"He makes it really easy on you as a coach because he has tremendous football instincts," Michigan tight ends coach Jay Harbaugh said. "Things come really naturally to him. He doesn't have to see things too many times. He has a good sense for how things should look and feel, and he's a tough, physical guy."
Rerum omnium magister usus.
Experience is the teacher of all things.
Julius Caesar, Commentarii de Bello Civili, Book 2, Chapter 8
Setting. As the 2013 football season rolls on, the problems in Michigan’s run game have become more and more glaring. This has led to much ballyhooing and debate as to the main causes of Michigan’s ground game woes. The most basic argument is whether our problems are caused by weakness on the line or at the running back position. Brian’s UFRs come into play here, and while Fitz and the gang haven’t been perfect by any means, the play-by-play breakdowns seem to suggest that the problem lies with our offensive line. A phalanx our line is not.
Identifying the line as the problem, however, has not really made anyone very content. Rather it’s sparked a debate between the baby blamers – those who see Michigan’s youth as the source of their problems – and the crappy coach contingent – those who find fault with our coaches development of our o-line talent, not to mention play calling.
Previous Work. The MGoCommunity has already produced some solid work on this topic. The Mathlete’s preseason study looked at other teams who had offensive lines with an 1st round NFL pick combined with 2+ freshmen. Although he eventually admitted that we were still probably a year away, his comparison grouped us with the likes of Alabama, Oregon, and Stanford. GuloGulo’s diary from back in September looked at the relationship between average o-line experience in the Big 10 and success mainly defined as yards per play. After the first four weeks of the season, he concluded that we were about average in both experience and success. Gameboy’s recent diaries have shown that Michigan’s line is relatively young whether you take a “number of years in the program” or “number of previous starts” approach.
Questions. In this study I want to delve a little deeper into what we mean by “experience,” what we mean by “success,” and how those two variables are actually related. I will attempt to answer four questions:
- Can offensive line experience explain run game success?
- Are years or starts a better measure of experience?
- Is interior line experience more important that tackle experience?
- Is average experience a better measure than the weakest link?
Definitions. Neither experience nor success have single and obvious definitions. With regard to the o-line, success could be defined by wins, yards per play, yards per rush, sack percentage, or play-by-play results a la UFR. For the first part of this study, I use yards per carry as my metric for success. Experience, likewise, can be defined in a variety of ways, including the number of years in the program, the number of starts, or the number of snaps. This analysis primarily uses the number of years in the program as its measure for experience. This isn’t because it’s necessarily the best measure – we’ll test that in a bit – but rather because it’s the measure that’s easiest to find information about. Redoing this study with a start- or snap-focused measure of experience would be a worthwhile endeavor. In the graphs below, the year of the players are equated with numbers, so that freshman = 1, red shirt freshman = 1.5, sophomore = 2, red shirt sophomore = 2.5, and so on.
Data. The data for this study are drawn from this 2013 season. All 125 FBS teams are included. The YPC stats come from ESPN and the experience info comes from the a scouting site. Because this isn’t necessarily about Michigan’s o-line this year, but rather about the general relationship between offensive line experience and success, data from any recent season should apply though. Giving this thing some time depth would probably improve its efficacy. The stats are current as of 11/6/2013. All the images are from the MGoBlog flickr account; Bryan Fuller gets the credit, I believe.
This is a primarily quantitative study, but I’m in no way a statistician. My background is in Classics, as in Greek and Roman studies, so although I’ve tried brush up on my stats, there’s certainly the possibility that these metrics aren’t employed or interpreted perfectly. Feel free to correct me.
With that said, it’s probably useful to give a brief overview of the statistical measures in an attempt to describe what they actually tell us. I’m looking at 4 main metrics: correlation coefficient, r-squared, p-value, and slope of the linear trend line.
Correlation coefficient: The correlation coefficient quantifies the degree of linear relation between two variables. The coefficient ranges from -1.0 to 1.0, and the larger the absolute value of the coefficient, the stronger the relationship. This will provide a single number for the strength of the relationship between o-line experience and yards per carry.
R-squared: The r-squared provides a measure for the amount of variance in one variable that can be explained by another variable. This will be used to assess how much of the variance in yards per carry can be explained by o-line experience. It’s important to note here that there are obviously many other factors other than experience that govern running game efficiency (coaching, scheme, running back skill, etc.). A low r-squared doesn’t necessarily mean that experience is unimportant, just that other factors are also important.
P-value: The p-value let's us know whether our results are statistically significant; more specifically it provides a measure to assess whether we should discard the null hypothesis. In this case, the null hypothesis is that there is no relationship between o-line experience and running game success. The p-value ranges from 0 to 1. A small p-value, < 0.05, suggests that we reject the null hypothesis, while a large p-value suggests we retain it. If p-values are low, we should have faith in the relationship between experience and success; if they are high we should feel less confident about that relationship.
Slope of linear trend line: The trend lines in the graphs below show the linear relationship between experience and success. The slopes of that lines indicate the extent to which we’d expect YPC to change as a result of a change in experience. For example, if the slope was 0.5, the data would suggest that an extra year of average o-line experience is worth ½ of a yard per carry.
Question 1: Can offensive line experience explain run game success?
Good habits formed during youth make all the difference. - Aristotle
The scatter plot below depicts the relationship between average offensive line experience in years and yards per carry. Click for enlarged scatterplot with all BCS teams labeled.
The data broadly confirm what we’d expect. This is good! This means that we’re right in claiming our youth is (partially) the problem. The older your offensive line is, on average, the more yards per carry that team produces. The correlational coefficient is 0.16 for this data set, indicating that there’s a slightly positive correlation between offensive line experience and yards per carry. The r-squared is small, however, suggesting that only about 3% of the variation in teams’ yards per carry can be attributed to the experience of the offensive line. A p-value of 0.07 is marginal, meaning that it’s not particularly clear whether we should interpret these results as significant or not. Let’s start by giving experience the benefit of the doubt though, and for the time we can conclude that experience does indeed influence ground game success. The slope of the linear trend line suggests that an extra year of average experience is worth about 1/3 of a yard per carry.
At first glance, there does seem to be a positive correlation between o-line experience and YPC, although there is still a lot of variance in YPC that cannot be explained by experience.
Question 2: Are years or starts a better measure of experience?
One of the arguments against the approach taken in question one is that an offensive lineman’s number of previous starts is a better measure of experience than the number of years he’s been in the program. Let’s take a look; the graph below plots this alternate measure of experience against yards per carry. Click to enlarge and see Oregon and Wisconsin put up 6.7 YPC despite having less total starts along the o-line than Michigan.
The relationship between the number of previous OL starts and yards per carry generally mirrors the pattern produced when the number of years in the program is taken into consideration. The correlation coefficient is actually slightly higher (0.23 compared to 0.16), suggesting that starts is indeed a slightly better measure than years in the program for the purpose of predicting o-line success. The r-squared suggests that previous starts can explain about 5% of the variance in yards per carry, and a p-value of 0.01 indicates that these results are indeed significant. The slope of the line suggests that each extra start is worth about 1/100 of a yard per carry, meaning that 50 extra stars is worth about ½ a yard, and 100 extra starts is worth about a full extra yard per carry.
Now that the data show that “number of starts” is probably a better measure of offensive line success, I’m going to revert to “number of years in the program” as my main metric of experience. This is simply due to the convenience of the data. If someone can get number of starts for all the programs, that should improve things. Perhaps another day.
Question 3: Is interior line experience more important than tackle experience?
Why doesn't Lewan make everything okay?
One of the most common arguments against using the average or total experience of the entire offensive line is that all spots along the line are not created equal. Lewan being an awesome LT doesn’t help our RG Mags getting crushed by the NT. Essentially, interior line experience is more important than tackle experience. But does it really matter whether your experience comes on the interior or exterior of the line?
Let’s start with tackle experience first. The graph below shows the relationship between the average experience of each team’s tackles and their YPC.
Check out Michigan and Purdue with their bookend fifth year senior tackles. This doesn’t bode well for a positive relationship. Looking across the entire spectrum of the FBS, there appears to be no correlation between the experience of a team’s tackles and their ability to run the ball successfully. Once again, this is good news for us. It’s not that we’re not taking advantage of our great tackles, it appears that on the whole, tackle experience just doesn’t influence ground game success all that much. The correlation coefficient is a measly 0.02, the r-squared is <0.01, and the p-value is 0.81, which is incredibly high. The slope of the trend line suggests a very, very slight decrease in YPC as tackles increase in age, which doesn't make any sense at all.
This is really interesting actually, as all metrics suggest there is essentially no connection between tackle experience and yards per carry. If tackles aren’t the cause of the correlation between total experience and YPC, then it must be the interior of the line, right? Click to enlarge and see us at the children's table with UCLA and Purdue.
It appears as though the “our interior line is full of infants” excuse is actually a pretty good one. With a correlation coefficient of 0.22, the relationship between these two variables is stronger than when offensive line experience as a whole is averaged (in years) and an order of magnitude stronger than the correlation between tackle experience and YPC. The r-squared indicates about 5% of YPC variation can be explained by experience along the interior of the line, and a p-value of 0.01 suggests these results are significant. The slope of the trend line suggests an extra year, on average, is worth about 1/3 of a yard per carry.
If you extrapolate that out over the course of a season, that’s about 150-200 extra yards of rushing per year (Michigan had 502 rushing attempts in 2012 according to ESPN). Interior line experience does seem to be a big deal. Also, we’re one of the 3 youngest teams out of 125 FBS teams in terms of interior line experience. That is young indeed.
Question 4: Is average experience a better measure than the weakest link?
The foundation of every state is the education of its youth. - Diogenes
Thus far the data have shown that interior line experience is a better predictor of running game success than total offensive line experience. The next question is whether average interior line experience is a better predictor of success than the “weakest link” along the line. In this case we’ll call the youngest person on the interior of the line the weakest link. This really has nothing to do with their ability, it’s just a measure of their experience in the program. Click to enlarge and see Auburn averaging 6+ YPC while starting a true freshman interior lineman.
It looks as though there is something to the “weakest link” argument. The correlation coefficient in this case is 0.29, which stands as our strongest correlation yet between some measure of experience and yards per carry. The r-squared indicates that this measure can explain about 8% of YPC variation, and a p-value of 0.01 suggests that these results are indeed significant. The slope here once again suggests that an extra year is worth about 1/3 of a yard per carry.
The fact that the age of a team's youngest interior offensive lineman is a better predictor of run game success than its average offensive line experience, or even the average experience of just the interior line, is rather unexpected. This should bode well for Michigan's future along the line as we gain experience and depth in future seasons.
First off, offensive line experience leaves a lot of the variance in yards per carry unexplained. So even though this study supports the conclusion that offensive line experience does indeed influence success in the running game, there are clearly many other factors that also play a role.
In this study, experience has been measured in in two ways, both as “years in the program” and as “number of starts.” While both serve as decent predictors of success in the running game as judged by YPC, number of starts seems to be the better measure. Unfortunately, it’s also the measure that is more time-intensive to track. When looking at the outer vs. interior line, the data suggest that success on the ground is much more closely tied to the experience of the interior line than it is to either the tackles or even the average experience of the line as a whole. Surprisingly, tackle experience seems to be completely irrelevant as a predictor of run game success. Finally, the level of experience of the least-experienced person on the interior line serves as an even better metric for predicting running game efficiency. The “weakest link” argument appears to hold water.
Unit of Measurement
|R-Squared||P-Value||Effect on YPC|
|Total Experience||Years||0.16||0.03||0.07||Extra year = +1/3 yard|
|Total Experience||Starts||0.23||0.05||0.01||Extra 10 starts = +1/10 yard|
|Interior Line Experience||Years||0.22||0.05||0.01||Extra year = +1/3 yard|
|Youngest Interior Lineman||Years||0.29||0.08||0.01||
Extra year = +1/3 yard
What does this mean for Michigan? As Gameboy showed us in his diaries, Michigan is young along the O-Line, whether you’re judging by years in the program or by number of starts. What I hope to have demonstrated here is that (a) being young really does matter, and (b) we’re especially young where it matters most (i.e., tied for 2nd youngest on the interior OL out of 125 FBS teams).
Borges and Funk in happier times
There’s been a lot of heat on Borges and Funk recently, and it’s appropriate to ask whether this study indicts or absolves them. Unfortunately, I think the data tend to side step the question. The fact that o-line experience does seem to influence YPC, and especially the finding that interior line experience seems to be of utmost importance, combined with Michigan’s position with regard to these measures (i.e., they fall almost exactly along the linear trend line in both the interior line experience graph and in the weakest link graph), would initially suggest that the line is performing about as expected.
This doesn't let the staff off the hook. The relatively low r-squared values would indicate that there is a lot more than just experience that goes into producing a successful running attack. Coaching, both in terms of scheme and player development, is probably one of the most influential factors in governing run game success, and this study doesn’t attempt to measure or control for that aspect of the game. Moreover, this study doesn't account for talent along the offensive line, which would probably suggest Michigan is underperforming relative to the recruiting rankings. Strength of schedule is also omitted. Having played CMU, Akron, UConn, Indiana, and Nebraska, adding this variable could also raise our team's expected YPC, and in doing so lower our performance relative to expectations.
According to the eyeball test, the apparent regression along the offensive line would seem to indicate that there are some seriously problematic coaching issues. There are several BCS programs with similar youth-related issues on the interior line, both when experience is averaged (e.g., UCLA) and when experience is defined by the youngest interior lineman (e.g., Notre Dame, Arkansas, and Auburn), and these programs still manage to perform significantly better than us in terms of yards per carry. When viewed within the context of the entire FBS, however, the data suggest that Michigan’s youth is a real and influential issue.
On the bright side, this should give us hope for future seasons. As our interior line matures, both in terms of average experience and in terms of its weakest link, we should improve. This only holds, of course, if all the other factors that go into producing a successful offensive line – namely coaching scheme and player development – are on par with the rest of college football. That, unfortunately, is not guaranteed.
Rome wasn’t built in a day, but it did progressively grow bigger and better until it reached a point where it dominated at the point of attack. Let’s hope our offensive line can do the same.
Coming in part 2: Shouldn’t our veteran tackles at least make us better at pass protection?!?
Awww, come on.
 Actually, upon further review, I’m not so sure this is accurate. Over the course of 8 games, Fitz has 5 positive UFR games, 2 negative, and 1 around zero, while the OL has 5 positive UFR games, 2 negative, and 1 around zero. Obviously RB and OL numbers aren’t perfectly commensurate, but this probably suggests the blame should be shared.
The weekly roundup gets somewhat less enjoyable with each loss, but here's the chart nevertheless. I've incorporated Seth's suggestion of including last week's rankings for comparative purposes. Last week's rankings are indicated with a less opaque icon; if you can't see it at all, it's because the ranking hasn't changed much at all.
Click to embiggen:
So, we seem to have a four-tier B1G:
- Good teams: Ohio State, Wisconsin, Michigan State
- Above-average teams: Nebraska, Minnesota, Michigan, Northwestern, Iowa, and Indiana is in this group, too, despite their schizophrenic nature (excellent offense, abysmal defense).
- Below-average teams: Illinois, Penn State
- Horrible teams: Purdue
What The Hell Is Going On Out Here!: In unison, the entire Michigan fan base was quoting Vince Lombardi on Saturday. Gardner has just one giveaway in the last 2 games and the offense has NEVER looked worse. If this is what ball security looks like --- fagetta bout it! Devin looks tentative on just about every throw and every run. I'm not buying the "lack of talent on the O line" either. This is just horrible, horrible play calling/coaching. Unless something changes drastically, M is looking at 6-6 (and how does 10-2, 8-4, 6-6 look for the first 3 years).
Synopsis: Michigan's TOM for the game was +2.0 and that should have been enough for a victory. The first takeaway resulted in 2 yards in 3 plays and a missed 52 yard FG. The second takeaway was run, run, run for a massive total of 3 yards and a 40 yard FG. You don't win very many football games when scoring only 13 points.
For the year M is now dead even at 0.0 TOM and improved to #62. Turnovers were not a primary factor in determining which team won the game. Tam Gordon forced a fumble that was recovered by Wormley and Norfleet recovered the muffed punt
and ran it in for the touchdown. Stupid rule if you ask me.
Next Week: For the year, Northwestern is somewhat better than Michigan for turnovers. NW has 1.8 giveaways per game ranked #70 and 2.4 takeaways per game ranked #17 with a +0.60 TOM per game ranked #25. Oddly, NW has a worse TOM at home (+0.2/game) versus on the road (+1.0/game). NW is ranked #3 for interception takeaways with 2.0 per game. Michigan has a TOM of –0.7 for road games.
National Rankings: All rankings include games between two FBS teams ONLY and are from TeamRankings except for forced fumbles which is from CFBStats. The four columns with *** show the best correlation to offense and defense (per Advanced NFL stats).
This chart shows Expected Points for various yard lines.
This chart shows the basis of EP calculations for each turnover.
THE BIG TEN PUTS US IN A STRANGE PLACE
Well, Saturday happened. One thing that we can get from that game is that there are still several things that, when compared to the whole of the Big Ten, we still do well enough. As you will note, of course, they may not be things which draw a complete map to winning with consistency. Normally, I try not to be terribly judgmental, but yeah, I said that. In an case, here is how the conference looks with most teams now at the 9-game mark.
SCORING OFFENSE AND DEFENSE:
For Michigan specifically, there has not been much movement for a while, mainly because the average is buoyed by some nice offensive outings against CMU, ND, Minnesota and Indiana. Even the 40 points at Penn State are in there somewhere. When it works, it works basically. It is good for fifth in the conference right now.
We sit in the middle-ish rungs of scoring defense, with Illinois, Purdue and Indiana clearly making their conference opponents seem like the Big Ten equivalent of Baylor in a typical performance. Michigan State, Wisconsin and Ohio State sit at the top as the stingiest teams. The point differentials will show Michigan firmly in the positive, but there was about a 1-point slide in the metric over last week.
TOTAL OFFENSE AND DEFENSE:
For this week, I have decided to just post the tempo-free chart to start since it is a little more descriptive of the situation. If you want the entire conference posted, I can definitely do that in the thread below. For Michigan anyway, we gain an average of 385.3 yards per game, which is good for ninth in the conference and we give up and average of 350.4 yards per game, which is good for fifth in the conference. To know what that really means from a performance standpoint…well…
RUSHING OFFENSE AND DEFENSE:
We’ll stick with a Michigan-centric view here, and I am assuming you know the story by now, of course. We are pretty good overall at stopping the run. In fact, at 107.7 yards per game allowed on the ground, we’re fourth in the conference. As for generating a rushing attack, we should at least take heart that were are basically twice as good as Purdue at it. That’s something, right?
PASSING OFFENSE AND DEFENSE:
Fourteen sacks in the last two weeks probably doesn’t make this look at all true, but it is – we still have the fourth best overall passing offense in the conference. Again, when it works, it works. When it comes to stifling the passing game of another team, Michigan rounds out the bottom third of teams, sitting above Illinois, Northwestern and Indiana at ninth in the conference.
THE DOWN BATTLES:
Here again, I think we’re going to focus on tempo-free this week. However, if you want the specific data for everyone, I will post it in the ensuing thread. In any case, what used to be a good number for us – third-down differential – is no longer so good. On average, Michigan converts 41.6% of its third downs, which is about a 10% tumble from just a few weeks ago, but it gives up 40.9% of third downs as well, which is about a 5% increase in the same timeframe. Convergence of this type is troubling.
SPECIAL TEAMS STUFF:
So I guess the "Fire Borges" calls are reaching fever pitch, and I came across a diary where someone said they were going to bring a "Fire Borges" sign to the game.
C'mon, we're better than that, aren't we?
No, really. The typical fan is going to hold up a sign like that because 13 points vs. Nebraska durrr. Don't we all claim to know more about football than the average armchair quarterback? There's been some contention between the RRAWWARGG crowd and the argument-by-authority crowd, and setting aside who's right, why not turn this into something interesting, even enlightening? Not to mention, we can also either make a point or prove our ignorance. Either way, time to put our money where our mouth is.
My proposal is simple. Next home game (or as many as necessary), bring a two-sided sign (or two signs, whatever) with "RUN" on one side and "PASS" on the other. When the offense lines up, look at the formation and show the crowd & cameras your prediction. It'd be cool if even a dozen of these showed up and called the plays with consistency. Why do it?
1) Well, it's more cerebral than a goddamn "Fire X" sign. Yeesh, a moron can do that.
2) The theory here is that the offense is predictable beyond belief. 1st down, tackle over, Norfleet, Funchess wide. . . the opposing defense is given reads a 7th grader can make. Well, if we're right, let's show everyone we're right. If we're NOT, then the shame's on us and we can all shut up.
3) It's harmless. We are technically not supposed to know what's coming because Borges is experienced and we're stupid laymen, so these are technically guesses. May not be much in the way of team spirit but solving a problem isn't always about good feelings. I want to see the players win, not yet another 2nd and 12.
4) The defense should have their own predictions. If we're off base and they pay ANY attention to us at all, they're unspeakably stupid and we're doing the home team a favor.
And if it's not getting any attention. . . well, you can put the sign on your lap and wack off behind it or something.
I dunno, maybe it's a stupid idea. But if we're itching to unleash some sound and fury, I'd rather make a point than a show.
P.S. I say "we" but in the interest of disclosure, I can't join in the effort because I live in New England. Otherwise this is something I'd probably have started doing after the PSU game.
This is going to be reference-heavy. I have a 4-day old at home and caught much of this game on DVR. I figure, if the coaching staff didn’t feel like rubbing two brain cells together before playing the Cornhuskers, no reason I should break a sweat.
Best: Groundhog Day!
So you know how last week I complained about an incoherent offensive strategy, a continued failure to accept that running the ball just wasn’t possible with this outfit, struggles along the offensive line and how it was destroying Devin Gardner from the inside, and a general apathy toward the offensive coaching staff in particular and Hoke’s coaching in general? Well, ask me again about the groundhog, because this week’s game featured the exact same complaints. Yippee for copy-paste!
Worst: Simulate Mode
As anyone who has played recent incarnations of Madden and/or NCAA football know, there is an option during games to “simulate” a set number of plays/possessions to speed up the game. Usually the simulation follows predictable patterns for the team based on a combination of their empirical stats and rankings as well as current game trends; if you are playing Navy a simulated drive for the Midshipmen is basically 8 straight runs followed by a long playaction pass, or if you are the Lions it’s usually a bunch of passes to Megatron followed by an interception. Basically, it works best if you know how your team typically performs in a vacuum and then consider the opponent; you won’t be surprised if you are Alabama versus random FCS East school, but Akron probably isn’t holding on against OSU if you need to take a breather. While I usually am loathe to use this option because my inner Old Ball Coach loves to run up the score, I’ll sometimes use it on defense just to get the ball back to score quicker.
At this point in the season, I’m ready for ABC/ESPN/ESPN2/ESPN9mygawdwhydoihavetowatchthisanymore to cut to a more interesting game when UM is on offense and then just update us with a little box score four plays later with the outcome. Basically, NFL Redzone but in reverse. At least with the defense, something interesting could happen, something that highlights thoughtful coaching and semi-efficient execution of a plan. With Al Borges’ cut-rate Old Country Buffet offense, all I get as a fan is a couple of minutes to question my sanity and marvel at a team with a handful of NFL draft picks on the offensive line, a record-setting WR, a physical mismatch at TE/WR, A former top recruit at QB who is immensely athletic, and the #1 RB recruit in the nation failing to gain more than 3 yards a pop against a team that gave up 602 yards to Wyoming and 216 yards to Pur-f’ing-Due. Clark Griswold ain’t got nothing on me after watching this game.
At least he got some jelly.
UM gained a total of 175 yards on 12 drives, 141 of those yards on 2 of them. Last week I was aghast that UM gained –7 total yards outside of 3 longish drives against the #1 defense in America; against the 41st total defense they gained 40 yards total on the 10 other drives, with no drive longer than 16 yards. 0-9 Southern Miss had 6 drives that were longer and scored the same number of points as UM. I thought about breaking out this gif after the MSU game, but it didn’t feel right; after this game, nothing could be more appropriate about this team on offense.
Bes…And Another Thing
It’s not like these are acceptable growing pains for a unit on the rise. While the team is young overall, the offensive skill players are reasonably experienced save for the inside of the offensive line; this is a unit that isn’t necessarily destined to improve next year when those tackles are cashing NFL paychecks, Fitz breaks out in a cold sweat every time he walks through a doorway because he expects to be hit as soon as he opens the door, and everyone save Chesson and Funchess are getting their first “real” experience catching balls from a QB whose ribs are still recovering from a trip to the Lazarus Pit.
Green has a season long of 14 yards if you ignore his one run against CMU, and in this game averaged 1.4 ypc on 8 carries, 7 of which came on one run. He also seems unable to block anyone despite being somewhere in the ballpark of 240 pounds, or 2 more pounds than Joe Kerridge and 5 pounds more than 6’5” Devin Funchess. Gardner didn’t throw an interception for the 2nd time in 3 games, but that’s at least partially because he’s eaten 16 sacks over that same span, after only taking 10 total in the first 6 games of the year. His peripheral numbers weren’t horrible (7.3 ypa, 67%), but he rarely seemed comfortable looking downfield because, again, he didn’t want to be murdered by an unblocked Cornperson.
Funchess had a solid game and recorded the only TD, but you kind of expected more from him given the issues Nebraska has had stopping receivers in the past, and nobody other than Funchess or Gallon caught more than 2 passes. And about that running game…
Worst: Heart of Darkness
"... it was written I should be loyal to the nightmare of my choice."
Another week, another negative running day. After recording a comprehensible –48 yards against MSU, UM dramatically improved on this performance by recording an incomprehensible –21 yards against the one of the worst rushing defenses in the AQ. Yes, including sacks in these totals obviously skew rushing performances, but the team only recorded a total of 46 positive yards against 67 lost yards over 36 carries, so that top number is more a slight fib than a lie.
I’ve been numb to the running game since they could barely crack 3 yards a carry against Minnesota, but it continues to boggle my mind that UM still relies on it so heavily, especially as an impetus for their offense. This is a bit of a crude measurement because a couple of first-down plays were clusterfricks that could have been a pass or a run but turned into immediate sacks/fumbled snaps, but I count 13 runs versus 8 passes on first down. Excising fumbled snaps and sacks from the computations, the average first-down run netted 1.7 ypc while passes hit home at 8.2 ypc. And yet, on 1st and long 2nd downs the call more than not was a poorly-blocked run into the heart of a Nebraska defense that hasn’t worn black shirts since they were chasing Colt McCoy around pre-Jerry World.
No drive was more an indictment of this insanity was the one after Nebraska’s fumble on a punt midway through the 4th quarter. UM was deep in Nebraska territory, tied but clearly struggling to move the ball save for that first 2nd-half drive, and a TD probably wins you the game. On the first Nebraska fumble late in the 3rd, UM threw the ball on first down deep to Gallon. It didn’t work, but its the type of playcall you need to make when you flip field position quickly.
On this second drive, though, the playcalls were two Manball Green runs for a total of –1 yards and a Gardner scramble leading to a Gibbons FG. Despite taking the lead, it felt like a loss by the offense and, frankly, I sped through the rest of the game to save me the agony as Nebraska marched down the field for the winning score. Like Taylor’s interception last week that led to a –21 yard drive, the offense never found its footing in a critical situation, and like last week it was mostly due to a reliance on a play style that was antithetical to the team’s limited strengths.
Best: Abdullah the Neighborhood Deli Guy
Heading into the game, I think most people expected Ameer Abdullah to have a big gain, and yet despite racking up 105 yards it felt like UM really held him in check. UM held the nation’s sixth-leading rusher to his lowest ypc of the year (3.9) and, his long run of 18 yards was one of those ping-pong-style runs that great backs get every once and a while. But overall, I thought the defense slowed him down quite well, and held the Nebraska offense to its lowest total and ypp outputs of the year, with only UCLA producing a similar effort. Nebraska only had 3 drives that were more than 30 yards, and while all three ended in scores, the other 8 averaged about 3 plays. Even with the caveats about the QBs, it was another solid performance by a unit that puts up good performances despite little organic pass rush (only 1 sack on a blitz by Gordon as well as two QB hits) and no real stars.
So I’ve waited until now before addressing this issue because I don’t want to be perceived as overly emotional. And yes, a bit of this is probably sleep deprivation. But here’s my best attempt to describe my feelings about this coaching staff.
And for the record, the old lady in this analogy is Greg Mattison, who has done a commendable job all things considered (injuries, experience, etc.).
As Brian noted during the podcast this week, Brady Hoke isn’t the micromanager you see by the likes of Saban, Meyer, Dantonio, or Rodriguez; he’s a CEO-style coach who hires his coaches and then expects them to perform their duties (Mack Brown seems to subscribe to the same mantra, for example). That doesn’t mean he is hands-off, only that he treats his staff as professionals and won’t meddle needlessly. At its best, coaches and players feel like they have real agency in their play, free from the blind spots and needless oversight from an overworked leader who can’t let go of the reins. At its worst, though, you have a leader who can’t stop the snowballing or, worst, tries to shake up the situation in an insane manner, such as RR trotting out the 3-3-5 against Purdue even though nobody on the staff had an idea of how to run it successfully.
Though I was a vocal critic of Brady Hoke when he first arrived on campus, he has exceeded my expectations when it comes to recruiting and shows a good sense of game theory and situational playcalling that you rarely saw with guys like Carr and Ferentz. And being a former defensive line coach, it is clear that he is more comfortable with that side of the team, and his defenses have been above-average despite facing tough odds in terms of talent and experience.
But when it comes to the offense, his lieutenants are treating every day like it’s Christmas at Sterling Cooper Draper Price, simple as that. The offensive line is a mess beyond simply experience, and the offense has regressed not just this year but over the past three seasons. Al Borges continues to play roshambo with the running game, and the passing game has become so neutered by poor blocking and (thanks to an inept rushing offense) poor down-and-distance. As I’ve said before, I’m sure Al Borges is a competent OC with the right talent, but right now he’s shown an inability to adapt to his team’s limitations as well as how other teams exploit those holes. And it goes deeper than simply wanting to install his offense; it seems fundamentally impossible for him to look beyond his playbook and do what is necessary to win. It’s not so much that he keeps throwing rock because it worked before; I’m fine with a coach staying true to this roots in a general sense. But this offensive playcalling seems to be actively ignoring the possibility of paper or scissors because they are self-identified “gimmicks” or for pussies. There are simple, within-the-offense playcalls that would help get this offense back on track and keep people alive, from more shotgun-based running to short option routes on 1st and 2nd down that could exploit matchups and, hopefully, loosen up the boxes UM is running into. But so far this year the offensive plan seems to be crappy pro-style until you are down and then semi-crappy spread until you get the lead or Devin Gardner is dead.
So if Hoke really is the CEO of this team, his one duty is to hold the coaches accountable. If I screw up at my job and my code is massively buggy, I’m fired. Sure, I might be a break in the beginning if the codebase is screwed up to begin with or there is some design overhaul, but at some point I’m expected to make the damn thing work. Right now, Al Borges is failing to get the damn thing to work, and unless he’s just been playing possum these past 3 years, I don’t see that changing either this year or next. I’m done calling for guys’ heads, but I’m also done believing that Al Borges will ever be more than a bad hire by Brady Hoke.
When it was announced before the game that Courtney Avery and Josh Furman would be the starting safeties, people justifiably wondered what was happening. There were apparently rumors that Thomas Gordon was injured and that the coaches wanted to try someone other than Wilson, but settling on Avery and Furman was questionable for a number of reasons. With Avery, it’s the fact that he is undersized for the position and has struggled at times in coverage. But at least he’s played the position before during the year and the coaches have some confidence in him. But Furman was another issue altogether, as he’s been consistently passed by other players throughout his career at UM despite being touted as a great athlete due to his rawness. Throw in Dymonte Thomas sneaking onto the field a couple times at the nickel seemingly in place of Lewis, and the secondary was markedly different than the one we’ve seen the past 8 games.
Problems with Furman started on that first drive when Nebraska converted on a long third down because the safety seemingly didn’t get down quick enough to stop the completion over the cornerback. And then he gave Nebraska a first down on a pretty egregious PI because, again, he hasn’t earned consistent playing time since he stepped onto campus and has struggled with nuances of the game. He seemed to be replaced by Wilson as the game proceeded, but the change seemed forced and merely for its sake, not because of some advantage it provided to the defense.
As for the offense, Derrick Green was definitely highlighted more despite the middling results noted earlier, and there were calls after the game for Shane Morris to replace Gardner because, I don’t know, people on the Internet like to be contrarian and ignore all reality. But it was strange to see these types of changes this late in the season with limited rationale beyond “well, it can’t hurt.”
I’ve never been able to fully embrace Chris Spielman due to his sometime-blatant homerism, but you can’t deny his knowledge of the game or the nuances he brings to the booth when compared to, I don’t know, anyone you’d find on the BTN. Throughout the game, he said Gardner (and the offense in general) needed to make adjustments, call audibles, etc. as the Nebraska defense beared down. Well, what can you do on 3rd and 19 and you have maybe 3 possible people to throw the ball to? True, the players are struggling at times to run the plays called, but when the offense has as much variety as a Tecmo Bowl playsheet and defenses are clearly able to make adjustments as the offense is lining up, I’m not sure how much you can expect in terms of counter-offenses.
I respect Spielman’s knowledge, but he kept talking about “execution” as if it is a tangible asset divorced from playcalling. If we’ve learned anything this year it is that this offense lacks the nuances to succeed unless the defense breaks down, everything goes right, or one of the still position players makes a superior effort. And even when the offense executes reasonably well, you still have a largely sub-par unit, unless the entire MSU game and much of the PSU/Nebraska/Akron/UConn games were all masterful games marred by players suffering from massive brain trauma.
Best: Don’t Hold Onto The Damn Ball!
Brian always jokes about Wolverines needing to hold onto the ball on punt returns, so it was great to see Norfleet recover a fumbled fair catch deep in Nebraska territory. As noted above, it didn’t lead to the winning score, but after weeks of near-recoveries it was nice to finally get a lucky bounce on those plays. As for punting, Matt Wile obliterated a punt for 69 yards to pin Nebraska deep into their own territory at the end of the 2nd quarter that ultimately set up UM in good field position…for a wasted drive with good field position. Again, baby steps. And Gibbons finished 2/2 while Wile missed on a long attempt, because while we can have nice things, we can’t have TOO nice of things.
Best: It’s Almost Over
4 more games until this season is mercifully over. NW should be a dogfight, and who knows what will happen against Iowa and OS…okay, we know what will probably happen against OSU. It rhymes with grape. But at least the basketball season has started, hockey is playing like it has a pulse, and the holidays are coming up and with them, copious alcohol consumption during most gamedays. I’m not throwing away the rest of the season because fans don’t do that, but unlike last year you can tell pretty quickly how bad this team is and, sadly, how little that will probably change in these last couple of games.