September 28, 2012
Driving home from the Arizona game, I was left wondering how a rising program — especially one with a history as hopeless as Oklahoma State's — found itself setting a school record for penalty yards in 2012. Prior to the "Debacle in the Desert" (as the headlines proclaimed), I assumed all negative records were firmly entrenched in the 90s — never to be sniffed by Gundy-era squads. Which is but one reason the penalty yards against the Wildcats were so spectacular and arguably the story of the season to date. Like many fans, I was left wondering if the penalties against UA were an outlier to be discarded or a sign of things to come. The statistics, at least, seem to indicate the former.
Going back to 2007, several penalty-related trends begin to emerge. Foremost among these is the Cowboy's propensity to start the year with sloppy play and then improve (dramatically) in conference. During the first three games of each season, from 2007 — 2011, the Cowboys averaged 22 more penalty yards per game (77) than during the remainder of the season. At an average of 84 penalty yards per game, the 2012 Cowboys are only slightly worse than usual in the penalty department — with two glaring caveats. As the graph below makes clear, the Arizona game was every bit as exceptional as the other two data points.
Although largely unreported, the games against Savannah State and Louisiana-Lafayette were relatively penalty free and rank first and second in terms of fewest penalties to open the season (games 1 — 3) since 2007. This continues the downward trend in penalties begun in 2011. The 2011 season was one of the cleanest in the Gundy era, with an average of 50 penalty yards per game — good for a NCAA ranking of 65 (out of 120). Provided the Cowboys ran more offensive plays than all but fifteen teams and defended the most plays of any team during the same period, this ranking could have been much worse (granted, defensive penalties often contribute to an increase in plays defended). With the exception of the ISU loss, the last five games of 2011 were very clean — a trend which was continued in 2012 with both SSU and ULL. The worst penalty-laden game in OSU history stands as a lonely statistical anomaly in an otherwise downwards trend. For the sake of Cowboy nation (not to mention my blogging credentials), here's hoping the trend continues!
A few other interesting tidbits gleaned from the same penalty data (2007 — 2011):