movie City Slickers the gruff cowboy philosopher Curly (played by Jack Palance), gives Billy Crystal’s character, Mitch, advice when he holds up one finger representing the one thing that is the secret of life. When asked what that one thing was, Curly replies, “That’s what you have to find out.” So following Curly’s advice, and being a bit geeky with stats, we dug into the statistical database of to see if we could discover that “one thing” that is the secret to winning ASU football games, and for many in the Sun Devil Nation, THAT is the secret of life.

In our search for the secret, we analyzed 54 ASU games starting with the 2012 season (head coach Todd Graham’s first), and ending with the Washington State game last week, leaving out seven games against lower-level competition. In those 54 games, ASU won 32 and lost 22 for a winning percentage of 59-percent. Although there is a multitude of “things” that could influence the outcome of the game, we choose five; having a better third down conversion rate, having fewer penalty yards, winning the turnover battle, gaining more total yards, or generating a higher average yards per play.

Let’s start with third down conversion rate. In the 54 games played, ASU won the third down conversion rate battle 24 times or 44-percent of the games, where ASU was 16-8 for a 67-percent winning percentage. The Devils lost the battle 23 times and were 12-11 in doing so. The seven games where ASU and their opponent finished even on third down conversion rates (seven times) have seen the Devils register a 4-3 record.

Next we looked at which team had the fewest penalty yards in the game, and found that ASU had fewer yards 36 times and recorded a 25-11 record then for a 69-percent winning percentage. The Devils accumulated more penalty yards in twelve of their games while compiling a 3-9 record as a result. And in the six games where the penalty yards were pretty much even, ASU was 4-2.

Graham has stressed winning the turnover battle since he arrived in Tempe, so perhaps this has been the “one thing” that is the secret of winning games. ASU won the turnover battle in 30 games (56-percent of the time), and won 21 of those games while losing nine, for a 70-percent winning percentage. There have been 16 games where ASU did not win the turnover battle and the Devils were 5-11 in those games. In the eight games the two teams had the same number of turnovers, ASU was a surprising 6-2 in those games (these games were helped by having several of the other factors being analyzed in their favor).

The fourth possible “one thing” was getting more total yards than the opponent. ASU was able to do that in half their games (27), and was a whopping 22-5 when they outgained their opponent for an 81-percent winning percentage. In the 24 times they were outgained, the Devils were a disappointing 8-16, winning only a third of those games. Total yardage was virtually even in three games where the Devils were 2-1.

The final factor analyzed was when ASU got the higher average yards per play compared to their opponent in their games. That happened 21 times, or roughly 40-percent of the games analyzed. In those games ASU went 19-2 for an Alabama-like winning percentage of 90-percent. Unfortunately, teams have gotten higher average yards per play more than half of the 54 games analyzed, where ASU was 10-19 when their average yards per play was outmatched by their opponent. Four of the games saw both teams generate roughly the same average yards per play, with ASU going 3-1 in those games. Another way to look at this “one thing” is that when ASU doesn’t lose out on the average yards per play in a game, they end up winning 88-percent of the time. That’s impressive!

So it seems as if we have found the “one thing” in this group of factors that gave ASU the winning edge. The Sun Devils just needs to go out and get more yards per play than its opponent each game, however, that’s not something the team has been doing much at all this season, as the only game ASU had a higher yards per play than its opponent was against UTSA.  That’s got this writer thinking Curly would be a little disappointed.


About Gary Doran

Gary Doran

Gary graduated from ASU many years ago. After careers working in banking, finance and the financial administration of academic research funding, he is now interested in utilizing his passion for numbers towards two things he thoroughly loves; Arizona State University and college football. He is looking forward to finding the “stories” buried within the numbers on a football stat sheet. He has gone to ASU football games all the way back to the days of Frank Kush and the WAC. He has been married to an amazing ASU graduate for almost forty years, and they currently live in Ventura, CA. Although this may disqualify him from talking football, he and his wife enjoy the practice of yoga and dancing the Argentine Tango. Ole!

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