Inside the Numbers: The 1995 Defense Versus the 1999 Defense
by Will Stewart, TechSideline.com
TSL Extra, Issue #11

That's right folks. It's time to compare the two most storied defenses in Virginia Tech history: the 1995 and 1999 defenses. We'll try to answer the question, "Which defense was better?" and since this is "Inside the Numbers," we'll attempt to answer the question using just statistics.

It was inevitable that "Inside the Numbers" would eventually cover this topic. The question is, what took so long for me to get around to writing it? I donít really know the answer to that one. Former VT defensive tackle and occasional TSL columnist Jeff Holland set me up with the data way back in April, and I've been sitting on it since then, waiting for a good time to analyze it. The time is here.

For those of you with Virginia Tech football media guides, or "Maroon Books," from 1996 and 2000 (which contain defensive stats from 1995 and 1999, respectively), you'll note that Jeff's stats won't match the media guide stats. The reason is that the Maroon books only include regular season stats, whereas Jeff added bowl game stats for the 1995 and 1999 Sugar Bowls to the regular season stats to get full-season, 12-game statistical totals. There are a few exceptions; statistics which are for the regular season only are marked with an asterisk in this article.

Given that Jeff fed me the data, I am at his mercy for its correctness. I did some spot checks, and it appears to be okay, although I did have to correct the following errors:

  • Sack totals for the 1995 team -- Jeff said it was 49 sacks, but the Hokies actually had 48 regular-season sacks, plus 5 more in the 1995 Sugar Bowl, for a total of 53 sacks (source: 1996 media guide, pages 5 and 121).
  • Interception leader for 1999 -- Jeff said the interception leader had 2, but Anthony Midget intercepted 4 passes that year, plus another in the Sugar Bowl, for a total of 5 (source: 2000 media guide, page 178).
  • NFL players drafted for the 1995 team -- Jeff said it was 5, but that was the number of players who went to NFL camps, not the number of players drafted. The number of defensive players drafted in 1996 (from the 1995 team) was just one: J.C. Price (source: 2001 media guide, page 289).

One point of interest before we begin: the 2001 Virginia Tech media guide lists over 50 team defensive records (game records and season records) on page 217, and among all of those listings, only three records are held by the 1995 and 1999 teams. Defenses from the 1952-1957 Tech teams and the 1981-1984 Tech teams appear numerous times in the defensive records, but the '95 and '99 defenses rarely appear in the listings.

This seems to fly contrary to the belief that the 1995 and 1999 defenses were the best ever, but one obvious point is that the Tech teams of the early 80's didn't play nearly as tough a schedule as the mid-late 90's Tech teams did. The early 80's teams had great defenses, but they snacked regularly on the likes of William and Mary, Richmond, Appalachian State, Duke, Wake Forest, and VMI.

I can't evaluate the toughness of scheduling in the mid-50's, because I donít know anything about college football from that era, and for all I know, Davidson, the Citadel, Marshall, and Washington and Lee, whom Tech played regularly back then, were powerhouses.

But this isn't a subjective comparison: it's a numbers based comparison. And you know what that means: formula time!

The Scoring

From the eclectic collection of statistics Jeff sent to me, I carved it down to 31 defensive statistics: things like points per game given up, rushing yards per game given up, interceptions, sacks, etc. Out of those 31 categories, 8 of them aren't even related to things that happen on the field; instead, they are things like number of All-Americans, number of NFL draft choices, etc.

Each individual statistic is worth one point to the team that was better in that statistical category. For example, the 1995 team had 53 sacks, and the 1999 team had 62, so the 1999 team gets 1 point for having more sacks.

In addition, the 31 statistics are grouped into five categories, and the categories are worth points. For example, 5 statistics are grouped under the category of "Rushing Defense." The 1995 team won 3 of those 5 statistics, so they outscored the 1999 team 3-2 in "Rushing Defense." Since they won that category, the 1995 team gets an additional 2 points, because the "Rushing Defense" category is worth 2 points. So overall, the 1995 team outscored the 1999 team 5-2 in the "Rushing Defense" category.

Here are the five categories and the points awarded to each category: Total Defense (3 points), Scoring Defense (3 points), Rushing Defense (2 points), Passing Defense (2 points), and Players (1 point). In the case of a tie, category points are awarded to both teams. For example, each team scored 5 points in the "Players" category, so each team got 5 points plus 1 point for "winning" the category, which makes the "Players" category a 6-6 tie.

So, let's take it category-by-category Ö and see which defense was better, the 1995 or the 1999 defense!


Category 1: Total Defense (3 points)

This category is a catch-all that centers around average yardage statistics but also includes miscellaneous stats such as first downs allowed, third-down conversion percentage, and others.

 

Stats

Stats

Points

Points

 

1995

1999

1995

1999

Avg yards per game

280.9

256.6

 

1

Avg yards per play

3.96

3.90

 

1

1st downs allowed

193

173

 

1

Fumble recoveries

8

12

 

1

TD's scored

7

7

1

1

Safeties/PAT returns

1

3

 

1

3rd down conversion %(*)

26.5%

25%

 

1

Stats Won

1

7

Bonus Points for Winning Category

 

3

Total Category Points

1

10

* Regular season stat only

You can see that the 1999 defense clearly dominates this category, outscoring the 1995 defense 7-1, plus getting 3 points for winning the category. That makes it a 10-1 romp. The biggest surprise to me here is that there is such a disparity in the yards-per-game statistic. But that disparity is balanced out by the near-equal numbers put up in the yards-per-play category.


Category 2: Scoring Defense (3 points)

It's interesting that the defensive ranking that is quoted the most often is yards per game. In other words, "Nebraska had the number 10 ranked defense in the country," means that only 9 other teams gave up fewer yards.

But what if that Nebraska team was 30th in scoring defense? Are they really the number 10 defense in the country? That's a rhetorical question, but you have to admit that the true measure of a defense's success is how many points it gives (or doesn't give) up.

 

Stats

Stats

Points

Points

 

1995

1999

1995

1999

Avg points per game

13.8

13.5

 

1

TD's allowed

19

21

1

 

Shutouts

2

2

1

1

Gave up 10 points or less

5

6

 

1

Stats Won

2

3

Bonus Points for Winning Category

 

3

Total Category Points

2

6

This points-per-game statistic is much closer than the yards per game statistic was, and it's interesting to note that the 1995 defense did a better job of keeping the opponents out of the end zone. Nonetheless, the 1999 defense ekes out a win in this category, and then gets 3 bonus points tacked on for a 6-2 margin.


Category 3: Rushing Defense (2 points)

Going back to the days of the dominating Tech defenses of the early 80's, the lynchpin of a good Tech defense has been the rush defense. Any successful defensive effort stops the run first, so it's no surprise to find out that the '95 and '99 defenses were great run-stoppers.

 

Stats

Stats

Points

Points

 

1995

1999

1995

1999

Avg yards per game

77.4

72.1

 

1

Avg per carry

2.01

2.10

1

 

Rushing TD's allowed

7

5

 

1

100+ yard rushers allowed

1

4

1

 

<100 yards rushing allowed

8

7

1

 

Stats Won

3

2

Bonus Points for Winning Category

2

 

Total Category Points

5

2

This category is oh-so-close, and at this point in the scoring, the 1995 defense finally starts to turn the tables on the 1999 defense. The '95 defense gave up more yards per game and more touchdowns rushing, but they make up for it by allowing only one opposing running back (Billy West of Pitt) to run for more than 100 yards. The 1995 defense held entire teams to less than 100 yards rushing more often than the 1999 defense did.

What makes the 1995 team's victory in the Rushing Defense category more impressive is the fact that the 1999 team had 9 more sacks for 81 more yards lost than the 1995 team. The 1999 team had 62 sacks for 480 yards lost, compared to 53 sacks for 399 yards lost for the 1995 team.

The 81-yard sack-loss advantage of the 1999 team equates to 6.75 fewer yards rushing per game over the 1995 team, since sack losses enter into rushing statistics. In other words, in pure run defense, not including sack statistics, the 1995 team actually bested the 1999 team in yards rushing given up per game.


Category 4: Passing Defense (2 points)

This category, which includes 7 statistical lines, yields some very interesting results.

 

Stats

Stats

Points

Points

 

1995

1999

1995

1999

Avg yards per game

203.5

184.5

 

1

Avg yards per attempt

6.26

5.86

 

1

Avg yards per completion

13.64

11.90

 

1

Passing TD's allowed

12

14

1

 

Completion % allowed

45.9%

49.2%

1

 

Interceptions

16

11

1

 

Sacks

53

62

 

1

Stats Won

3

4

Bonus Points for Winning Category

 

2

Total Category Points

3

6

In terms of yards given up, the 1999 pass defense is clearly superior to the 1995 pass defense, no matter how you slice it. But in terms of TD's, completion percentage, and interceptions, the 1995 defense was better. The 1999 team breaks the tie with more sacks, which means they win the category and the 2 bonus points that come with it.

Two things about the Pass Defense category interest me:

1.) During the regular seasons, the 1995 defense actually gave up more passing TD's than the 1999 team, 11 to 10. But the 1995 defense only gave up 1 passing TD in their Sugar Bowl against Texas, whereas the 1999 defense coughed up 4 TD's to FSU.

2.) As good as the 1999 defense was, they weren't great at intercepting the football. The 1998 defense that preceded it had a whopping 26 interceptions (23 in the regular season, and 3 in the Music City Bowl), but INT's fell off drastically in 1999 to just 11 (10 in the regular season, and 1 in the Sugar Bowl). The 1995 defense was pretty good at picking off passes, but again, nothing special. They had 13 regular season picks, and 3 more in the Sugar Bowl.


Category 5: Players (1 point)

 

Stats

Stats

Points

Points

 

1995

1999

1995

1999

All Big East 1st team

4

3

1

 

All Americans (any team)

2

4

 

1

Big East Defensive P.O.Y.

YES

YES

1

1

National Defensive P.O.Y.

YES

YES

1

1

Tackle leader

137

89

1

 

Sack leader

14

17

 

1

Interception leader

5

4

1

 

NFL players drafted

1

4

 

1

Stats Won

5

5

Bonus Points for Winning Category

1

1

Total Category Points

6

6

You can measure a defense not just by what they achieve on the field, but off it, in terms of individual awards. There are probably other individual award categories that I could dream up, but these are the ones Jeff fed to me, so I went with them. Note that in addition to the non-statistical categories here, it's worthwhile to compare the leaders for tackles, sacks, and interceptions.

I'm sure that looking at the lists above brings many questions to mind (for example, who was All-Big-East first team for the 1995 team?), so I'll answer them all. Here are the details from the scoring above:

All Big East 1st Team Players
1995 (4): Cornell Brown, J.C. Price, William Yarborough, George Del Ricco
1999 (3): Corey Moore, John Engelberger, Anthony Midget

All-American (any team)
1995 (2): Cornell Brown (multiple teams), J.C. Price (AP 3rd team)
1999 (4): Corey Moore (multiple teams), John Engelberger (AP 2nd team), Jamel Smith (AP 2nd team), Anthony Midget (Sporting News 3rd team)

Big East Defensive Player of the Year
1995: Cornell Brown
1999: Corey Moore

National Defensive Player of the Year
1995: Cornell Brown (Football News)
1999: Corey Moore (Football News, Bronco Nagurski Award)

Tackle Leader (regular season only)
1995: George Del Ricco, 137
1999: Jamel Smith, 89

Sack Leader (regular season only)
1995: Cornell Brown, 14
1999: Corey Moore, 17

Interception Leader (regular season only)
1995: William Yarborough, 5
1999: Anthony Midget, 4

NFL Players Drafted
1995 (1): J.C. Price (Carolina, 3rd round)
1999 (4): John Engelberger (San Fran., 2nd round), Ike Charlton (Seattle, 2nd), Corey Moore (Buffalo, 3rd), Anthony Midget (Atlanta, 5th)

After you shake it all out, this category is a tie, and both teams (1995 and 1999) get 6 points.


And the Winner Is Ö

The 1999 defense got off to such a dominating start, winning the first category 10-1, that there was no way the 1995 defense could ever catch up. Here's the final scoring:

Category

'95 Points

'99 Points

Total Defense

1

10

Scoring Defense

2

6

Rushing Defense

5

2

Passing Defense

3

6

Players

6

6

Total Points

17

30

It's worth noting that even if you eliminate the bonus points awarded for winning the individual categories, the 1999 defense still wins, 21-14.

There you have it folks, in hard numbers: the 1999 defense is the greatest Hokie defense of all time!


The Data

You can download the data and view it, either as a web page, or as a Microsoft Excel 97 spreadsheet.

http://www.techsideline.com/tslextra/issue011/95vs99defense.htm

To download the data yourself in Microsoft Excel 97 spreadsheet format, head to this link:

http://www.techsideline.com/tslextra/issue011/95vs99defense.xls

(Right-click the link and do a "Save Link As" or "Save Target As" to save the Excel file to disk.)

 

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