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What does the switch from M.J. Morris back to Brennan Armstrong mean?

Putting aside our initial reactions, let’s look at what the data says

Marshall v NC State Photo by Lance King/Getty Images

After the Louisville game in Week 5, it was clear that something needed to change with the NC State offense. Whether fair or not, the focal point of all the calls for change was the QB position and Brennan Armstrong. The Virginia transfer hadn’t looked nearly the part of what he had for the Cavaliers in Offensive Coordinator Robert Anae’s system in 2021 when he threw for 4,449 yards, and 31 TDs against 10 INTs, while running for 251 yards and 9 TDs. There was more at play than just the surface numbers for Armstrong, but needing a spark, Anae and Head Coach Dave Doeren turned to sophomore QB M.J. Morris looking for a spark.

The offense found that spark immediately in a 48-41 win over Marshall, but the offense hit the skids the following week in a 3-24 loss at Duke. Following a bye week, the Wolfpack captured back-to-back wins over Clemson and Miami to secure bowl eligibility, and the NC State faithful were happy with Morris leading the way.

And then this week happened. Morris decided to sit out the remainder of the year and utilize his still-available redshirt. And there are certainly ways to feel about that. It’s an interesting situation and... man, it’s crazy.

Anyways, this isn’t necessarily about how to feel, but rather taking a step back and looking at how the offense actually performed under both Morris and Armstrong to better understand what the switch from Morris back to Armstrong actually means for the team.

Of course, there are the high-level numbers:

  • Armstrong: 94-of-160 (58.8%), 971 yards, 5 TD, 6 INT, 112.5 QB Rating, 48.1 QBR; 81 carries, 337 yards, 3 TD
  • Morris: 63-of-113 (55.8%), 719 yards, 7 TD, 5 INT, 120.8 QB Rating, 31.2 QBR; 32 carries, 15 yards, 0 TD

There’s obviously more to that, though. The obvious is the level of competition. Armstrong had the benefit of facing the two weakest defenses NC State has faced (at least until UNC comes to town, amirite?!). Here are the level of defenses each has faced, with the respective SP+ Defensive rating heading into Week 11 for each:

  • Armstrong: UConn (118), Notre Dame (7), VMI (n/a), Virginia (68), Louisville (17)
  • Morris: Marshall (71), Duke (25), Clemson (12), Miami (26)

Assigning VMI a ranking of 134 since they’re an FCS squad - a very generous ranking, to be fair - gives Armstrong an average SP+ opponent defense ranking of 68.8 while Morris has faced an average ranking of 33.5. If you focus on just Armstrong’s games against P5 teams (yes, including Notre Dame there), then the average is 30.7, which is about as fair as you can get for comparison purposes.

Here’s a look at the advanced metrics, minus garbage time, in those P5 games. For a frame of reference, the number in parentheses is where that figure would rank among all 133 FBS teams at this point in time.

Morris and Armstrong vs P5 Competition

Stat Morris Armstrong
Stat Morris Armstrong
Predicted Points Added (PPA) 0.063 (121) 0.023 (129)
Success Rate 31.7% (133) 31.4% (133)
Explosiveness 1.406 (15) 1.404 (18)
Power Success 77.8% (39) 88.5% (3)
Stuff Rate 16.2% (63) 17.8% (83)
Points per Opp 4.111 (50) 3.692 (82)
Havoc 20.5% (125) 20.4% (124)
Pass Play PPA 0.08 (125) -0.011 (133)
Pass Play Success Rate 33% (128) 30.4% (132)
Pass Play Explosiveness 1.743 (26) 1.623 (56)
Rush Play PPA 0.081 (111) 0.099 (100)
Rush Play Success Rate 31.4% (133) 32.6% (133)
Rush Play Explosiveness 1.018 (61) 1.174 (10)

As you’ll see above, the biggest differences were Power Success Rate, Points per Opportunity, Pass Play Explosiveness, and Run Play Explosiveness.

Points per opportunity is really all to do with the horrific game against Louisville when State scored a grand total of 7 points on 3 scoring opportunities. The Power Success Rate is pretty obvious since the team was able to utilize Armstrong’s running ability on short yardage situations. Along those same lines, the running game was obviously more explosive with Armstrong’s legs in the mix. Armstrong’s legs also play a big factor in the run game explosiveness being what it was with Morris under center thanks to his efforts again Miami.

With Morris, the passing game has been more explosive, but there are two factors at play that must be considered. The first is the implementation of the pop pass, which did not find its way into the offense until the Marshall game when Morris first started. Whether that was intended to be a new look or just a high-percentage confidence booster for Morris, the play has remained in the offense because, well, it’s been successful and has led to some absolutely huge plays for K.C. Concepcion and the offense.

One other aspect is the introduction of some non-traditional offensive formations, especially over the last two weeks against Clemson and Miami. These have provided some additional looks that opposing defenses have not been able to prepare for, and thus resulted in some big plays.

A lot of those non-traditional formations have featured Armstrong either in the backfield or lined up out wide as a receiver. With him now back at QB, it will be interesting if Anae is able to plug in another wildcard type player to fill that roll. I would assume ‘no’, but who knows?

The one thing that will not change with the switch at QB is the offensive line. The Wolfpack will still need better play from the OL unit for the offense to continue to make gains.

The hope is that the time as a backup with the pressure off him has given Armstrong an opportunity to reset. If he can be more relaxed, the happy feet and rushed throws should cease, and the accuracy should return.

Even if the same Armstrong we saw over the first five weeks returns, the offense shouldn’t look much different than what we’ve seen over the last two weeks.