The 2019 Indiana offense is much improved. And while some of that improvement is rightfully due to the talented play of Michael Penix, it’s clear the transformation goes beyond the Florida freshman.
Kalen DeBoer deserves a lot of the credit. His play calling has, much more often than not, been outstanding. But there’s also been an improvement from Peyton Ramsey, something that will be very important in these final 4 games, including the bowl game.
Before we dig in, keep in mind this caveat. All of our stats come from the play-by-play data and is supplemented by our rewatching of the game and noting things such as air yards, missed tackles, first point of contact, etc. It’s possible that we’ve either missed something or mislabeled something, but with the large set of data we are pulling from we are fairly confident that any errors are insignificant. Now let’s dive in.
One consistent we have between 2017, 2018 and 2019 is Peyton Ramsey. He’s played enough this season that we can compare Indiana’s offense to the Mike DeBord offense. All the stats below are only when Peyton Ramsey was in the game.
The first thing I wanted to look at is whether the area of the field that Indiana is attacking has dramatically changed. And while Indiana has passed slightly more, including a tiny bit more deep, things are pretty similar. It doesn’t appear that Indiana has radically eschewed short passes for the higher upside of deep or intermediate passes. But rather, Indiana is executing the offense at a much higher level.
The next area of focus is success rate. Basically how well is the offense moving downfield without accounting for the explosiveness of a play. Teams with a high success rate can not only sustain long drives, but they also avoid dangerous 3rd-and-long situations.
For Indiana, a couple areas stand out as massive improvements. The first is passes at or behind the line of scrimmage, designated by LOS on the chart. That increase behind the line of scrimmage is heavily driven by passes to running backs, most likely on a swing pass or a dump off. These passes have improved from a combined 38% success rate in 2017-18 to a 47% success rate in 2019. Stevie Scott is at an elite 78% this year.
Passes to wide receivers behind the line of scrimmage continue to be unsuccessful for Indiana. That’s probably not a surprise given Ramsey’s arm strength and the quick timing needed to give the receiver an opportunity to make a move. And while this isn’t about Michael Penix vs Peyton Ramsey, it’s worth noting that Penix has a career 49% success rate throwing to WRs at or behind the line of scrimmage versus a 29% rate for Ramsey. Probably because of this, Indiana has targeted receivers behind the line of scrimmage less this year with Ramsey at QB.
The other area that sticks out are intermediate passes. While Ramsey is often criticized for his deep passing, intermediate throwing was his biggest weakness coming into 2019. Out of any area, these passes most require zip on a pass and his arm strength limitations made it difficult to execute. But this year he has excelled, averaging an impressive 78% success rate. It’s an added dimension to the offense, taking advantage of defenses making Ramsey beat them with his arm. It was huge in the Nebraska game against a Cornhusker defense that frequently loaded the box.
It’s clear that Indiana is catching a much higher percentage of passes all around, but especially in the 11-20 yard range. Diving into the intermediate passes a bit shows one possible explanation for the improvement. In looking at Ramsey’s passes to this area from 2017-18 and comparing the personnel for those 2 seasons to the group in 2019, it appears that Ramsey has been bolstered by a group of receivers and tight ends with better than average catch rates.
In fact, the top 6 pass catchers by success rate (with Donovan Hale being tied with Luke Timian at a 50% catch rate) are all on the 2019 team. It seems fair to say that Indiana’s 2019 pass catchers excel in this area. No one would argue that Whop Philyor has a great hands and speed combination that makes him a weapon all over the field. Getting him the ball as much as possible makes sense.
And while Nick Westbrook has been a talented receiver for Indiana for a long time, Ty Fryfogle has come on strong this year. He’s taken many of Westbrook’s targets with Ramsey at QB1 and been very dependable.
One final area that has been a big improvement with Ramsey at QB has been the limitation of turnovers. He’s thrown just 1 non-garbage interception in 117 attempts this year whereas he averaged an interception every 39 attempts between 2017-18. Factoring in fumbles, Indiana turned the ball over every 48 plays the past 2 seasons but only every 107 plays this year. That’s been a huge improvement.
In summary, It’s probably fair to say that Kalen DeBoer has generally maximized Peyton’s strengths and given him every opportunity to succeed. And it seems Ramsey has improved at quarterback, turning it over less and getting the ball to a talented group of receivers. While I have no idea if his arm strength has actually improved, I have no doubt that a junior Peyton Ramsey is better than a freshman or sophomore Peyton Ramsey. Finally, in the same way DeBoer has maximized Peyton’s strengths, he’s also taken advantage his pass catchers, led by a healthy Whop Philyor, by using them in the area of the field best suited for their skillset. In addition, DeBoer has dramatically expanded the role of Peyton Hendershot in the offense, and Hendershot has consistently delivered.
Indiana faces several tough tests down the stretch. Obviously many of us would rather have Michael Penix available given his natural abilities. But without him, there has been little drop off to Ramsey. His improvement under Kalen DeBoer has been so pronounced that there remains a high level of expectation that the offense can give Indiana a chance for victory in each of the remaining contests.