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Keegan Michel Details Harvard's Faceoff Work

The Crimson specialist enlightens Earth on what Harvard's work at the dot has been like.

That video features Keegan Michel discussing all the work that Harvard is doing this fall on faceoff play. That's good: Harvard -- like every other program on Earth -- should be high proficiency at the dot; teams that stay static get their teeth kicked in. However, the narrative of the video -- that faceoff play is the key to the Crimson's success in possession-generation in 2014 -- is somewhat misleading. Here's a table that reflects Harvard's possession situation in 2013:

Offensive Opportunities 455 45
Possessions per 60 Minutes Margin -0.85 39
Possession Ratio 49.35% 39
Percentage of Offensive Opportunities from Clearing Attempts 55.60% 32
Clearing Percentage 79.45% 60
Percentage of Offensive Opportunities from Faceoff Wins 35.38% 33
Faceoff Percentage 50.63% 27
Percentage of Offensive Opportunities from Successful Rides 9.01% 17
Riding Rate 15.89%% 16

Here are some notes to provide context to both the video and the table of magical statistics:

  • Harvard earned most of its possessions from clearing opportunities but ranked 60th nationally in clearing rate. (The residue is that the Crimson weren't turning offensive opportunities into functional offensive possessions, pitching away 52 opportunities that could have gestated in the box.) Importantly, the proportion of offensive opportunities that Harvard had in 2013 that were attributable to clearing postures was nationally average.
  • Harvard was decent on the draw in 2013 but earned a lower rate of offensive opportunities via wins at the dot than on defensive stops that lead to offensive opportunities. Importantly, the proportion of offensive opportunities that Harvard had that were attributable to faceoff wins was nationally average.
  • Harvard excelled at the ride and had a high proportion of offensive opportunities attributable to riding postures that led to failed opponent clears.

Given the above, how much will improved play at the dot help Harvard in 2014? It's, of course, totally unclear:

  • If Harvard clears the ball at a stronger rate -- a primary concern for the Crimson next spring regardless of what happens at the dot -- the Crimson will have more functional offensive possessions; as Harvard generated more offensive opportunities via the clear in 2013 (and are expected to in 2014 as no team in 2013 had more faceoff wins than clearing attempts (Duke had the closest margin with 12 more clearing attempts than faceoff wins)), there is more value for Crimson in increasing its clearing rate than its faceoff win percentage. In short, the balance of concerns bends toward clearing improvement rather than faceoff improvement.
  • However, if Harvard continues its struggles at matriculating the ball out of their own end, the Crimson's focus turns toward discovering other possession-generating aspects of play. Riding is a part of the game where Harvard could generate gains through an increased determination to become sociopathic in killing opponent clearing opportunities, but the marginal gains are arguably difficult to define given where Harvard was nationally in terms of riding rate in 2013 and whether the Crimson are prepared to go all out and bring about the defensive exposure that full-field riding necessarily entails. The default area of improvement, then, is an increased dominance at the dot. The more possessions that Harvard can generate through draw domination, the easier it is for the Crimson to erase their possession-generation issues with clearing the ball.
  • (Turnovers are also a concern and area for improvement for the Crimson, both in terms of possession-generation and possession-maximization. That, though, is a different story for another day.)
  • Even if Harvard crushes faces at the dot in 2014, what's the marginal value? Let's say that Harvard becomes a top 10 faceoff team and draws at around 57 percent. Based on 2013 numbers, the Crimson would have given themselves about 20 more offensive opportunities; that's a solid number and nothing to scoff at (it would have netted Harvard, in theory, about six more goals on the season). But if the Crimson had cleared like a top 10 team -- around 89.50 percent -- Harvard would have generated about 25 more functional offensive possessions (erasing 25 dangerous defensive opportunities that it needed to stop and netting Harvard, in theory, about seven more goals). The Crimson would still get more value out of an improved clearing effort than an improved faceoff effort.
  • You can make a decent argument that increased faceoff play helps close the possession margin that Harvard faced in 2013. Faceoff play can have a direct impact on how possession margins develop. However, if Harvard becomes a more efficient offensive (the team ranked 29th last season in adjusted offensive efficiency) and defensive (the team ranked 22nd last season in adjusted defensive efficiency) team, then the margin can move in the Crimson's favor in a different way. This is how Syracuse managed to face a 1.39 possession margin deficit (40th nationally, just behind Harvard) despite winning just 42.02 percent of their draws (55th nationally). In function, generating stops -- leading to clearing attempts and offensive opportunities -- at a higher rate grows the number of offensive opportunities that Harvard could have; finishing offensive opportunities with goals instead of green zone turnovers, failed clears, and opponent saves -- denying the opposition a return trip down the field -- at a higher rate limits the number of offensive opportunities Harvard's opponents could have. This creates margin. Regardless, faceoffs matter to possession margin, but it's not the lone driver.

Anyway, the takeaway here is that Harvard has layered possession issues, and better play at the dot isn't the only answer to the Crimson's issues. Nothing exists in a vacuum.