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Memphis v Houston
Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

The Memphis/Houston game last night won’t stick in anyone’s memory for long. The game was a nationally insignificant matchup between two American conference teams on a Thursday night when—let’s be honest—most viewers probably tapped out at the halfway mark. At that point, Houston enjoyed a comfortable 17-0 lead, and Memphis looked like they’d already packed it in to study tape of Tulane for next week.

That wasn’t how it ended. Math doesn’t always work like this, but it’s pleasing when it does: Memphis came into the game averaging just over forty points a game, and finished the first half with zero points. The dumbest, most direct, and idealistic assumption someone could have made at the half based on this information was that Memphis still had forty points. They would all come in the second half, because math is never flexible, and the rent is always due.

And it’s so stupid, but that’s exactly how it worked. Memphis scored 21 in each quarter of the second half, and finished with 42 points in a 42-38 comeback road win against Houston.

As we said: It’s stupid how clockwork that is, even if you see it in other sports all the time. The NBA is particularly fun for this kind of butt-simple statistical budgeting, i.e. the night when LeBron James is quiet for the first half usually meaning you need to get a fire extinguisher for him in the second half. Someone like that, in a five-on-five game with years of production to back up a faith in his future production, will eventually and likely deliver.

Football’s a little more fickle with that kind of thinking, and for a lot of very good reasons. Having eleven different people on the field at once has a lot to do with that, especially in college where the dropoff in ability from a starter to a backup can be steep, and thus disastrous for on-field production. For a great and recent example of that, see the part in Bill C’s article on Oklahoma State’s offense about facing TCU with reduced depth. The Cowboys’ right guard and right tackle were both making their first starts, effectively limiting 40% of what the offensive line could count on doing consistently. Oklahoma State, not surprisingly, lost 44-31.

Parts matter, and football teams happen to have a lot of them—not all replaceable, and not all of the same quality or consistency.

There are less definite reasons, though, for a football team performing well below standard production. Are we about to mention, say, Washington’s recent loss to Arizona State, where a universally deplored Arizona State defense somehow held a widely-considered-good Huskies offense to nine points? And that the Sun Devils did this without Washington handing them a single turnover, limiting them to 230 yards and seven points, all without the assistance from an outbreak of injuries, or dysentery striking the Huskies roster ten minutes before the game?

That kind of aberration is so much harder to explain in several directions. At least with Memphis, you can point to all the things you know they have that work well: A healthy and dealing quarterback in Riley Ferguson, Tony Pollard blowing through kick coverages like he’s covered in baby oil and scoring on special teams, and an offense more than capable of scoring in fifty seconds a drive.

With something like Washington losing to Arizona State? That’s so much harder to explain. Arizona State as a defense hadn’t held an FBS opponent to single digits since 2012. (They did it twice that year, limiting a 5-7 Utah team and a ghastly Washington State shambles to a touchdown each.) Read the account of how Arizona State did it, and nothing in particular sticks out, just the usual accurate but still pablum-y bullet points: “we tackled”, “we believed”, and “sometimes we doubled guys in coverage.”

Washington did lose their left tackle Trey Adams to a leg injury in the first half, but otherwise the Huskies suffered no serious plague of injuries either before the game, or during it. They just rolled out flat as hell, and stayed flat, even deep into the third and the fourth quarter when one might assume the coaching braintrust might begin to figure out how to get the Huskies off the mat. What might have been even worse for the Huskies: the coaches and players might have figured out exactly how to dig their way out, and yet had no way of getting it done in the heat of the moment.

Someone might be tempted to point at the stats and seize on a little moment like this to bark out any one of a thousand little crap arguments. Throw out the records. You can’t measure heart. A committed team beats eleven individuals every time. But even messing with the crudest stats shouldn’t make you do that. It should make you look at something like Memphis’s ability to consistently produce and marvel at the stability of what they do, and then turn to something as aberrant and anomalous as the Washington loss to Arizona State and appreciate it even more.

Not that all those cliches can’t be true. In fact, looking at the numbers of how games usually play out and then comparing them to a weird case like Washington/Arizona State, the take away should be how true they can be in a situation when everything else normal and predictable goes sideways in a game. It’s cool to be sitting on hoarded potential production when you need it, sure. Memphis, after a terrible half of football, apparently did just that against Houston.

It’s also cool to be the team like Arizona State, a team that, statistically and circumstantially speaking, caught a lottery ticket in the wind against Washington, and then casually pocketed it, stayed cool, and then cashed it in like they’d planned it that way all along.