Monday, September 3, 2007

Anatomy of a Record: Earl Bennett's 223 (or 221) yards

Just how many yards did Earl Bennett have on Saturday? 221 or 223?
Photo by VUCommodores.
On Saturday, Earl Bennett set a Vanderbilt school record with 223 receiving yards in a game. It was another notable accomplishment from an extraordinary player who will likely own the SEC career record for catches and yards by the end of his junior season. For his efforts, Earl was deservedly named SEC Player of the Week, is the lead picture on the SEC’s website Monday, and was mentioned on ESPN College GameDay Live as one of the ‘Heisman Hopeful’ performances of the week.

The Numbers

The first time I checked the box score on ESPN.com, right after the game Saturday night, I noticed that Earl was credited with 221 receiving yards – the box score on VUCommodores (which is the official NCAA box score) has 223 yards for Earl. I didn’t think much of it – when interviewing with ESPN last month in Bristol, I saw how they receive an initial ‘live’ box score from a modem at Vanderbilt Stadium and then go back to reconcile any differences after the official box score is released by the school. It was just two yards, and the ESPN process tends to make mistakes like two receiving yards.

Then I learned that Earl’s 223 yards represented a school record – and the old record was 222 yards. Hmmm.

That made me want to dig deeper and compare play-by-play information to see if I could isolate the discrepancies. ESPN didn’t have play-by-play for the game – but Yahoo Sports did. Although Yahoo’s box score has 223 yards for Earl, I put their play-by-play against VUCommodores’ official play-by-play in the table below.

Catches
Yahoo
Official
1
-5
-5
2
16
16
3
4
5
4
39
40
5
15
15
6
-2
-2
7
8
8
8
1
1
9
49
49
10
10
10
11
6
6
12
26
26
13
54
54
TOTAL
221
223

What’s great about box scores is that it’s a closed system – you can’t just manufacture two extra yards, they have to come from somewhere. As you can see, there were two plays that account for those two extra receiving yards, meaning there must be two corresponding plays with two fewer yards. And within with each series, there were rushing plays that account for two fewer yards in the Yahoo account than in the official VUCommodores account.

Let’s take the second play first – the 39 yard (or 40 yard) pass to Earl across the middle in the 2nd Quarter. The next play in the series was a four yard (or three yard) run by Jennings. So, we have two competing accounts – what did Joe Fisher think as the play was happening? The following is from the radio broadcast, as archived on VUCommodores:

"First down from the 35. Nickson, play action. Plenty of time. Fired, has a man, Bennett, caught! 40, 35, 30, down at the 26 yard line! A perfect strike, Nickson to Bennett, 39 yards, before Justin Rogers makes the tackle… First down, just inside the 26 yard line of the Spiders. Blitz coming, straight hand-off Jennings, powers it down, close to the 22 yard line.”

So Joe clearly agreed with the Yahoo account of 39 and 4 and disagrees with the VUCommodores account of 40 and 3.

The first play is less certain. On the first play of the series, Cassen Jackson-Garrison ran for four yards on Yahoo – three yards on VUCommodores. Both accounts have a Hawkins one yard carry on second down. On third down, Earl catches a four yard pass on Yahoo – a five yard pass on VUCommodores. Either way, it ends as a fourth and one and a Vandy punt. From Joe:

"Now the Commodores will take over from their own 11 yard line, 12:01 to go in the first half, leading 7 to 3. Cassen Jackson-Garrison, the tailback, takes the hand-off on the counter across the 10, powers out to close to the 15 yard line… They give him credit for a three yard gain; it was about three and a half. The ball at the 15 yard line. I think it's second down and six...”

Ahh, so no clarity but some insight into the problem. This is football, and sometimes you have to make a decision as to whether a 3.5 yard carry netted three yards or four yards. Now, the Earl catch:

“Third down and six. Ball just shy of the sixteen. Have to get it out to the 21. Nickson, from the gun. Quick pass to Bennett. Tried to stretch for it to get the first down, I don't think he got it there… (Gromos) And they came up just under a yard short."

Seems to confirm the VUCommodores account – three yards for CJG, one for Hawkins, five for Bennett. Although, the plain sense of the radio call is actually four for CJG, zero for Hawkins, and five for Bennett…

The Meaning

Kirkland Hall on Vanderbilt's campus.
Photo by Vanderbilt.
So, did Vanderbilt go back and correct inaccuracies in the original box score for the final box score? Possibly. Did they go back and deliberately give Earl two extra yards and the single game record? Possibly.

Either way, it is suspicious when the first box score and Joe Fisher say one thing, and then the official box score says another – and that difference happens to generate a record breaking performance.

For sake of argument, let’s say we gamed the numbers – so what? My first thought is that the whole thing is irrelevant. Earl Bennett is no greater or no lesser a player for having 223 receiving yards in a game instead of 221 receiving yards. Statistics are nothing more than accounting – they don’t say anything about character or accomplishment or talent. Frequently, pundits misunderstand and misuse statistics, doing more to confuse the issue than to illuminate anything. It’s a team game and the team won – numbers like this are nothing more than sidebars to what really happened on Saturday.

My second thought is to report somebody to the Honor Council. As Dean Sarratt said:

"Let every individual who contemplates entering Vanderbilt University ask himself first this important question: Am I strong enough to give my word of honor and then live up to it in spite of every temptation that may arise? If you can answer this question in the affirmative, Vanderbilt University will welcome you and will promise the cooperation of every person here in helping you realize this ideal of integrity implied in your answer."

I sincerely hope that nobody compromised their integrity on Saturday for the sake of a record. But they might have.

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