A history of penalties

(Editor's note: This post was submitted by one of our readers. Definitely worth your time.  -Voodoo)

There were plenty of frustrating sights and sounds at Raymond James during the Bulls' loss to Pitt; yet nothing on the field set me off nearly as much as one comment from the front row of section 136.

After a penalty was called on the Bulls, one person in USF colors - already drawing my ire for being outlandishly negative and shouting "Where's Skinny?" every 10 seconds - implored "Skippy" to teach his players some discipline. Coach Holtz had no response, most likely because he was on the opposite sideline at the time. Disappointed by the lack of retort, the fan directed a few more disparaging remarks about Holtz at the wall in front of him - I'm assuming no one else was listening at this point.

First I talked myself out of dumping my $4.25 bottle of Dasani on his head. Then I fought through the vicious irony of criticizing a team formerly coached by Jim Leavitt about discipline. Finally I decided that I didn't actually know if the Holtz-coached Bulls were indeed plagued by yellow flags. I needed facts. Could my loud friend be right?

If you've followed the Bulls for any amount of time, you likely have an idea of how big a problem penalties have been for the program. I for one never realized just how bad it's been until I had numbers in front of me. Here they are: the number of penalties and total penalty yards for the Bulls and their opponents, from 1997-2009 - the Leavitt Years.

Season USF Opponents
1997 78-737 63-496
1998 102-835 64-514
1999 103-930 82-660
2000 109-1001 66-497
2001 110-968 108-903
2002 128-1086 80-664
2003 (10) 103-892 69-527
2004 (4) 105-890 73-568
2005 (19) 106-831 84-659
2006 (4) 104-916 93-774
2007 (3) 112-937 95-780
2008 (13) 111-882 96-791
2009 (37) 91-749 72-640


To consider:

  • The numbers in parentheses from 2003-09 represent the Bulls' Division I/FBS ranking in total penalty yards for that season (I couldn't seem to find rankings before that). That's four times in the top (bottom) 10 for penalty yards.
  • The early years are worse than they look: the Bulls played only 11 games from 1997-2004 (they played 12 in 2005, 13 every season since then).
  • A Jim Leavitt Bulls team never finished with fewer penalties or penalty yards than their opponents.
  • Check out 2000: the Bulls rang in the millennium by losing over twice as many yards to penalties as their opponents. The Bulls averaged 91.2 penalty yards per game in that season. Brutal.
  • Only once in this span did the Bulls not have the most penalties in the Big East - the exception was 2007 when the Bulls finished second, 10 penalties and 104 yards behind FBS-leading Cincinnati.

The Holtz-led 2010 Bulls have made a very significant improvement.

Season USF Opponents
2010 (112) 54-446 79-668
  • The totals and ranking are through the Pittsburgh game, which was USF's tenth of the season.
  • USF currently has the second fewest penalties in the Big East. Only Connecticut, USF's next opponent, has seen fewer flags.
  • The Bulls committed 6 penalties against Miami (the Hurricanes picked up 10 flags); that means they'll have to average over 9 penalties over their next two games to not finish with the fewest penalties in team history (and that'll be over two more games than in 1997).
  • Unless the team loses its damn mind against the Huskies and/or in the bowl game, the 2010 Bulls will be the first to finish with fewer penalties and penalty yards than their opponents.

I'm not sure which team my critical friend has been watching all season; but clearly the 2010 Bulls are doing something right in this sense. Should we now begin singing praises of Skip Holtz? Penalties can't be pinned completely on the coaching staff; but with these numbers in mind, it's hard not to jump to the conclusion that the change is due to the calm and composed Holtz being a far better leader by example than a coach who regularly lost his voice by the first TV timeout.

Things are never that simple. You'd have to look at a lot of teams to find a correlation between coaches and penalties. I'll leave that to someone far more qualified; but in an effort to widen the net a bit further, let's look at Skip Holtz at East Carolina. Holtz coached ECU from 2005-09 - included below are also ECU's last pre-Holtz season and its first post-Holtz.

2004 (110) 56-437
2005 (103) 60-509
2006 (97) 56-486
2007 (23) 97-777
2008 (21) 79-755
2009 (14) 98-831
2010 (12) 88-759
  • What the heck happened between 2006 and 2007? Part of me wants to throw on a tin hat and suggest that being penalty prone is a communicable disease - ECU played USF in the 2006 Bowl.
  • The '07, '08 and '10 ECU teams lost very similar penalty yardage, but the '08 Pirates were very, um, efficient.

The ECU years certainly muddy the theory of Skip Holtz as a master of penalty deterrence. Consider that there is more to life than penalties - just have a look at most of BJ Daniels' two-minute drills to end the first half this season. Also consider that the Leavitt Bulls actually lowered their penalty totals in '08 and '09; perhaps we're seeing a confluence of a group of players who are collectively more savvy about avoiding lots of penalties with a coach who might be more concerned with avoiding lots of penalties.

The test will be how the Bulls fare with penalties in future seasons under Holtz. Penalties are certainly not the crucial measure of a team; but as a fan with so many memories of game-ruining flags (whether thrown in error or not, *throatclearAmarriJacksonpassinterferencethroatclear*), I am optimistic to see how this potential new trend will affect the program and front row hecklers.

This post was created by one of our blog's readers.

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