Jim Harbaugh: The original rational fanatic
Jim Harbaugh appears crazy to a lot of people. He seems borderline homicidal on the sidelines after a bad call, even stripping in anger. He can look at reporters with the burning hatred of 1,000 suns after they ask (or worse, repeat) a stupid question.
But there is no denying his genius. While he is, through and through, a football fanatic, he is also a brilliant schemer, motivator, and leader.
This column probably won't be weekly, but it's an ode to Jim's brand of simplicity: quick-hitting facts rooted in more data than opinion...because I'm trying to learn to be a rational fanatic myself. This is coming from a guy who thought Brady Hoke was the next great Michigan coach.
- Actually Aggressive. If you've ever seen an introductory press conference for a Defensive Coordinator, then you have heard a man claim his defense is "aggressive." Don Brown actually means it. Through four games, Michigan has recorded 44 TFLs, 17 of which are sacks. Last year's defense recorded 88 TFLs for the season with 32 sacks. So in four games, we are already at 50% of last year's totals. We never had more than 10 TFLs in a game last year; that is the fewest we have recorded in a game this year (and that was against Hawaii!). Michigan is #1 in the country in TFLs, and #2 in TFLs/game (Miami (YTM)), and we are tied for #1 in sacks and sacks/game. Eleven teams had over 100 TFLs last year; Michigan is a pretty sure bet to join that club this season. Only 7 teams recorded 40 or more sacks, another number I expect us to attain.
- Late Bloomer. Through four games last year, Jehu Chesson had recorded seven receptions and zero TDs. Through four games this year, he's got eight catches (and no TDs). There is still time for him to find that All-American form that puncuated last season.
- The Quest for 1,000. De'Veon Smith recorded 331 rushing yards through four games last season, cresting 125 yards twice. He would only break 100 yards once more (bowl game) and totaled 753 yards for the year. This year he only has 259 yards, but he has done that on 30 fewer attempts, averaging nearly two yards more per carry. But as a team, Michigan has 110 more rushing yards than we had last season at this time, averaging over half-a-yard more per carry. While it doesn't look good to have a 1,000 yard rusher this season, expect the team's rushing attack to outpace last year's. Also, no back (other than Smith) broke 275 yards rushing last year; I expect FOUR to do it this year.
- Buckets of Good. Speaking of our rushing attack, I have been impressed with all four RBs and their progress under second-year coach and Michigan legend Ty Wheatley. While there is no superstar this season, both Higdon and Evans look like potential 1,000 yard guys in the future. And, actually, I am really high on Karan Higdon and was pleased to see him get carries early in last week's game. While Isaac is physically gifted, he seems to lack some of the instincts that make RBs great. But all four are good-to-very good, and greatness might show-up next season. My own assessment of the backs (purely as rushers) thus far ranks them like this:
- Better than Best. Last year's national leader in TFLs was Clemson's Shaq Lawson. He finished the season with 25.5, an average of 1.7/game. Jabrill Peppers has already recorded 9.5 TFLs for a 2.4/game average. FWIW, Michigan has four players in the top 100 nationally in TFLS (Gedeon, McCray, Gary). Going back to 2007 (as far as cfbstats.com goes), no player has recorded over 30 TFLs in a season, which works out to an average of 2.3/game.
- Right and Wrong. Who would have thought Wisconsin would be coming to the Big House with wins over LSU and MSU? Not me. That said, I think Vegas has this line about right: Michigan by 10 is my prediction. I was right about Hawaii, wrong about UCF (thought we'd have an easier time and a shutout there), right about Colorado (expected a tougher-than-expected game), and right about Penn State (thought we'd win easily). While Michigan State will give us a brutally tough game in E.L., I feel confident we head to Columbus undefeated and don't think Iowa will be too much of a challenge.
Recently my new BFF It's Harambe took on the thankless task of asking his fellow MgoBloggers to rank the top 25 Michigan athletes of all time. As the list was revealed it was clear to this reader that some of the most notable players who competed during the athletic stone age (pre-internet) had been forgotten about. This weekly diary will take a look at the more notable players from our past to remind everyone of what they did and why they deserve to be honored and remembered.
On the feeling after throwing a no-hitter
"I think it's more a sigh of relief to know it's over, and I did well. Actually, a lot of times I don't know it's a no-hitter when I finish, until somebody walks up to me. Even then, I was so in the zone at that time that I just wanted to keep throwing. I want keep doing it, see how long I can go before they can hit me. It's exciting, it really is."
While not as underrepresented on the list as baseball & hockey players our women athletes from the past only landed one spot on the top 25. One lady who definitely could make a strong case for inclusion was a softball star from our recent history, Jennie Ritter, who perhaps was forgotten because she was a pitcher – not a hitter – but was clearly one of the most dominant pitchers the sport has ever seen.
Ritter saw limited playing time as a freshman, only getting 7 decisions for a 5-2 record. Debuting on February 15, 2003, Ritter got a no-decision, pitching 5-innings, giving up a run and striking out 9 vs. the San Diego State Aztecs. She made her second appearance in the NCAA Regionals, shutting out Wright State for three innings to collect her last win that season.
In 2004, Ritter earned All-Big Ten honors after posting 24 wins and 269 strikeouts, of which the latter ranked second all-time for the Wolverines. Ritter fired her first career no-hitter on March 12 against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. She was a hit batter away from a perfect game.
Ritter had a golden season as a junior, earning All-Big Ten and National Fastpitch Coaches' Association First Team All-American honors. She was named conference "Pitcher" and "Female Athlete of The Year" to go along with USA Softball Player of The Year and University of Michigan's "Female Athlete of The Year." She threw three no-hitters and a perfect game on April 17, 2005 vs. the Indiana Hoosiers. She also broke and set the school records for wins and innings pitched. Her strikeouts and shutouts still rank top-5 all-time for a Wolverine season. She also won a Big Ten pitching Triple Crown for the best win, strikeout and ERA totals.
Beginning on February 12 - April 19, Ritter went on a career best 22 consecutive game win streak, eventually snapped by the Penn State Nittany Lions on April 22. On May 4, Ritter punched out 16 Western Michigan Broncos in a two-hitter for her career single game regulation best.
Ritter would lead the Wolverines to the No. 1 seed at the Women's College World Series and opened her first and only appearance with a shutout of the DePaul Blue Demons. After escaping elimination, Ritter led the way into the Championship Finals against defending champs, the UCLA Bruins. Ritter toughed out a 10-inning battle in the third game of the finale series to win the National Championship and the distinction of being the first team east of the Mississippi River to accomplish the feat. She also earned All-Tournament Team honors for her 5-1 record and 60 strikeouts in 54-innings (then a new series record).
Ritter's senior season saw her repeat all-season honors: All-Big Ten, First Team All-American and Michigan "Female Athlete of The Year." She threw a no-hitter and broke her own record for strikeouts and strikeout ratio (11.6); her shutouts were also a new record, the strikeouts totals remains tops for a single season. Ritter also posted her best ERA and WHIP to accompany a pair of top-5 records for innings and wins at Michigan, helping to earn her a second conference Triple Crown.
On April 15 in a 1-0 loss to the Iowa Hawkeyes, Ritter struck out her 1,000th career batter. In a win over the Michigan State Spartans on May 6, Ritter began a career best 45.2 consecutive scoreless innings streak that was broken on May 21, when she broke the school record for single game strikeouts, whiffing a career best 19 in Regional action against the Oklahoma Sooners. During the streak, Ritter won all 8 games and struck out 76 batters, surrendering only 12 hits and 7 walks.
Ritter would graduate as the all-time Michigan Wolverines record holder in strikeouts, shutouts, WHIP, innings pitched and strikeout ratio. As well she also put up some of the best wins and ERA numbers all-time for the Wolverines. She currently still holds the records for strikeout ratio and shutouts. She is also the strikeout ratio leader for the Big Ten Conference at 10.1 and ranks top-10 in almost every other pitching category. Ritter is also a top-20 strikeout ratio pitcher all-time for a career in the NCAA Division I.
“You know what, there has been so many incredible things happen to me. The reason why it stands out isn’t that we were the No. 1 team in the country and that we won, but that was the first moment in my life where I really felt people say hard work pays off or whatever it may be, when you devote yourself to one thing, it happens. I’m not sure that anybody on that team 100 percent believed. I think we all believed it was possible, but there might have been a lot of shellshock that it actually happened. We just kind of played and we loved to play and it was almost like playing not to end the season as opposed to playing to win a national championship. At least that’s how I felt and that’s what propelled us. To me, if you talk about a defining moment or one thing I’ll always take away, it’s the camaraderie of the team. I’ve never, on USA or anywhere else, I’ve never had that type of camaraderie, that type of connection, that I had on that ’05 team. It’s hard to explain unless you were on that team but it was the pure trust and the understanding of what our goals were. We didn’t have to say it. It was just every single piece of it, every single moment. That’s what I can take away from the World Series, the ‘A-Ha’ moment where you saw how important it was to be a team and have a heart and will to do something together.”
Jeanie Ritter – a true Michigan (Wo)man!
Let's get to know our upcoming opponent the Wisconsin Badgers!
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Michigan vs. Wisconsin: The History
I did this last week for Penn State and the reception was very positive, so here we are again for the Badgers! Below is a detailed description of the football series between the University of Michigan and the University of Wisconsin. Please feel free to share any memories of games against Wisconsin and/or your feelings about the upcoming Top Ten showdown this Saturday! Go Blue!
Overall Record: 49-14-1
Big Ten vs. The Badgers:
· Michigan holds the highest all-time winning percentage against Wisconsin at 0.773.
· Ohio State is just behind us at 0.744.
· Michigan State sits in 3rd at 0.566.
· Minnesota still clings to a 1 game edge in that rivalry with a .504 winning percentage (I’d imagine it’ll be 50-50 come November 26th in Madison).
· Wisconsin has winning records against all other Big Ten teams.
Side Note: In terms of all-time records, Wisconsin has to be the most fascinating school in the Big Ten due to how close so many of their all-time series are/how many could change hands in the near future. They are behind Minnesota by 1 game, ahead of Iowa by 1 game, ahead of Penn State by 1 game, and ahead of Illinois by 2 games. They are also only a modest 7 games behind the Spartans.
*NOTE: We have had a lot of long gaps between play with Wisconsin, so normally I’d do this by decade, but some decades will be combined.
· The earliest years (1892-1905): 7 games played, Michigan went 5-2. The two schools had a neutral site, two game series in Chicago in 1899 and 1902; we split those Windy City match ups.
· 1920s: 8 games played, Michigan went 6-1-1. The tie was in Madison in 1921 (the only tie in the entire series) and the Badgers’ one win was in Ann Arbor in 1928, the first time the Badgers ever played in Michigan Stadium. This first win in The Big House snapped an 11 game losing streak (including the tie) to Michigan.
· 1931-1950: 8 games played, Michigan went 7-1. The loss was in A2 in ‘34.
· 1951-1958: Michigan and Wisconsin did not play. So apparently this most recent gap since 2010 hasn’t even been the longest in the series!
· 1959/1960s: 8 games played, Michigan went 5-3. The Badgers’ longest winning streak in series history was three games between 1959 and 1962. The 1960 win was UW’s first win over Michigan in Madison in series history.
· 1970s: 8 games played, Michigan went 8-0. Woof.
· 1980s: 10 games played, Michigan went 9-1. (Badgers won in Madison in 1981, Bo’s only loss to them…see below for details…).
· 1990s: 6 games played, Michigan went 4-2. UW beat Gary Moeller’s Wolverines twice in a row in ’93 and ’94. The Badgers’ 1994 win in Ann Arbor was their first in The Big House in 32 years.
· 2000s (plus 2010): 9 games played, Michigan goes 5-4 (did not play in Michigan’s 2003 and 2004 Big Ten Championship years). Although Michigan’s longest winning streak was 14 games from 1965-1980, I believe the 6 game winning streak from 1997-2002 is the most impressive in this series. The Badgers were at their peak during that time frame with by far their best coach of all time (Alvarez). After the two year hiatus in ’03 and ’04, the Badgers and Wolverines each defended their home turf for half a decade from 2005-2009: the Badgers won in Madison in the odd numbered years, the Wolverines in Ann Arbor in the even ones. Then, UW won easily in The Big House in 2010 to snap the home-field advantage streak (just their second A2 win since 1962) in what remains the most recently played game.
(Modern) Michigan Coaches vs. Wisconsin
· Bo Schembechler: 18-1
· Gary Moeller: 1-2
· Lloyd Carr: 7-2
· Rich Rodriguez: 1-2
· Brady Hoke: did not face Wisconsin
· Jim Harbaugh: TBD!
Note: Barry Alvarez, undoubtedly the most celebrated Badger coach in history, only managed a 3-7 record against the Wolverines. This was his worst record against any Big Ten school (he was 5-7-1 against the Buckeyes). His 6 game losing streak to U of M was also a worst during his time as Head Coach.
Home Field Advantage:
· The early part of the series actually saw a home field disadvantage for the Badgers. Remember, Wisconsin only has 14 total wins in this series over the course of 64 games. Half of their wins (7) came in 1962 or earlier; 6 of these 7 wins were away from home for the Badgers, including their first 5 wins over us.
· Since 1962, however, there has been home-field advantage. 5 of the Badgers’ 7 wins since then have come in the friendly confines of Camp Randall.
· Wisconsin won their most recent game in Ann Arbor (2010); however, they have lost 5 of their last 6 and 17 of their last 19 games in The Big House.
· Michigan has lost 3 in a row in Madison (2009, 2007, 2005); however, we won three in a row in Camp Randall immediately prior to that (2001, 1999, 1997).
Noteworthy Michigan Wins:
· 1998: This mid-November game in Ann Arbor was one of the earliest marquee matchups in this series. #8 Wisconsin entered The Big House undefeated at 9-0 to face #15 Michigan. U of M started its 1998 season with a hangover from the national championship; we began 0-2 after losing on the road to #22 Notre Dame and at home against #19 Syracuse. However, UM won 7 games in a row leading up to the Wisconsin game, including a 27-0 blowout of #9 Penn State the week before, so there was momentum on the side of the lower ranked team. Wisconsin took an early 7-0 lead, but then 111,000+ watched Michigan dominate their top ten opponent by the tune of 27-3 throughout the rest of the game, for a final score of 27-10. Sadly, Michigan would fall in Columbus the following week, allowing Wisconsin to represent the conference in the Rose Bowl (UM, UW and OSU shared the Big Ten title, but the latter two did not play each other that year). Michigan would go on to beat #11 Arkansas in the Citrus Bowl. Wisconsin would defeat #6 UCLA in Pasadena to finish their season 11-1, at the time their best record ever. Yet, their loss in Ann Arbor stung the Badgers as the one blemish on their otherwise perfect season. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rKY9rbFfTS8
· 1999: The Big Ten season opener for both teams saw #4 Michigan come into Madison to take on #20 Wisconsin. Wisconsin started the season in the top ten, but was coming off an embarrassing non-conference loss at Cincinnati the week prior to this matchup. The Badgers wanted revenge for 1998; despite winning the Rose Bowl and posting their best record ever (11-1), a lot of Michigan fans claimed Wisconsin was very overrated and not actually good the year before (remember, we blew them out and they didn’t play Ohio State). The Badger faithful wanted to silence this talk. They would not be able to do so. Michigan got off to a fast start and a 14-0 lead. Wisconsin responded with 9 unanswered points (they missed an extra point), to go into halftime down 14-9. Most of the 3rd quarter was a defensive battle, but Tom Brady had a beautiful 27 yard TD pass on 3rd and long to give Michigan a 21-9 lead with just a minute left in the 3rd. The Badgers held UM scoreless in the 4th, but could only muster a single touchdown, not the two they needed. Michigan edged Wisconsin 21-16 to take their third victory in a row and second in a row in Madison. Wisconsin would go on to win the Big Ten outright with a 7-1 conference record and defeat #22 Stanford in the Rose Bowl. This marked the second year in a row that Wisconsin won the Rose Bowl/Big Ten, yet failed to defeat the Wolverines (Michigan finished one game back in the B1G at 6-2 with losses to MSU and Illinois). Wisconsin would finish the season ranked #4, one spot ahead of #5 Michigan after our Orange Bowl win over Alabama. This was ridiculous in the eyes of UM fans due to the fact that we defeated a top five opponent in our bowl while they beat a team that wasn’t even in the top 20. Not to mention, we beat them ourselves on their home turf. The Wolverines wouldn’t forget this slight and would win an additional three games in a row against UW from 2000-2002. Highlights: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XE2KjXGjXKg
· 2006: Like 1999, this was another victory over the Badgers in the Big Ten Season Opener that looked significantly better on our resume at the end of the season than we thought it would at the time. Michigan entered the matchup ranked #6 after slaughtering #2 Notre Dame in South Bend the week prior; the Badgers entered unranked in Bret Bielema’s first season as head coach. Wisconsin jumped out to an early 10-0 lead in Ann Arbor, but Michigan was able to tie the game by halftime. The second half saw Wolverine domination, with UM outscoring UW 17-3 to secure a comfortable 27-13 win. Once again, this would be a season where the only Wisconsin loss all year came against the Wolverines. The Badgers would finish the regular season 11-1 (they did not play Ohio State in 2006). Due to the Buckeyes’ appearance in the BCS Championship Game, Michigan got the nod over Wisconsin for the Rose Bowl given our head-to-head September victory. Wisconsin would go on to beat #12 Arkansas in the Citrus Bowl (ALL OF THE IRONY), while Michigan fell to #8 USC in Pasadena. Wisconsin would finish the season ranked #7, one spot above Michigan at #8, which surely drew some ire from Wolverine fans given our lopsided win against the Badgers themselves. This 12-1 season remains the best season, in terms of record alone, in the entire history of Wisconsin football. Highlights: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ywv2Ioh2Xz8
Noteworthy Wisconsin Wins:
· 1981: Without a doubt, a top 5 win in the entire history of Badger football. Michigan finished the prior 1980 season with three straight top 20 wins over #16 Purdue, at #5 Ohio State, and over #16 Washington in the Rose Bowl by a combined margin of 58-9 (and the two games before that were 35-0 and 24-0 on-the-road shutouts over Indiana and Wisconsin, meaning Michigan had given up only 9 points in five games). Therefore, Michigan had the voters’ confidence going into 1981 and started the season ranked #1 in the United States. Their season opener was at Camp Randall in Madison. What happened next would shake college football to its core. The unranked Badgers pulled an absolute stunner of an upset in a game they never trailed in; Michigan would lose by a touchdown, 21-14. This was Bo’s first loss in a season opener and his first and only loss to the University of Wisconsin. Has to be one of the most disheartening losses of the entire Schembechler era; Wisconsin had been a Big Ten bottom dweller for years and, while they were slightly better in 1981 than usual, UW still only finished 1981 with a mediocre 7-5 record. With their huge upset, the Badgers snapped a 14 game losing streak to Michigan; it was their first win over the Wolverines in 19 years. This was also only their second victory all time against Michigan in front of their home crowd. From 1965 to 1993, the poor Badgers went 1-23 against Michigan. However, the 1 was a pretty damn big one.
· 1994: This late October matchup saw the unranked 3-3-1 Badgers come to Ann Arbor to face the #10 Wolverines (we held a 5-2 record, with a competitive loss to #3 PSU and of course the Hail Mary catastrophe against #7 Colorado; oddly enough the Badgers also lost to the Buffaloes that year, but they were blown out in Boulder 55-17). In his first appearance in The Big House, Head Coach Alvarez would see his Badgers coast to a relatively comfortable 31-19 victory in what was their first win in Ann Arbor in 32 years. It also was the first time in 34 years the Badgers beat the Wolverines in back to back years. This would be Barry Alvarez’s only win in Ann Arbor in his career (he would lose the next three times he visited). Wisconsin would finish the season 7-4-1 and unranked; Michigan finished #12 at 8-4.
· 2005: #14 Michigan came to Madison in September for its Big Ten opener against the (at the time) unranked Badgers. We would leave heartbroken, much like 1981. A very competitive game ended when the Badgers scored a touchdown on a 4 yard QB run with only 24 seconds remaining in the game to take a 23-20 final lead. This snapped Michigan’s 23 game Big Ten opener winning streak; the last time we had lost a Big Ten opener had been in 1981, also in Madison. The Badgers snapped a 6 game losing streak to Michigan with their first win in 11 years over the Wolverines. This was Lloyd Carr’s first loss to the Badgers in 7 tries; on the other side of the field, Barry Alvarez went out with a win in this series during his final season as head coach. Michigan wound up finishing the season unranked and 7-5, while the Badgers finished ranked #15 with a 10-3 record and a Citrus Bowl upset victory over #7 Auburn.
Let’s get our 50th win over those Badgers this weekend!
GO BLUE, BEAT WISCONSIN!
Week 4 Total Wins Update
“Break their hearts my pride and hope, break their hearts and have no mercy.”
- Miss Havisham, from Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations
Four weeks now into the season finds us ostensibly at the conclusion of non-conference play, with only one OOC game remaining to be played conference-wide. The statistical sample size has grown 100% since the last diary, and the quality of competition has arguably improved as well, which also spurs the accumulation of more statistics since fewer games are lapsing into garbage time midway through the second quarter. To that extent, the influx of fresh, objective statistics diminishes the influence of the more subjective preseason ratings. Suffice it to say, the ratings at this point are more meaningful than not...
The impetus of this diary is the desire to characterize the competitive landscape of the Big Ten Conference through the synthesis of total win probability distributions for each of the teams. The distributions are derived from the relative expected points ratings from Bill Connelly (S&P+), ESPN (FPI), and occasionally Ed Feng (The Power Rank). The key is that the ratings are mapped into expected points, which can be further translated into win probabilities. Each of these three ratings are generated from their respective advanced statistical analyses, metrics and secret sauces. In doing so, they achieve varied results ... some more pleasing than others depending on your point-of-view.
Anyway, here you will find further ruminations on said statistics into still more statistics as a means for enabling further discussion, jumping to conclusions, flying off of the handle or goading your rival. Also included in this round is another look at the all-important head-to-head win-differential probability distribution for the matchup between a select pair of contenders in the B1G East.
Schedules, Spreads & Win Probabilities
Having reached the conclusion of the non-conference segment of the season, it seems reasonable to make one last pass over the analyses of the overall schedules and sum things up before diving into the conference segment, more of which will be known next week after all teams have played at least one conference game.
B1G East Schedule Rundown
The table of schedules below shows the overall schedules for all seven teams in the B1G East based on the Bill Connelly’s S&P+ weekly ratings. The last table simply shows a rank-ordering of the B1GE teams based on their expected in-conference win totals, it’s not a projection of divisional standings based on projected wins, losses, and tie-breakers.
Still on the heels of its demolition of Boomer Sooner, the Buckeye's can now lay claim to being the only team in B1G East that is favored in all of its remaining games. Without playing a game this past week, OSU has overtaken U-M not only in the S&P+ ratings (in which U-M was #1 last week) but also in total expected wins, edging the Wolverines by less than 0.2 wins. The only game U-M is not a favorite in is in Columbus at the end of November. Both U-M and OSU expect to have nearly 11 wins. What had appeared to be potentially tough road games for OSU - at Wisconsin, Penn State & Michigan State - have now softened considerably into the double-digit/two-score margin realm. In light of Wisconsin’s demolition of MSU, the Spartans’ prospects for B1GE contention have dropped as precipitously as those of the Nittany Lions’. Together PSU & MSU can now be lumped with Indiana and Maryland into a second tier of teams vying for bowl-eligibility with expected totals between 6.2 and 6.7 wins. Of that group, as of now, PSU is an underdog in only two more games; Indiana, three; Michigan State, five; and Maryland, seven. Through the wonder of statistics however, Maryland is at the top of the tier in terms of expected wins, and conversely Penn State is at the bottom. Regardless, six of seven teams in the Big Ten East may well become bowl eligible. This would be something quite significant toward laying claim to the title of most powerful division in all the land.
Here is a link to a similar table of schedule win probabilities based on FPI Ratings.
The FPI results differ to some extent, most notably in that Michigan actually registers the highest expect win total of just under 10.8 wins, edging OSU by 0.2 wins. FPI results show both U-M and OSU with greater than 10 expected wins. As with S&P+, FPI results also show OSU to be favored in all of its remaining games; U-M is an underdog in the one game. The second tier of bowl-contenders in the FPI rundown has three teams: PSU, MSU and Maryland. PSU is an underdog in only two more games; MSU, three; and Maryland, six. Maryland however, leads in expected total with just under 6.6 wins, with PSU and MSU trailing within 0.3 wins of Maryland. Indiana drops off another 1.3 wins and not likely to have a winning season per FPI.
B1G East Expected Overall Wins
The bar plots below show the expected total overall wins distributions for teams in the B1G East, in alphabetical order. Noted above each bar is the probability for that number of wins (you may need to click & embiggen to read it). The bar with the highest value is the most likely outcome (the mode). Also marked on each plot is the expected overall win total (the mean). The last line plot is just an overlay of the same data from the other seven bar plots.
What these new distributions show is that Michigan and Ohio State are tied for the highest modes with 11 wins, with OSU tilting slightly to 12 wins, and Michigan toward 10 wins. The next highest modes are Indiana and Maryland’s 7 wins, followed by PSU and MSU with 6 win modes. Thus far, U-M and OSU are the most significant contenders to win the division by a wide margin. OSU now has the edge for the best chance of having an undefeated season at 27.0% (up from the 2.0% before beating the Sooners) or about 3:1 odds, followed by Michigan with an 18.3% likelihood (9:2 odds). At this point, the overlaid S&P+ distributions have clearly coalesced into the Big Two, the Middle Four, and the Black Sheep... er… Knights.
Here is a link to a similar plot of conference win distributions based on FPI ratings.
The FPI results, contrary to past tendencies, now favor Michigan to slight extent as mentioned above, but not enough to separate modes. Both teams register a mode of 11 wins with both teams tilting to the lower side, with 20.6% chance to win out for Michigan, and 18.3% for Ohio State. From there, a clear separation of 4 wins exists to the next closest contenders, Penn State and Maryland, with modes of 7 wins. MSU claims the fourth place mode of 6 wins.
B1G West Schedule Rundown
The next table of schedules shows the overall schedules for the B1G West based on the Bill Connelly’s S&P+ weekly ratings. Again, the last table simply shows a rank-ordering of the B1GW teams based on their expected win totals - it’s not a projection of divisional conference standings per se.
The results of the S&P+ analyses has the contenders in the B1GW, in order of overall expected wins, being Wisconsin, Nebraska, Minnesota and Iowa. Notwithstanding Iowa’s OOC loss, all four are tightly grouped, within 0.5 wins of each other with less that 0.1 wins separating Wisconsin from Nebraska. No team is favored in all of its remaining games, nor is any team is expected to have a double-digit win total. Nebraska and Wisconsin are underdogs in 2 games apiece, whereas Minnesota and Iowa are underdogs in 3 games, with Nebraska and Iowa a 50/50 pick’em matchup. Iowa is also a 50/50 matchup with Penn State.
Northwestern thus far has managed to re-establish itself as a doormat for the B1GW. Now favored in only 2 remaining games, the Wildcats hopes of a bowl-bid have evaporated, its prospects having dropped to levels not seen since the early 80’s. OK, maybe it’s not that bad - there’s still Illinois and Purdue, whom the Cats are favored to beat. At this point though, Illinois is expected to win more games than Northwestern, but is also favored in only two. Meanwhile, Purdue is favored in none of its games for the remainder of the year, yet through the wonder of statistics is expected to win more games than either Northwestern or Illinois.
Here is a link to a similar table of schedule win probabilities based on FPI ratings.
FPI also expects the same four teams to have winning records. In order of expected wins, they are now Nebraska, Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota. Nebraska is the leader per FPI, showing a nearly 0.6 win edge over The Badgers. Iowa is another 1.0 wins back. The Gophers are another 0.8 wins behind the Hawkeyes. No team is favored in all of its games or even expected to have a double-digit win total. Iowa, however, is an underdog in the fewest remaining games: one. Nebraska and Wisconsin are both three-game dogs; and Minnesota, a five-game dog.
The bottom line remains that the B1GW race will be very competitive. The consensus at this point is that Nebraska, Iowa and Wisconsin are all evenly matched teams within about 0.3 games of each other, with Minnesota lurking in its Gopher hole poised to trip up anyone looking past them.
B1G West Expected Overall Wins
The bar plots below show the expected overall win distributions for the B1G West teams, in alphabetical order.
The story here is how virtually indistinguishable the distributions of Nebraska and Wisconsin are, both with a mode of 9 wins. Minnesota follows closely behind with a mode of 8 wins, and Iowa with a 7 win mode. It appears highly unlikely that any team will have an undefeated season. Wisconsin has the best chance of a one-loss season at 6.4%, followed by Nebraska at 6.1% and Minnesota at 4.8%.
Here is a link to a similar plot of conference win distributions based on FPI ratings.
The FPI results tell a similar story, but with a modest amount of separation between Nebraska, Wisconsin. Both have the same mode of 9 wins, with the Huskers distribution leaning toward 10 wins, and the Badgers leaning toward 8. Iowa - with its OOC loss - is discounted 1 win, but in terms of the B1GW race the Hawkeyes are right there with Wisconsin. Minnesota lags the other three with a mode of 7 wins. The other three do not have promising post-season prospects. With modes ranging from 3 to 5 wins for the group, it’s Purdue that has the best chance of a post-season bid (20%).
Total Wins Differential
It goes without saying that when it comes to Michigan vs. Ohio State, every cotton-pickin’ percentage point counts in the hearts and minds of the MGoBlogosphere. So this next bit of analysis delves further into the statistics by calculating a win-differential distribution from the distributions of both teams. As a quick primer without getting into any equations: when considering the difference between two random distributions, the standard deviation (or spread) of the difference is simply the sum of the two individual standard deviations. In a similar sense, the mean of the wins-differential is simply the difference between the expected wins of the two teams. From there, the devil is in the details of the resulting distribution.
Michigan vs. Ohio State
The win-differential distribution simply shows the likelihood of a team (Michigan) finishing with a conference record that is however many games better or worse than another team (Ohio State). Keeping in mind that in the event of a tie, the winner of the head-to-head match up determines the tiebreaker, the probability of a tie in conference records (i.e. a win differential of zero) is then pro-rated in proportion to the win probability of the head-to-head game. So then the total likelihood of Michigan finishing ahead of Ohio State is the sum of all the maize-and-blue shaded bars (i.e. U-M wins however many more games that OSU), plus a proportional split of the zero-differential (tied) bar. It’s worth noting that this total likelihood does not indicate the likelihood of making it to the B1G Championship, as it says nothing about how other teams in B1G East do, or even how Michigan or Ohio State do in the absolute sense. For example, if both teams were to finish tied in the B1G at 6-3, which means that UM and OSU would be losing 3 games each, other teams are clearly winning them - and another may well be the B1GE representative in Indy. Sort of common sense, but yea.
So, beginning with the results of the S&P+ analysis, the chart below shows that the most likely outcome (30.4% likelihood) is that U-M will finish in a tie with OSU. Thus, as in days of yore, The Game would decide who plays for the B1G Championship. Looking at the tie-breaker scenario, OSU is favored due to home-field advantage with a win probability of 62.2%, so it collects 18.9+ points of the 30.4% likelihood of a tie. U-M collects the remaining 11.5+ points. The next most likely finish, with a 25.5% likelihood, is that OSU finishes one game ahead of U-M. No tie-breaker required, so this scenario would include say, OSU going undefeated with U-M losing only to OSU. The next most likely outcome is U-M finishing one game ahead of OSU. This scenario would include say, U-M losing to OSU, but OSU losing two other B1G games - as well as U-M going undefeated in B1G play and handing OSU its only defeat (nice!). As the chart illustrates, the sum-total of all outcomes at this point tilts in OSU’s favor by about a 7:5 margin.
Continuing on, here is the same chart based on the FPI ratings following the week 4 results. These results show a much tighter race to the B1GCG between U-M and OSU, with the most likely outcome also being that the teams end the season with the same record. In the head-to-head matchup, OSU’s home field advantage gives them a 56.2% likelihood to win the game. Beyond the tie-break/heart-break scenario however, the Wolverines still maintain a statistical advantage by a very slim 9:8 margin over the Buckeyes, despite being an underdog in the head-to-head matchup.
So there you have it. The Big Ten East is as competitive as ever, yet Michigan football is poised once again to make a serious run at a Big Ten Championship for the first time since well, last year. The difference of course, is that in comparing last season to the current one, these numbers were not nearly so promising, as many were skeptical of even achieving 8 wins. Now it's the competition that will be looking to elevate its game to meet Michigan's, and in that way, things are right in world.
Yours in football, and Go Blue!
Best: An Ass Kicking
Usually I write these recaps top-to-bottom; I construct a general narrative and then fill in the details as I go along. But not this week. This week, the game itself wasn’t all that illustrative. UM is a significantly better team than PSU. PSU would absolutely get housed by Colorado and I think UCF would give them a run for your money. The Nittany Lions have some talented players, but they’ve played like an entertaining mid-major for most of this year, not a sleeping giant like they’ve been portrayed as in the past.
And so, trying to glean much from this game was difficult. From that first drive when UM nearly got a safety and just crushed the world around Trace McSorley every time he dropped back, it felt like this was 3+ hours.
I thought this would be a nice test for the Wolverines, a good barometer for how they’d fare against the middle of the conference. If this is the case, then woo boy, watch out Maryland and Rutgers. But who knows what this game means, except that a woman being kicked by her own foot in a fake fight is the best distillation of this game, and really this series since James Franklin took over at PSU.
Best: No, Seriously, Just an Ass Kicking
Pour one out for poor Les
UM picked up 326 yards on the ground at 6.7 yards per carry, with 6 TDs, and if you throw out a couple of kneel downs it was closer to 7.2 ypc. Smith led the way with 107 yards on 12 carries and a TD, while Higdon, Isaac, and Evans all added at least one run over 25 yards and a TD. It was so dominating a performance on the ground that Peppers didn’t have a carry and nobody really noticed. Also, all the backs helped keep Speight clean in the pocket, especially Smith, who really is great at picking up blitzers and blocking them to a stand still. About the only down spot was McDoom’s first sweep getting snuffed out immediately by an over-active linebacker; Brian mentioned earlier in the week the Nittany Lions were terrified of those plays and they definitely showed it there.
And I loved some of the play calling as well; Evans’s TD run came on a long 3rd down where they ran a delayed handoff and Evans had lots of space to operate. The line seemed better at opening up holes compared to last week, which shouldn’t be a surprise given the limited depth for PSU and the fact nobody on the Nittany Lions was a fully-operational battle station. They’ll be challenged next week by an active Wisconsin team (especially T.J. Watt), but this was a nice bounce-back.
I still don’t know what the “real” Michigan rushing game is; it’s probably somewhere between UCF and this game, trending a bit more toward UCF. PSU is so undermanned in the front 7, I would have been disappointed had UM not been able to mash them up, though doing so to this degree was a bit surprising. We’ll know a lot more after next week’s game; if UM can string together some solid runs like they did here, that will go a long way toward keeping teams honest defensively.
Worst: Depths of Excuses
Before we go too much farther, I do want to point out a bone of contention I had with PSU fans continually claiming their mediocre performance is due to the ongoing recruiting issues stemming from the scholarship reductions. While it’s true PSU was limited somewhat on the recruiting trail, it’s not been a barren wasteland. Here is a chart of PSU’s recruiting numbers these past 5 years, taken from 24/7:
|Year||National Ranking||Conference Ranking||# of recruits|
Yes, Penn State had some limitations in terms of class size, but this wasn’t a team unable to recruit solid players to their program. And yet, the offensive line remains, at best, below average, with additional depth issues along the defensive line. Nobody can prepare for losing all 3 starting LBs, but this is a team that seemed to live off the last couple years of Joe Pa’s tenure and Bill O’Brien’s first year without properly replenishing the stock at key positions. Over Franklin’s first 3 years, they’ve recruited a total of 12 offensive linemen, exactly 3 in the top-250. Offensive line is always a bit of a crapshoot, but at least some of their issues do come from ineffective recruiting on the offensive line and, to a lesser extent, the linebackers and defensive line. The sanctions are all gone and their effects, whatever they are, should be mostly gone by now. I just don’t buy that their struggles keeping their QB upright is mostly due to a couple of missed scholarships.
Best: A Rudockian Performance
The good news in that Wilton Speight bounced back from last week’s struggles against Colorado; he completed 62% of his throws for almost 200 yards and a TD. He wasn’t sacked though he was under pressure a bit; he largely responded well, running for a 1st down on a 4th-and-7 play, throwing a dart on another 4th down that was dropped, and generally keeping his eyes downfield while on the move. He’ll never remind you of a Gardner or even an Andrew Luck on the run, but one of his really underrated traits is Speight’s focus downfield as he moves. He isn’t necessarily a threat to run, but since he always seems capable of making a throw downfield you keep pressure on defenders to stay on receivers, which led to some nice completions. At some point in the 3rd quarter, he had been 7/7 on 3rd down, picking up 4 FDs in the process. He also showed a bit more zip on the ball, which leads to an issue I saw a couple of times.
For whatever reason, Speight struggled a bit guiding balls to receivers on pretty simple throws. He threw a ball very low to Khalid Hill on third down on UM’s first scoring drive; he was bailed out by Hill digging it off the turf for a first. But had that ball been higher, Hill might have scored. Later on in that first half, he miffed another ball high to Butt on a screen that probably would have led to UM walking in for another score.
This wasn’t a game where Speight was asked to do much and you could tell the game plan was simplified a bit once it became clear that UM could run all over the undermanned PSU front. But I definitely left this game believing Colorado was a bit of a fluke, buoyed a bit by how they played in Oregon. It’ll be interesting to see how Speight handles Wisconsin’s pressure, but he definitely seems more comfortable back there than Rudock was at this point last year.
Meh: Catchy Guys
I can’t tell how much was play calling and how much was the defense, but I’m a bit concerned UM continues to struggle a bit throwing the ball downfield. Chesson hasn’t really taken the top off of teams recently, and in this game he had 1 catch for 18 yards, which is an improvement over last week’s no-catch outing. In his stead Darboh and Butt had good games, but UM’s offense needs that playmaker outside, and Chesson not getting deep (and dropping another catchable ball) is a bit troubling.
On the more positive end, I thought Darboh played great in this game. There was a 3rd-down conversion in the first half where Speight threw the ball 6-7 yards short of the sticks and let Darboh fight off his defender and run for the first. Normally I’m not a fan of passes short of the line on 3rd down, but this was a perfect play call because it took advantage of everything Darboh does well: solid hands in coverage and the power and speed to fight off a tackler. And Grant Perry had a couple of nice catches as well, as he seems to be growing into the slot position. And Jake Butt is Jake Butt; he’s the best pass-catching TE in the country and he remains a matchup nightmare for teams. I know PSU was down their entire LBs, but Butt basically got open at will all day.
So overall, a fine day for the receiving corps, but I am definitely hoping Chesson can integrate himself back into the passing game soon.
Best: Simple, Unrelenting Pressure
At some point in the first half of this game, I legitimately wondered if James Franklin didn’t understand that getting his QBs crushed for 4 quarters was probably why all of them seemed to struggle. At halftime, Trace McSorley had been sacked 5 times, hit probably another 4-5 times, and barely had enough time to set his feet before he had to run for his life. And Michigan was doing this at most with 5 rushers; on that first drive UM sacked McSorley twice with straight 4-man rushes. After years of hearing about how the defensive line wanted to “earn” the right to rush 4, this year’s team has garnered such rights in droves.
Officially, UM had 13 TFLs for 45 yards, including 6 sacks for 27. In reality, they probably would have broken 20 had they not took their foot off the gas a bit in the 4th. Taco Charlton picked up right where he left off before his leg injury, recording 1.5 sacks and adding some nice edge control when PSU tried to run outside. Mo Hurst had a big sack where he just ran past the center, showing that burst we all heard about when he came to UM. And Wormley nearly got a safety on the opening drive when he just drove the PSU tackle back a half-dozen yards.
Plus, UM was able to do this without getting a huge day from Peppers, at least on the stats sheet. He had 5 tackles and that huge punt return to start UM’s first drive, but otherwise he was relatively quiet. I sensed UM didn’t want to tip their hand much before Wisconsin, but it was pretty amazing to see them throttle an okay PSU offense with a standard front. They just dominated the individual matchups, and that doesn’t bode well for a lot of other offenses in this league if UM can get into the backfield this easily, this consistently.
And they front 7 largely held Saquon Barkley in check. He’s a great runner in space and has good size and hands, so the fact he finished with about 75% of PSU’s total yardage (77 in the air, 59 on the ground) shouldn’t surprise anyone. But beyond one nice little run that was helped quite a bit by Mike McCray getting picked off by a PSU WR he definitely wasn’t even looking for as he tracked Barkley, he could never get going and was taken out of the game quickly. After weeks of chasing around guys relying on misdirection and broken assignments, you could tell UM was prepared for the more “predictable” play calling from PSU, and I expect a similar level of play next week against Wisconsin.
Best: Nobody to Pick On
After Michigan ran out to that big lead and PSU realized that Barkley wasn’t going to be able to get much going on the ground, Penn State became very focused on trying to find a matchup in UM’s secondary they could use to move the ball down the field. They tried a slant or two at Lewis in the slot with minimal success, and outside of a couple of short balls to Gesicki they couldn’t get much going with their mid-distance passing game. So under heavy duress, McSorley tried to get the ball to Hamilton and Godwin downfield. It didn’t lead to much success, as they combined for 2 catches for 19 yards and a TD.
What I did notice was that PSU clearly went after Stribling more; before going out with an injury, PSU seemed to throw at him once with Godwin that was a failed circus catch and that was about it. They went after Stribling a bit harder, and he responded with two pass breakups and generally looked the part of a top corner. With Clark out he’ll be expected to take hold of that outside corner spot, and thus far this season he’s looked the part.
Worst: I Don’t Understand Penalties
This is nothing new, but it seems to happen every year that as soon as I think I have it down, the rules or their applications change.
So PSU’s walk-on-turned-starter Brandon Smith was ejected for targeting on a play where he tried to pick off a pass to a falling Grant Perry. Yes there was contact to the head, but Smith was absolutely making the play on the ball and that should be allowed. Michigan fans know all about questionable targeting calls, and it was hard to understand what else Smith could have done in that situation. Even on review it doesn’t look intentional or particularly dangerous, unless we are going to redefine what is a defenseless player to an extreme degree.
And the weirdness didn’t end there. UM got hit with at least two dubious pass interference calls in this game, one each on Clark and Stribling. In Stribling’s case, the ball was thrown yards short and both him and I believe Godwin were battling for position; it was the definition of rubbing in racing. Clark also got dinged for a similar play in which the ball was high and outside, and the PSU receiver sort of jumped into him and drew the call. Considering Chesson had gotten mugged only a bit earlier on a similar play, it was difficult to get a sense what the refs were seeing.
I do get that UM’s defense is so dominant that at times officials might feel the need to call a penalty to stem the aggressiveness, much like how Shaq was often officiated differently because he physically dominated players to a degree few had seen before. UM had 13 TFLs, including 6 sacks, and it took some garbage time for PSU to even crack 100 yards passing. And UM is a very “handsy” pass defense, in a similar vein to the way UM fans complained MSU did when their defense was dominant. But at the same time, if one team is just beating up another it doesn’t mean they are doing anything particularly wrong, only that they are better. It’s not some massive issue, but I do cock and eyebrow when the team that won by 39 was found guilty of 5 more penalties for nearly 70 yards than the opposition.
Worst: 6th Year Roulette
So Jeremy Clark injured his ACL on a kick return late in the game more notable for the hit put on Jourdan Lewis by PSU’s mammoth punter.
Clark at least has the opportunity to apply for a redshirt because of the timeliness, if you will, of the injury; Mario Ojemudia missed out on the same opportunity despite a similar injury because it occurred one game later on the schedule. But Clark already took a redshirt his freshman year, and so the team will have to provide evidence he was actually injured then and not just a casualty of the depth chart and/or uncertainty for his position with the previous staff. While the NCAA can always amaze you with its decisions, it’s not a given that Clark will get another year. If he does come back in 2017, that provides a huge boost to that unit, as Clark was playing like an all-conference corner when he went down, and with his combination of size and speed he gives UM flexibility to put him on an island against basically anyone and hold his own.
How this injury affects the 2016 defense will depend heavily on how well freshmen like Lavert Hill and and David Long can take on their roles in this defense. You still have lots of veteran players in the defensive backfield, and getting back Jourdan Lewis is huge, but before Clark went down those young guys were a bonus; now, they are going to be expected to contribute. This is why I tend not to bemoan lost redshirts at positions where depth is an issue, but we’re going to learn pretty quickly how flexible this defense can be with a major contributor out.
Worst: Class Warfare
The internet is a terrible place. It’s terrible for all the reasons you’ve heard of: the misogyny, the racism, the violence, the “your vs. you’re” pedants, everything. It’s the place that reminds you that everyone you see at your office, your bus, your train, in your car on the road, at the grocery store squeezing melons is probably an asshole about something and you wouldn’t want to hang out with him or her if you knew.
Sports on the internet is probably right up there with politics as the fetid pond most attractive for the most navel-gazing, self-righteous, uninformed discussions on barely-hidden dog whistles and long-held grudges caused by long-forgotten wrongs. So much is wrapped up in the colors and logos people are wearing on the field, in the institutions and mentalities they represent, that you wonder sometimes if the outcome of the game really matters.
Now, I’m not going to discuss the decision of players regarding the national anthem; Harbaugh said it best in the press conference following the game: “My thoughts are there is a freedom of expression, and somebody can speak their mind.”* Nor am I going to talk anymore about PSU and their treatment of Joe Pa and all the fallout of Sandusky’s sexual assaults of children. The Onion pretty much gets it right. And then as I was writing this, Kirk Herbstreit, a man who I can only imagine gets vile shit thrown at him all day on Twitter, called out Taylor Lewan for a dumb play that happens in the NFL basically every weekend in the most internet way possible. All of these are terrible, but you aren’t here to read what some middle-aged guy thinks about them.
But the one trope I am going to talk about is the “classiness” of this game (in the eyes of some PSU fans) and sports generally. Here’s an example:
Really Harbaugh!?!!! Challenging a spot on a PSU first down deep in their own territory ... It's 35-3... Have some class clown. #PSUvsMICH
— The Sports Dad (@The_SportsDad) September 24, 2016
Now, I’m not a fan of a clearly-overmatched team being beaten into further submission for no good reason; I totally understood Clemson and South Carolina State using shortened quarters in the second half of that blowout. And you could make the argument that PSU’s injuries on the defense meant they had limited depth and you were possibly exposing kids to injuries in a game that was long decided. But at the same time, it didn’t feel like UM was being needlessly aggressive here; they weren’t sending the house on every down or throwing deep just to run up the score. They threw the ball 11 times in the second half, most of the time during the 3rd quarter when the game was still a reasonable 28-3. And challenging spots even when the game is decided is what Harbaugh does; he is going to ride an official in the 4th quarter as hard as in the first, and while “being right” can certainly be grating, most successful football coaches are wired that way. And on a more practical matter, gameday is one of the few times a coach and team can work on a lot of these finer points of football; with a limited number of practice hours and the necessity to keep guys healthy, even blowouts give you opportunities to analyze your team and recognize how they’ll respond in more pressing situations.
But what gets me is that fans (usually on the losing side of a contest) devolve to “classiness” as a means to denigrate others in the most trite way possible, the insinuation being that while you might be better on the field, we are better people because in some hypothetical world in which the situations were reversed, our coaches and players would show “mercy” or whatever insulting manifestation of pity that is a substitute for a little blue pill on Saturday. It puts so much emotion and biases into what is a pretty mechanical process; to think a coach has some metric in his or her head that says “below this number of points I play to win, above I show benevolence”. Coaches are paid to win games, and unless you are one of those weirdos who tries to prove a point, you are going to coach like every play matters.
And I’ll admit to being that guy sometime. I’d like to say I’ve tried to tamp that part of my down as I’ve aged and sports have come to occupy a normal-size part of my life, not the outsized part it did before life sort of stepped in, that I “matured” into someone with foresight. But that’s probably a bit of a lie; it’s more that maintaining that level of cognitive dissonance is just too draining. Being a UM fan doesn’t make me a better person than those who root for rivals, and even if there was some way to measure relative human quality, it wouldn’t have any bearing on what happens on the football field. It’s like when you read long arguments between Alabama and Ole Miss fans discussing which state is more “backwards” and “dirty” of a program. It’s a game of Calvinball without any of the charm and even less of a sense of reality.
But with a couple of rivalry games coming up against MSU and OSU, I’m not looking forward to more and more twitter eggs complaining over which side of a game that generates billions of dollars for old men in suits and large corporate entities “classily” beat the snot out of each other.
* And yes, I know all about this not being a Constitutional expression argument; I’ve seen XKCD.
Meh: They Are Who We Thought They Were
I wish I had more to say about this game, but I’m running out of gifs to convey how much of a an ass-kicking this was. Oh wait, I found one more.
So on to the rest of the weekend and next week.
OSU had the weekend off, but other UM opponents of interest had games this weekend, and it felt like we finally got some confirmation about their true identities. As always, you don’t want to read too much into the first week of conference play, but after the vast variability in quality of non-conference opponents, seeing teams like MSU, Iowa, and Indiana play teams we have some historical sense about is helpful in getting a solid read on their abilities.
Iowa barely got by Rutgers a week after failing to just get by NDSU. That Ferentz deal is looking like an even better decision right now than it was when they first made it. And the funny thing is, Iowa isn’t playing all that poorly in a lot of these games. It’s a very vanilla team on both sides of the ball, but Beathard is a good passer (60% completion, 8 ypa, 8:1 TD:INT), they can run the ball a bit with Wadley and Daniels Jr., and the pass defense is solid (#31 nationally). The one major drop-off is in rush defense, which is giving up about 50 yards more this year than last, but at least part of that seems to be due to sheer quantity vs. quality. They’ve held Miami (NTM), Iowa St., and Rutgers to around 3.6 ypc, with only NDSU getting close to 5 ypc. But against NDSU and Rutgers, they’ve also faced 102 rushing attempts, which is going to mess with your numbers a bit. Obviously, if a team feels like it can stay close then it’ll run the ball more and not take their chances against the Hawkeye secondary, but I’m not sure how much different this Iowa team is compared to last year save for a slight degradation in defensive performance. That still feels like a scary game. Rutgers is, well Rutgers, and they lost Janarion Grant in this game and it didn’t look pretty. It’s the team’s first road game and all so there’s obviously some uncertainty, but Chris Ash might not be sleeping all too soundly next week all the same.
The other half of the relevant undercard was Indiana battling Wake Forest. I caught the opening play, a 75-yard TD for IU and figured this would be a blowout. And based on the box score, it should have been; IU had 611 yards(!) of offense compared to Wake Forest’s 352, passing for 496 yards at 10.6 ypa and 3 TDs. Both teams averaged about 3.6 ypc, and neither team was particularly great on 3rd down conversions. But IU threw 5 picks, including 1 for a TD, and had 9 penalties for 84 yards. And the final score even made this game closer than it should have been; IU scored a TD with 11 seconds left to pull it within 5. Richard Lagow is an agent of chaos in and of himself, but until this game he was having a great season throwing the ball, and Devine Redding is still an incredibly dangerous back. And IU played reasonably solid defense against the Demon Deacons, at least given the opponent. They’ll still get plastered by UM, but this was just one of those weird games, I guess. Of interest here, the Hoosiers welcome the Spartans this week, and that laughter you hear is mine as I contemplate MSU’s corners trying to keep a wrap on IU’s wide receivers.
The headliner for the weekend was obvious MSU-Wisconsin. The conceit was 2 fringe playoff contenders were meeting as (perhaps) a preview of an upcoming B1G championship game rematch. Wisconsin had taken down mighty LSU to open the year, while MSU shook off some early struggles against Furman in the opener to open a huge lead at Notre Dame, and ultimately held on for a “big” win that popped MSU into the top 10. It was going to be two smashmouth, defense-first teams, and to a subset of the viewing public it would be glorious. And for about a half, that was right. And then the wheels fell off, as Wisconsin’s aggressive defense returned an L.J. Scott fumble back for a TD, got another short field off a fumbled punt attempt, and MSU never really got going. I know MSU fans will point at the yardage total (MSU picked up 325 while Wisconsin finished with 317), ignore starting field position (Wiscy had a 7-yard advantage on average) and turnovers (4-2 for Wisconsin, with 1 of those two Badger turnovers an INT on a heave to end the first half) and claim this game was close. But I watched the second half of this game, and MSU simply could not move the ball consistently at all. They finished 4/13 on 3rd down, three 3 picks, and allowed a freshman QB (Hornibrook) go 16/26 for almost 200 yards and a TD, oftentimes leaving his receivers with cushions they could fall asleep in on third down. None of their receivers could consistently get open or pull in balls save for Corley, and he’s a freshman and got pushed around a bit in tight coverage. O’Connor doesn’t have the vision or arm strength of make the throws Cook did last year to bail them out, and Scott behind that offensive line feels like a bit like Barkley at PSU. And yeah, Duke just dropped 38 on the Domers, so it probably isn’t that impressive anymore MSU sorta stumbled into 36.
On the other side of the ball, it’s not a revelation to call MSU’s secondary subpar this year, but without anything resembling consistent a pass rush (only 3 sacks), that secondary is a mess. It’s just not a good team, and anyone thinking this is 2013 again hasn’t looked at the roster. They’ll be “fine” this year, but if you see a rapid drop in the number of people you didn’t know attend or care about MSU until 6 years ago talking up the Spartans, don’t be surprised.
As for Wisconsin, they look extremely tough defensively (at least against the run; O’Connor’s well-documented penchant for locking onto WRs and throwing into triple-coverage was on display in this game, making it hard to figure out where his bad play ended and solid coverage began), and their offense is definitely more comfortable with Hornibrook than under Houston. Wisconsin isn’t necessarily an aggressive team in the front 7; UM has more than twice as many TFLs (44) as the Badgers (21), and that’s with T.J. Watt’s national top-10 sack total (4.5 sacks). But they stop the run (about 80 ypg) and hold up reasonably well against the pass, though massive caveats apply as they’ve faced one pretty good passing attack in #19 Akron and then a bunch of bad to average attacks in #119 (LSU), #94 (Georgia St.), and #69 (MSU). UM’s opponents haven’t been much different (UCF and Hawai’i are bad, PSU average, Colorado good), but at least UM has throttled them with the exception of a couple of bombs to Colorado. If Speight can play within himself and the offense can get balls to Perry and Butt early to loosen up the corners, I could see UM having some passing success against the Badgers. Rushing will be a bit more of a slow go, but this also feels like a game that Harbaugh will gameplan a bit for.
And the guy looked poised out there; he dropped a ball between two MSU defenders for a 3rd-down conversion in the 4th quarter that was almost perfect, and he only forced a couple of bad throws all day. Of course, he’s also a freshman and the competition level on both sides of the ball is going to make a huge jump for them even if LSU’s defense is pretty good, but the Badgers be the first real defensive test for UM that they might not be able to just out-talent. If nothing else, the offensive line is going to be under a new level of pressure run blocking and pass protecting in this game. At the same time, LSU got significantly better throwing the ball when a failed Purdue QB took over, and they still hung in okay against the Badgers, so who knows.
Wisconsin is definitely better than I thought they’d be this year; the defense even with former DC Dave Aranda is solid, and their offense can run the ball a bit with Clement and Ogunbowale to protect Hornibrook a bit. At the same time, UM’s defense is built to eat up Wisconsin’s offense, and should be able to keep them behind the sticks for long 3rd downs most of the day. It’ll be a close-ish game because of the defenses involved, but I see UM being able to throttle Wisconsin far more effectively than the other way around, especially if the turnover battle stays close to even.
I will be traveling far away for a birthday party next weekend. There will be children, old people, and a strong chance of zero college football on the screen. I will DVR this game, but I make no promises this post won’t be a bunch of happy or sad gifs next week. Plan your bathroom breaks accordingly.