Photo by Scobel Wiggins – UltiPhotos.com

It promises to be a great matchup and a closely fought game when the Vancouver Nighthawks travel to Portland to play the Stags for the Western Conference Finals on Saturday night at 7 p.m. PT. To better understand the matchup, here’s a by the numbers breakdown of the two teams over the course of the regular season.

First, let’s start by concentrating on the Nighthawks. In this summary of their ten games in the regular season, other than the completion percentage, all data are the per game average. Numbers that are significantly different between the Nighthawks and their opponents have been bolded.

PointsThrowsCompletionsCompletion %DropsDefensesPlayers with Points
21.222219989.50%5.510.416.5
Opponents18.225522989.73%3.610.214.5

As you can see, the Nighthawks outscored their opponents by a healthy average of three points per game over the season in spite of completing 30 fewer throws on 33 fewer attempts. They also had a few more drops per game and had two more players scoring points each game than their opponents.

The most interesting stat is the fewer throws by the Nighthawks compared to their opponents. Given that each time a team throws the disc, it creates the chance for a turnover, and an efficient offense like Vancouver’s can be a clear advantage if it is functioning properly.

But there are two games that are outliers in the data. Two of the Nighthawks’ games, the lowest-scoring games of the season, were played in very strong winds in San Francisco, one a 13-12 loss for the Nighthawks and the other a 17-15 win. Here’s a look at just the eight games that weren’t played in San Francisco.

PointsThrowsCompletionsCompletion %DropsDefensesPlayers with Points
22.922821092.05%3.99.517.3
Opponents19.326824691.82%2.58.514.4

As you would expect, scoring and completion percentage went up and drops went down for both the Nighthawks and their opponents. The advantage in number of throws and completions for the opponents widened, and in these eight games the Nighthawks now have an average of three more players managing a point each game than their opponents.

Wins vs. Losses

In the regular season, the Nighthawks earned six wins and four losses. The following chart highlights their statistics in the wins.

PointsThrowsCompletionsCompletion %DropsDefensesPlayers with Points
24.723221391.81%5.210.718.2
Opponents17.825623089.79%3.77.314.0

Here are the stats for the four losses.

PointsThrowsCompletionsCompletion %DropsDefensesPlayers with Points
16.020717792.05%6.010.014.0
Opponents18.825422791.82%3.514.515.3

Comparing the wins with the losses, the Nighthawks’ opponents’ offensive stats are remarkably similar, but the opponents averaged seven more D’s when Vancouver lost. The reverse is true for the Nighthawks. The number of D’s Vancouver earned is almost the same in the wins and losses, but the points scored, number of throws and completion percentage increase significantly in the wins. And the Nighthawks also have a lot more players scoring a point in the wins, but that may be nothing more than an artifact of some blowouts allowing the Nighthawks to empty the bench late in the game.

Taken together, these statistics seem to indicate that the swing factor that decides whether the Nighthawks win or not is the success of their offense. They can count on their deep D-line getting the job done, but if the O-line can move the disc quickly up the field according to the coaches’ design, they have a much better chance of winning the game.

Vancouver vs. Portland (3 Games)

PointsThrowsCompletionsCompletion %DropsDefensesPlayers with Points
19.019918291.29%3.78.015.0

20.030529094.87%2.09.015.3

There is a clear contrast in styles between the Stags and the Nighthawks. The number of points, defenses and number of players who score are almost the same, but the Stags take more than 100 more throws per game, completing a remarkably high proportion of them, almost 19 out every 20.

“We have a somewhat different offensive system than Portland which is why you see the difference in number of passes,” said Nighthawks head coach and GM Andrew Lugsdin. “We really focus on getting the disc from one lane cutter to the next whereas Portland is effective at moving the disc among their handlers to then create opportunities upfield.”

Here’s an example of two consecutive points from their most recent meeting, one by Vancouver and next by Portland, which highlights the difference in their offensive style.

Cue this video up at 20:20.

[iframe width=”624″ height=”360″ src=”//www.youtube.com/embed/_9NsbQ8tfww” frameborder=”0″ allowfullscreen]

 

The Nighthawks O-line has received the pull, turned it over and then got it back again in their own end zone. Handler Kevin Underhill walks the disc up to the goal line, then finds cutter Jordan Tessarolo for a short gain. Tessarolo then completes a pass to fellow cutter Matt Berezan for a 10-yard gain, with a foul by Portland adding another 10 yards. After the penalty, Berezan gains some good yardage by finding cutter Gagan Chatha for another 10-yard gain. After looking upfield, Chatha dumps it off to Underhill, who immediately moves it to handler John Norris, who immediately hucks it to Chatha in the end zone, Chatha having alertly struck down the field after the dump.

This is classic Nighthawks offense — six passes, a number of them from cutter to cutter, to travel the length of the field in 30 seconds of live play.

Now watch the next point. Portland throws 15 passes in 45 seconds for their score. Most are short little dumps and swings among their handlers, with the only two passes over 10 yards in length being a swing across the field which gains no yardage plus the half-field huck for the goal.

To flesh this out, here’s a comparison of the statistics in Vancouver’s win over Portland with those from their two losses against the Stags, starting with the win.

PointsThrowsCompletionsCompletion %DropsDefensesPlayers with Points
2019618292.86%2814

1830729395.44%1914

And now the data for the two losses.

PointsThrowsCompletionsCompletion %DropsDefensesPlayers with Points
18.520118290.52%4.5815.5

21.030528894.58%2.5916

Although it is dangerous to generalize from such a small sample, and the data has not been controlled for home vs. away games, it is evident that, at least according to these statistics, there is very little difference between Vancouver winning and Portland winning. The only real difference is that when Vancouver loses, they have a few more drops and slightly fewer passes completed, but most of those drops came in their first game of the season. Also note that other than during the two wind-addled games in San Francisco, half of the Nighthawks’ drops came in that first game of the season against Portland, and their next game against Seattle, indicating they have tightened up their catching enough that it is unlikely to be an issue this weekend.

Now it’s time to dig in to some of the research done by the Nighthawks’ dedicated statistician, Professor Jennifer Bryan of the University of British Columbia Department of Statistics, who is not just a whiz with numbers but has a long ultimate pedigree. (And after every home game ends you can see her three kids out on the field catching and throwing remarkably well for their ages.) She has managed to gather the data from all ten Nighthawks games this season plus the game where the Stags played the San Francisco Dogfish on April 26, so the first group of charts is based on 10 Nighthawks games but only four Stags games, and should be interpreted accordingly.

All the charts will pop out in a larger size if you click on them.

Her first chart chart represents how possessions end, divided into the following categories:

  • G = goal
  • off – = offense gives it up = throwaway + drop + travel + stall + offensive foul
  • def + = defense directly forces turn = knock down D + interception + hand block + foot block
  • eop = end of period

 

How Possessions End

How Possessions End

According to our sample, in spite of the two teams’ very different offensive schemes, there is little difference in the results they achieve. Gven the inconsistency of the data, these differences are not meaningful.

So let’s dig a little deeper. The following chart presents the same data, but broken apart by whether it’s the O-line or the D-line playing offense. Remember that when there is a turnover, the D-line starts playing offense. Occasionally a timeout is used to bring on the O-line during what we are calling a D-line offensive point, but this occurs so rarely it is insignificant for agglomerated data like this.

How Possessions End, By Line

How Possessions End, By Line

Now we can see a significant difference. Portland’s O-line is much more efficient than Vancouver’s at converting possessions into goals, by a margin of 48% to 42%, while Vancouver’s D-line has the advantage over Portland’s, 47% to 43%. It’s the efficiency of the offensive possessions by Vancouver’s D-line after they have forced a turnover which makes the overall offensive efficiency so similar between the two teams.

Now let’s dig even deeper by breaking out the categories off- (the offense lost possession) and def+  (the defense took it away).

  • G = goal
  • D = knock down D + interception + hand block + foot block
  • TA = throwaway, i.e. turnover that is neither a drop nor a clear D
  • TD = drop
  • eop = end of period
  • VTT = violation travel turnover
  • VST = violation stall
  • off F = offensive foul
How Possessions End, Detailed

How Possessions End, Detailed

As in the first chart, there is not much to choose between the teams, so here’s the same data broken out by O-line vs. D-line.

How Possessions End, Detailed, by Line

How Possessions End, Detailed, by Line

You can see that Vancouver’s D-line is much more likely to score when they gain possession than their opponent’s D-Line is when they gain possession, because Vancouver’s D-Line is much less likely to turn it back over through an error or a D by the other team.

Now let’s zero in on just the head to head game between Vancouver and Portland.

First, here is how the possessions ended in the three games.

  • G = goal
  • off – = offense gives it up = throwaway + drop + travel + stall + offensive foul
  • def + = defense directly forces turn = knock down D + interception + hand block + foot block
How Possessions Ended, Vancouver vs. Portland

How Possessions Ended, Vancouver vs. Portland

Portland’s conversion of possessions into goals dropped back after the first meeting in the first game of the season. Vancouver’s conversion rate was more scattered, but was definitely at its best in the last meeting, which they won. When Vancouver was unsuccessful in converting possessions, at first it was more often due to their errors, but increasingly it became due to the Portland defense.

Now let’s break that down by by whether the O-line or D-line had possession.

How Possessions Ended, Vancouver vs. Portland, By Line

How Possessions Ended, Vancouver vs. Portland, By Line

You can see some stark differences. In all three games the Portland O-line was considerably better than the Vancouver O-line at converting possessions, but the Vancouver D-line was much better than the Portland D-line in conversions. In their last meeting, which Vancouver won, the D-line converted a remarkable 7 out of 9 possessions into goals.

Unfortunately, it is impossible to tell where those possessions started from. Given that the D-line gains possession by forcing a turnover while the O-line gets possession by receiving the pull, in general the D-line is going to gain possession much closer to the opponent’s goal line than the O-line is. As well, any team’s D-line gets fewer possession chances than its O-line does. Even so that 78% conversion rate is remarkable.

Now let’s break this down in more detail by breaking out the categories off- (the offense lost possession) and def+  (the defense took it away).

  • G = goal
  • D = knock down D + interception + hand block + foot block
  • TA = throwaway, i.e. turnover that is neither a drop nor a clear D
  • TD = drop
  • eop = end of period
  • VTT = violation travel turnover
  • VST = violation stall
  • off F = offensive foul
How Poseesions Ended, Vancouver vs. Portland, Detailed

How Poseesions Ended, Vancouver vs. Portland, Detailed

At this level of detail, there is not much difference, so let’s break it down further by line.

How Possessions Ended, Vancouver vs. Portland, Detailed, By Line

How Possessions Ended, Vancouver vs. Portland, Detailed, By Line

This clearly reveals major differences between lines and by teams. The Vancouver O-line is less efficient than the Portland O-line at converting possessions because they give up more D’s, which is expected as they attempt more high risk passes due to their more direct strategy.

On the other hand, the Vancouver D-line is much more efficient at converting turnovers into goals than the Portland D-line because they rarely turn the disc over. Another factor might be that the Vancouver O-line players are better defenders after they have turned over the disc than the Portland O-line after they have turned over the disc, but it is impossible to tell from this data set.

So there you have it, a tasty meal of data and analysis to get you prepared to watch Saturday’s Western Conference Final between the Vancouver Nighthawks and Portland Stags at Lincoln High School in downtown Portland at 7 p.m. PT.

If you’re going to be in Portland, buy tickets for the playoff game here. Otherwise watch the live stream on MLU Live.

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