A closer look at Brandon Allen’s late-game performance

Photo: Walt Beazley / ArkansasRazorbacks.com

In college football, “clutch” is a slippery, dual-threat kind of word which ultimately jukes those who try to define it, especially when it comes to the quarterback position. We think we know it when we see it, but trying to put it into a vial and mete it out often proves to be a fool’s errand.

One way to approach the issue is to look at tendencies almost no fan would define as clutch. Probably the most damning is subpar performance in the fourth quarter of a loss. It’s usually unfair, but a quarterback who fails to complete a few timely passes in crunch time, and/or turns the ball over, inevitably becomes the masses’ scapegoat. Through much of the first third of this college football season, Exhibit A has been the Razorbacks’ very own Brandon Allen.

By many metrics, the senior quarterback from Fayetteville, Ark. is having a superb season. Allen is completing 66% of his passes for 282 yards a game and is near the top of most SEC passing categories. He’s the fourth-best first-half passer in Power 5 conferences:

2015 SeasonSchoolConference1st Half Rating
Seth RussellBaylorBig 12237.21
Cody KesslerUSCPac 12210.85
Kyle AllenTexas A&MSEC194.46
Brandon AllenArkansasSEC191.64
Deshaun WatsonClemsonACC189.34

But in close games, dating back for more than two seasons now, Allen’s hot starts keep coinciding with cold finishes. In 2013, his QB rating dropped about 50 points on average from the first half to the fourth quarter. Last year it was at that level again – the worst dropoff in the nation:

2014 SeasonSchool1st Half Rating3rd Qtr Rating4th Qtr Rating1st Half/4th Qtr Diff
Brandon AllenArkansas137.96151.9186.56-51.4
Brad KaayaMiami (FL)158.64152.71107.36-51.28
Chad VoytikPittsburgh152.16143.04112.61-39.55
Travis WilsonUtah138.85140.4499.52-39.33
Kevin HoganStanford158.47125.80119.86-38.61

Allen’s inefficiency down the stretch affected his teammates, and visa versa. The offense on the whole was Top 10 when it came to advanced statistics-spiked first-half punch, but staggered to a No. 82 ranking in fourth-quarter production. It should be no surprise Arkansas lost all four of its close games in 2014. Still, as all we all know, the team finished strong, dominating three of four of its last games. The good vibes were supposed to carry over into this season.

For the most part, they have not.

Arkansas recently lost three games in a row and is a 17-point underdog heading into this Saturday’s game at Alabama. Until last week, its reshuffled offensive line was slow to click, and injuries to an all-SEC running back and three top wide receivers have hurt the team’s explosiveness. In losses against Toledo, Texas Tech and Texas A&M, the Hogs regularly stymied their own offensive momentum with ill-timed penalties in the second half. Almost all offenses have an efficiency dropoff in the fourth quarter, but Arkansas’ drops off to a degree extent than most other teams (see situational stats halfway down here).

The defense did stiffen down the stretch of Arkansas’ most recent game, a 24-20 win at Tennessee, but the pass offense is struggling at these junctures. At the end of each of this year’s three losses, Allen missed important throws. Against Tennessee he performed well as a game manager down the stretch, and definitely made big throws earlier in the game, but credit for closing late largely goes to the offensive line and running backs for pounding out the clock. In the fourth quarter, Allen overthrew his wide-open Hunter Henry, a 6’5” All-SEC tight end, on a touchdown pass attempt in the red zone. “I’m shocked that Brandon’s having a difficult year getting the ball to the people that are open when they’re open,” Fox Sports’ Tim Brando told Sports Talk with Bo Mattingly last week. “He’s still late getting the passes to the receivers when they need to be there. I thought he would be ahead of schedule.”

In end-game situations, the consistency expected from an experienced fifth-year senior hasn’t yet emerged. Allen is again No. 1 in the nation in terms of first half-to-fourth quarter rating dropoff among starting quarterbacks:

2015 SeasonSchool1st Half Rating3rd Qtr Rating4th Qtr Rating1st Half/4th Qtr Diff
Brandon AllenArkansas191.64147.47105.39-86.25
Jared GoffCalifornia172.35223.5094.52-77.83
Connor CookMich. St.184.59117.72108.78-75.81
Sam RichardsonIowa State156.55179.3683.03-73.52
Justin ThomasGa. Tech163.50148.4398.56-64.94

Most 2016 NFL mock drafts peg Connor Cook and Jared Goff as the nation’s top two quarterback prospects. Both lead undefeated teams right now. Those facts have helped immunize them from criticism about their fourth quarter performances so far this year.

While “clutch” is largely undefinable, ESPN has tried to define enough of it to spice up their “Total Quarterback Rating” secret sauce. This is a proprietary statistical measure which is a still imperfect but more accurate way to gauge quarterback performance and how that affects winning. Going beyond the quarterback passer ratings shown above, the Total QBR takes into account more factors like rushing yards, fumbles and whether a dropped pass is a wide receiver’s fault or not.

It also includes a “clutch” factor which takes into account field position and how close the game appears to be at a specific point in time. “Down four points with three seconds to go and facing third-and-goal from the 3-yard line — that is a high-pressure and high-clutch index situation because the play can realistically raise the odds of winning to almost 100 percent or bring them down from about 40 percent to almost zero percent,” advanced stats sensei Dean Oliver wrote.

The NFL quarterbacks who consistently perform better in these kinds of circumstances become lionized in American culture as “winners.” And so, the likes of Joe Montana and John Elway and Aaron Rodgers – whom Miami quarterback Brad Kaaya considers as “the definition of clutch” – become perceived as crunch-time performers who elevate their play at the end of games. Sometimes, though, they separate themselves from the pack by simply avoiding as big of fourth-quarter dropoffs.

How much is your definition of “clutch” tied to performance in the fourth quarter and overtime? Despite the body of evidence till now, do you expect Brandon Allen’s late-game passer rating will improve from here on out?

For more from Evin Demirel, visit BestOfArkansasSports.com.