I’m not touching the play call itself. Most of have pretty strong feelings about it. Criticizing a failed play in hindsight is usually a pretty lazy thing to do, but Michigan has a set of plays this year that have a firm history of no success and should never be run in critical situations.
But what about the decision itself to go for the 1st down. In the situation there were two possible choices and two possible outcomes for each.
|Kick the FG||Success/Failure|
|Go for the 1st||Success/Failure|
Each choice has an associated odds of success and each outcome has a resulting win odds.
Kick The FG
The safe, NFL worthy decision would have been to kick the field goal (“Take the points,” because field goals are never missed). In a low scoring game this probably gets you to overtime and there are no guarantees you get another chance or that you can take advantage of it. The downside is that with about 5 minutes to go, you are opening the door to give Northwestern the ball with plenty of time to drive the field and run out the clock.
A successful field goal means kicking off in a tie game with about 5 minutes left. In this situation, the team kicking off wins about 46% of the time. A made field goal would have made Michigan a slight underdog.
In the fourth quarter of close games, college kickers make 94% of field goals from inside the 5 yard line. Those are pretty good odds, but still a 1 in 16 chance that the kick is missed or blocked. A missed kick would have given Northwestern the ball at the 20 and dropped Michigan’s odds of winning to 23%.
Go for the First Down
Picking up positive yardage has been a challenge for Michigan the last month. Had they been able to convert for a first down their win odds would jump up to 70% (74% with a touchdown). Still plenty of time for a Northwestern touchdown, but definitely putting Michigan in the driver’s seat.
The failure to secure the first down left Michigan with a 34% chance at victory. Far from over but a lot of leverage on the play.
The Break Even Point
A field goal attempt would have given Michigan a 45% chance at victory once the small chance of a miss or block is factored in. With 70% odds with a first down and 34% odds if they failed to get the first down, Michigan would need to be able to have at least a 30% chance of success to break even on going for the first down. Michigan has had its troubles on offense but a 30% break even point is a low bar. 3rd or 4th and 1’s from inside the 5 are converted at 57% historically. So even if Michigan was half as likely as an average team to convert it still would have been an even decision with kicking the field goal.
If the numbers seem too high or too low there are a couple of follow up dynamics in play. A failed fourth down would have left Northwestern with the ball and the lead late. Coaching history as taught us that this is a recipe for most coaches to curl up into a ball and try and ground out the clock and if they’re lucky get a first down or two. Because of this often failed mentality, giving the other team back the ball with a lead can be more valuable than giving them back the ball with a tie where there is some pressure to push forward.
I think this was absolutely the correct decision to go for the first down in the situation even if the “execution” was less than ideal.
No Turnovers?: It is extremely rare in football when neither team has a turnover. The last time this happened to Michigan was three years ago in the Penn State game in 2010. The official stats for the game will document there was a turnover and will be misleading. It was fourth and 23 in OT and the game would have ended on that play with merely an incomplete pass rather than the interception in the end zone. But, Thomas Gordon will be happy and it does help Michigan's turnover stats.
Synopsis: Michigan's TOM for the game was +1.0 and for the year is now +1.0 (+ 0.10 per game) which improved slightly to #55. Turnovers were not a primary factor in determining which team won the game. In fact, turnovers have not been a factor in determining which team has won the game in any of Michigan's games this year.
Funchess had the one fumble in OT but recovered it himself. Thomas Gordon ended the game with his interception (his third of the season).
Michigan is +6.0 in TOM for B1G conference games which is second only to MSU at +8.0. And yet, M is a mediocre 3-3 in conference play. Perhaps the 2.3 YPA for rushing in B1G conference games has something to do with that (ranked #11 in B1G and 34% less than the next worse – Illinois at 3.5 YPA).
Versus Iowa: For the year, Michigan and Iowa are virtually identical for turnovers. Iowa has 1.6 giveaways per game ranked #57 and 1.60 takeaways per game ranked #75 with a 0.00 TOM per game ranked #61. But, Iowa is –0.20 TOM for home games. Michigan has a +0.3 TOM for home games and has a -0.2 TOM for away 3 games. For B1G conference games, Iowa's TOM is –1.0 and is ranked #7.
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.
It's always such an honor to reach out to the UM fan base. I cannot thank you all enough for your continuous support throughout the years while playing at Michigan, in addition to the various endeavors I have been involved in since my basketball career ended back in 2009. To the MGoBlog staff and all the readers out there, I just want to say thank you.
Because of your support, and the support of many others, my cause-based fashion brand, Merit, has opened up its very first retail storefront right in the heart of the UM campus (1113 South University). For those of you that don't know, every Merit purchase shapes the fate of students in need and helps send them to college. Not only do we donate 20% of all our revenue to fund college scholarships for underserved youth, but our very own education enrichment program (FATE) increases access to college by providing the tools and opportunities necessary for our students to graduate high school.
Did I mention, the product stands on its own? We've worked extremely hard to offer tees, hats, hoodies, henleys, and accessories that are incredibly fresh and provide amazing comfort.
All in all, we need your support. This is an enormous endeavor and we would like the chance to be successful and become a fabric of the UM/Ann Arbor community for many years to come. So if you can, come out and support our grand opening this Wednesday, Nov 20th at 6:30 PM. If you can't, come by some other time. Tell your friends and family too. We need all the support we can get. :) Thank you for your time and GO BLUE!
Merit Hours: Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday; 12-8pm
Amidst all of Michigan's offensive struggles this year, the relative youth of our offensive line, particularly along the interior, has been a constant concern. Regardless of which side you fall on in the "Execution vs. Play-Calling" debate, you probably agree that having 6 combined years of experience between our three interior linemen is part of the issue. While the interior will hopefully improve next year with another year under each of their belts, Michigan will be losing it's two 5th year senior tackles.
With this in mind, I attempted to quantify the impact that an offensive line's experience has on a team's offensive success. Can Michigan expect to improve it's offensive output next season? How painful will it be to lose Lewan and Schofield?
I used depth charts from Rivals' database (they seemed more or less up to date) to get average experience (defined by academic standing) for each team in the Big 10's OL as a whole as well as split up by subgroup (T, G, C). I then drew scatter plots comparing those ages to overall YPA and rushing/passing YPA.
After seeing the initial results, I had to remove Purdue since they have the oldest OL and yet the worst offense by nearly two standard deviations. Some other teams were lesser outliers (Michigan, Indiana) but with such a small sample I didn't want to remove them too.
Michigan has a young, but not absurdly so, offensive line. Of course, they are helped tremendously by Lewan and Schofield. They have a very young interior though, with 6 combined years of experience. Iowa's interior is second youngest at 8 combined years, and their offense isn't exactly instilling fear across the nation either.
Purdue sucks. Wisconsin, OSU, and Indiana are really good. The rest of the Big 10 is mediocre. No news here.
Below are a series of scatterplots comparing the age of each Big 10 team's OL (and it's subgroups) to the offense's YPA (passing and rushing.
Overall, the age of the offensive line seems to have little to no impact on overall yards per play. In the Big 10, it has a slight positive impact on rushing yards but actually has a slight negative impact on passing yards. The negative impact on Passing YPA is mainly due to Michigan and Indiana, two teams with young OLs but high Passing YPA. In general though, these are pretty low R-squared values and don't seem to show much.
Tackles seem to have almost no impact on YPA, whether in the air or on the ground. This is probably largely a function of the sample, where 7 of the 11 teams have tackles with 7 combined years of experience. If I remove Indiana, the impact on Passing YPA becomes more meaningful, which makes sense given tackles' roles in pass protection. Michigan is wholly responsible for dragging down the Rushing YPA graph.
Again, guards' ages don't show much impact on YPA according to R-squared, although you can see an upward trend here at least. Even removing Michigan's young guards results in guard age having a negative correlation with passing YPA which is surprising. The rushing YPA graph makes sense at least, showing a relatively strong R-squared value.
Center experience shows by far the strongest relationship between age and YPA. This makes sense both because of center's importance to the OL as well as the complexity of the position requiring some experience to learn. The entirety of that influence comes on the ground, with center's age meaning nothing to passing YPA.
Before attempting to draw any conclusions, I think a few caveats must be stated:
- This analysis looks strictly at academic standing as a measure of experience. That means that a RS senior starting for the first time is viewed as more experienced than a true junior in his third year of starting.
- This analysis ignores all positions other than OL. As we saw last season at Michigan, for example, a dynamic QB can make up for a youthful offensive line. It also overlooks TEs, which in a system like Michigan's are also a vital part of the OL.
- The sample size is pretty thin. If I had more time, I'd like to do this for a large group - maybe the top 25 teams or something.
The above aside, I still think there are some interesting takeaways from this analysis.
- Offensive line experience matters in the run game. OSU and Wisconsin have the top two offenses in terms of YPA and 2 of the 4 most experienced lines. In particular, their rushing attacks average over a yard more per attempt than any other team.
- Offensive line experience does not seem to matter as in the air. While Indiana's passing YPA may be a function of it's system, Minnesota and Illinois have respectable averages with relatively young lines.
- Michigan's rushing game should improve next year (how can it get any worse...). Both guard and center experience correlate with rushing YPA. Losing their tackles doesn't appear to have much impact based on this analysis.
- Michigan's passing game is not necessarily doomed next year. The data doesn't show much one way or another, but tackle experience at least is not strongly correlated with offensive success in this sample.
Any thoughts/feedback are welcome.
I watched this game on tape and isolated from what seemed like a generally negative atmosphere on MGoBlog during the game. Also, I forgot to turn off my phone, so the result was ruined at around halftime for me, so I saved myself the stress and nail-biting aspect I'm sure people watching live felt. As such, I came away with a generally more positive feeling about the offense. We seemed to be moving the ball a lot better than we have the last couple weeks (lowered expectations is a wonderful thing). 365 yards, 3.2 YPC and 5.3 isn’t great, but worlds better than recent efforts and a marked improvement. Still, only 9 points in regulation and no 3rd down conversions (3 for 17 overall) is concerning and shouldn’t be glossed over either. We seem to be improving, but not good enough yet to get out of our own way enough to keep drives alive and score TDs.
The following Diary is an attempt to analyze the cause of our abysmal performance on 3rd down conversions by looking at the entire set of downs preceding each one. I attempt to assign blame, much like Brian did in his similarly eye bleed inducing 27 for 27.
Drive 1: 1st and 10 from NW 8 after a promising opening drive
1st down. Gardner sees 9 man front, checks into .... run. Argh. Unblocked defender meets Green at the LOS for loss of 1.
- Gardner -1
2nd down. Waggle play. I absolutely hate this play call. Gardner does well to get back to the LOS.
- Borges -1
What exactly is the plan here?
3rd down. Shotgun 4 wide. Gardner has good protection but bugs out early after his 1st read is covered. Funchess hasn't even made his break yet and appears to be open just as Gardner heads into a defender for no gain.
- Gardner -1
FG good 3-0 Michigan
Drive 2: 1st and 10 from M 48 after a couple first downs from Funchess and Gallon screens and Green runs up the middle.
1st and 10. I form run. Gardner fakes the quick screen and hands off. Nice hole at the line between Glasgow and Bosch and Kerridge seals the edge. Green pounds it forward for 7. Good play, no minuses
2nd and 3. NW has 9ish in box against 8 blockers. M actually does ok picking up first level defenders but Kerridge doesn't get any push and gets shed easily. D. Smith misses a cutback lane and plows directly into the pile for a yard. There was some space to make a play here I think.
- Borges -0.3
- Blocking (Houma) -0.3
- RB (D.Smith) -0.4
It’s collapsing, but the hole does exist momentarily.
3rd and 2. Michigan does its best Stanford impression and lines everyone up in a bunch. NW responds in kind with everyone in the box. PA with a designed roll out to the right. Right side of line gets caved and Gardner has to redirect 7 yards upfield to avoid it. TFL
- Borges -0.8
- Blocking -0.2
Drive 3: 1st and 10 from NW 48 after NW goes 3 and out and punts.
1st and 10. Michigan 3 wide shotgun with Funchess in slot. Gardner looks for Funchess, hesitants and then tries to throw it to him but a defender has gotten into the lane. Lucky for that not to be INT. Pocket also breaks down just as he throws. Gallon looks open downfield later but could just be his defender broke off after the throw. I'm tempted to put this all on NW playing it well, but I Gardner might have been able to make a better throw there. So I guess
- Gardner -0.5
- NW -0.5.
2nd and 10. Shotgun with 3 receiver stack on one side and another on the other side. Michigan runs inverted veer. Not really sure what went wrong here. The option man does play this just about perfect, forcing the pull but yet still harassing Gardner enough to prevent him from getting north-south. Perimeter blocking is pretty poor as Gardner is tackled for no gain. I think I'm going with
- NW -0.75
- Blocking (Butt, Gallon) -0.25
3rd and 9. NW brings the house because we can't do crap with it in 3 weeks. Gardner nearly gets sacked but gets it off that's batted down. Chesson ran a quick out route and was open for the dump off but Gardner has his eyes the other direction. It probably wouldn't of picked up the 1st down either though. We had a man for every defender here but Bosch gets destroyed and Magnuson and Kerridge didn't do too much better. I know everyone will want me to put this on Borges, but there looked to be a quick outlet but Gardner was looking for more (understandable with 3rd and 10 I guess). I'm going to go
- Blocking (Bosch) -0.5
- Down and distance -0.3
- Gardner -0.1 from not getting rid of it see if Chesson can get some YAC
- NW -0.1 for covering the routes. 3rd and long is tough. :(
Very short window for Gardner to dump it off, Bosch allows instant penetration.
Drive 4: 1st and 10 NW 41 after a Funchess catch for 1st down.
1st and 10, play action. RB screen to Hayes for 5. Nice play that could've gone for much more with one better block from Bosch. No minuses though, that's a tough match-up for him I guess.
2nd and 5. I form run. Bosch has a tough combo block as the D line slants away from him. Green reads it and cuts behind Lewan but trips over him a bit. Paskorz ID's his block late and has a bad angle, probably because the play wasn't designed to go where Green went. Green falls forward for 3. I dunno, let's go with
- Blocking -0.5
- Crap happens/ok play for what it is -0.5.
3rd and 2. Shotgun, 2 reciever stack with Butt at TE on other side. 2 backs next to Gardner. NW brings the house and Gardner tries to dump it to Green leaking out of backfield. The one LB that stays in coverage reads Gardner's eyes the whole way and almost pick sixes it. Butt is all by himself, no defender within 5 yards. Too bad, blitz pick up was excellent. Snap gets bobbled, FWIW, might have thrown off timing.
- NW -.75
- Gardner -0.25 for telegraphing and not seeing Butt.
Butt is literally hand-wavingly open.
Drive 5: 1st and 10 M29 after a Gallon pitch and catch
1st and 10: Shotgun 3 wide with TE eligible. Bubble screen to Funchess, dropped.
- Drop (Funchess) -1
2nd and 10: I form PA, Gallon open on an out route. Throw is dead on but dropped.
- Drop (Gallon) -1
3rd and 10: Shotgun with triple stack on the field side. NW blitzes like you’d expect. Michigan actually gets in position to pick this up but the delay by the LB convinces Hayes to help Williams by making a diving attempt at Willams's guy’s feet. To be fair Williams is having a hard time, but com’n. Hayes has to pick the LB up.
- Blocking (Hayes) -0.8
- Gardner -0.1 for not dumping off
- NW -0.1 for presumably covering 1st down depth routes
You would assume Hayes blocks 44 here.....
...you would assume wrong. No.44, come on down!
Drive 6: 1st and 10 M 15
1st and 10: I form run into 8 man box. Michigan has 7 blockers. Blocking is also a complete mess as Kerridge seems to head to a different hole than the OL is blocking and Glasgow can't get a tough combo block. Green gets swarmed for no gain.
- Borges -0.75
- Blocking -0.25
2nd and 10: Play action from I form. NW blitzs 2 LBs and another gets sucked in by the PA, leaving a huge hole underneath. Gallon is wide open for 20 but Gardner puts it too far in front. Gallon gets his hands on it but can't bring it in. Nice play that had potential.
- Gardner -1
3rd and 10: Surprisingly NW rushes 4 and drops into coverage. Bosch gets chucked like a ragdoll allowing his guy a free run at Gardner. Glasgow looks to be releasing downfield, so the play call was probably a screen anyway. Gardner dumps off to Funchess. Michigan has this blocked well except Magnuson for whatever reason leaves the guy he's engaged with to go help Glasgow. The guy he leaves tackles. WTF.
- Blocking -1
Magnuson was in good position to block his man (the guy he's got his left hand on) but he’s losing him now because he’s worrying about Glasgow’s guy
Magnuson instead leaves his guy to go block Glasgow, not Glasgow’s guy, Glasgow. The guy he leaves covers and tackles Funchess on the screen pass.
Drive 7: 1st and 10 at midfield on a screen to Chesson and a nice pair of runs by D Smith
1st and 10. I form run. NW only has 7 in the box, but the safeties are in fairly shallow alignment and one tears at the LOS at the snap. Doesn't really matter since Magnuson and Paskorz both get chucked aside and there's two unblocked guys to meet Green at the LOS. Probably wasn't going far based on design and defense.
- Borges -0.5
- Blocking -0.5
2nd and 10: Gardner under center in I form with Funchess and Gallon out wide on either side. NW brings a safety blitz and Gardner hangs out coolly in the pocket as the unblocked defender is screaming towards him. Gallon is left singled up so Gardner goes to him. The corner does a fantastic job to undercut the throw. Seemed to be some confusion between Gardner and Gallon, maybe he had to get rid of it early, but I also think he left it a bit short/inside.
- NW -0.75
- Gardner - 0.25
3rd and 10: Shotgun with 3 wide to the field side. Michigan rolls the pocket as NW rushes 5 and sends a delayed blitzer. It's picked up well. Dileo is 1 vs 1 and Gardner throws it to him, but a beat late. As a result the defender makes a diving play to knock it away and also runs over Dileo in the process. Borderline PI no call.
- NW -0.75
- Gardner -0.15
- Refs -0.1
Ball is still in the air and Dileo is being run over, looks like PI to me.
Drive 8: 1st and 10 at NW 30 following a couple nice passes and a long Derrick Green run.
1st and 10: Assigning blame can be tricky business but this one is easy. Play action from under center and Schofield straight up gets beat by his guy as he takes a step inside at the snap (WTF?) Sack for 13. Ugh
- Blocking (Schofield) -1
Where are you going Schofield? Your responsibility is to your right, why are you taking a step left?
2nd and 23: Michigan spreads the field with 4 wide in shotgun. Pass is batted down at the line. Looked maybe ill advised anyway as a LB drops to undercut Funchess's route. Can't tell for sure, so we'll give this one to
- NW -1
3rd and 23: Shotgun with triple stack WRs opposite AJ Williams at TE, FB in backfield with Gardner. Delayed blitz. M has no chance at picking this up since the whole line shifts right leaving a gaping hole for Kerridge to defend and two guys coming through it. He gets neither. Dileo looked open for a hot read, but not sure. This is an RPS- type play, but more of the variety where the opponent does something well as opposed to you doing something stupid.
- NW -0.3
- Down and distance -0.4
- Blocking (Kerridge) -0.2 for not even slowing down either guy
- Gardner -0.1 for holding on to it.
Drive 9: Michigan 1st and goal at NW 10 following the shankapotamus punt from NW.
1st and Goal: NW has 8.5 in the box shifted towards the boundary side because AJ Williams and Butt next to each other screams run to that side. Michigan runs to that side. Goes about as well as you'd expect.
- Borges -1, but also gotta check out of that one man.
I think NW might know we’re running left guys.
2nd and goal: Shotgun with 2 stacked receivers to the field side and one to the boundary. Butt motions past the stacked guys. Nice play design leaves 3 recievers on 2 defenders and Funchess is open. But... Michigan rolls the pocket that way to help out the OL and Gardner turfs it because he's on the run and doesn't set his feet. It's actually still catcable, especially for Funchess, but tough.
- Gardner 0.8
- Drop (Funchess) 0.2
3rd and goal: Play action I form. Gallon is one on one and Gardner tries to hit him on a fade in the corner of the endzone but air mails it. Wind was probably a factor here and defender had pretty good position.
- Gardner -0.7
- Crap happens -0.2
- NW -0.1
FG - 6-9
Drive 10: 1st and 10 at NW 13 on a couple nice pass and catch to Gallon.
1st and 10: Freaking waggle. Gardner jukes 2 guys to make something out of nothing for 5, getting plastered in the process. I'm still minusing Borges for the play even though it worked. It worked in spite of the play call not because of it.
- Borges -1
Again, what is the plan here? Gardner is running for his life 10 yards behind the LOS.
2nd and 5: Shotgun 4 wide. Gardner looks screen (probably fake) and then gives a delayed handoff to D. Smith who jukes a guy and burrows for 4. No minuses
3nd and 1: Michigan in jumbo package under center with 2 TE and a H-back. Bosch cedes ground at the snap and that's all she wrote. Play design seems borked too since I don't know where Schofield is pulling to and Kerridge seals the edge instead of blocking the point of attack. Thought D.Smith got hosed on the spot as he got back to the LOS but they docked him a yard for 4th and 2 FWIW. Also, gotta question why you don't have Green in this situation instead.
- Borges -0.8 doing something Michigan can't do, even if it's the right play for 1 yard.
- Blocking (Bosch) -0.2
4th and 2: Tackle over, *sigh*. I get the idea here: sucker NW into over playing the left so you can sneak Gardner around right. The problem is it doesn't look like the normal tackle over since you bring in Williams in as a TE on the other side with an extra lineman too. Add in a pulling Kalis and NW has this sniffed out and dead to rights. A couple weak blocks by Green and Magnuson were the cherry on top.
- Borges -0.9,
- Blocking (Green, Magnuson) 0.1.
Hoke seems on tilt after going conservative burns him a couple times earlier in the season
Drive 11: 1st and 10 at NW 30, following a (legit) PI on NW. Michigan is running it's 2 min drill and if you want to be technical, they failed 2 3rd down conversions on this drive earlier, but converted on 4th
1st and 10: Shotgun 3 wide. NW rushes 4. God. Damn. It. Schofield. He does his step inside thing when he's got a guys shaded outside of him. I don't get it man. He's not even trying to sell PA or something. I mean come the f*ck on man.
- Blocking -1. Gardner needs to get rid of it here, but he had very little time.
Again Schofield? Your guy is outside of you, what are you looking and stepping inside for?
2nd and 23: Nice play, overthrown. Chesson had a step on his man. Wind a factor on such a long throw. Protection was good. Could maybe question a shot down field when you should be working back into FG range, but that's nit-picky. FWIW
- Gardner -0.75
- Crap happens -0.25
3rd and 23: Shotgun 4 wide, 3 on the far side. Gallon catches it short and in bounds.
- Down and Distance.-1
Monkey Rodeo FG ties it. Lulz
(OT1: Hey Hey! Michigan converts 3rd and 5 on their way to scoring, the first of the game.)
OT2: Michigan converts another on 3rd and 1. The next one.. not so much
1st and 10: I form PA. Play action does suck up the LBs and leaves Butt 1 v 1. Gardner holds for way too long staring him down, not sure what he's waiting for. Bosch gets beat and forces Gardner to scramble for a loss of 1.I guess Butt can turn his head a little sooner, but this play is there if Gardner gets the pass off.
- Gardner -0.75
- Blocking (Bosch) -0.25
2nd and 11: Shotgun 3 wide. Butt runs a flat route and Gardner hits him. NW does a good job not allowing YAC. No minuses, par for the course for everyone.
3rd and 8: I form PA again. Again the play action sucks up the LBs. Gallon works a post in front of his corner and Gardner hits him dead on. Dropped. *sigh*
- Drop (Gallon) -1.
OT3: Gardner scores on 3rd and goal FTW, literally. What’s this feeling? Happiness? No too far… Not sadness? Yes, definitely not sadness.
Gardner comes out with the largest chunk, but I think a lot of that is just the nature of his position. I ding him small fractions of points for not making the exact correct reaction to someone else's screw up. Still, he did miss some key throws, held the ball too long a couple times, and failed to check out of bad plays and/or made bad checks.
Borges is at just about 25% too, which is higher than I initially expected. The waggle plays were just brutal, I just don't see the upside with it. Gardner has to scramble for his life to make a couple yards if he's lucky, usually at the cost of getting lit up. The jumbo package stuff is also frustrating. It might be the right call if you have the right personnel for short yardage situations, but it's beyond clear we don't. In the interest of fairness, I do feel compelled to say Borges made some nice adjustments that helped keep the ball moving at times and kept the blitz at bay except on obvious passing situations. Also, in his defense, some of the minuses were based on the defensive alignment, which he can only guess at when calling the play, but I'm following Brian's convention here for consistency. That said, when Borges's lizard brain took over, it was costly to Michigan in terms of keeping drives alive.
Blocking was next up. There was improvement but consistency was still any issue. When things went bad, they were costly. The sacks left Michigan in deep, deep holes. Even on 3rd and short, basic assignments were missed that cost us the first down on several occasions.
Also, you gotta give NW credit. Their defensive backs were all over our receivers and we were extremely fortunate not to have many INTs, some of the pick six variety. Beyond that, we had some drops and the wind played a factor but those weren't really persistent problems.
So.. takeaways? None really that we didn't know. We have a lot of issues everywhere still. At least we were ending some long drives with screw-ups at times instead of never getting drives going. That's something to build on going into Iowa I guess.
Best: The Gibbons
In baseball, scoring the game-winning run(s) in your final at-bat is regarded as a “walk-off.” The connotation is that the player smoothly performed his duty so well (usually via a homerun) that he can “walk” the bases and enjoy the adulation of a job well done. Well, in adding to his legacy of game-tieing/winning kicks, Brendan Gibbons introduced a new word to the vernacular for game-winning plays: the “Gibbons”. With chaos around him and the weight of the season on his shoulders, he gave this team life that ultimately led them to a stirring victory and, perhaps, changed the final chapters of this wayward football season. After the Sugar Bowl we all thought of Gibbons as a brunette-loving Keith Stone, but after yesterday’s game he has entered into the UM lexicon like “New Math”/“Braylonfest”, “Dilithium”, “Mercury”, the “Threat”, and all of the other cherished moments in UM lore.
Much has been made recently about Gibbons's "struggles" kicking the ball, though if you look at his season stats it was basically a couple of blocked/missed kicks against PSU that were the nadir of his season thus far. Outside of that wacky game, he’s been pretty solid all year; if anything, he’s suffered a bit of regression from his record-setting 16-straight FGs made between last season and this one. His wobbly make last week happens to virtually every kicker from time to time, and any inkling of a “meltdown” was quelled when he drilled his first two FGs into the swirling Evanston wind.
But then the least inspiring 2-minute drive started, and you didn’t know if he’d even have a chance to attempt a makeable kick to tie the game, especially given the playcalling and overall lack of urgency seemingly displayed by the team as it tried to tie the game (I’ll get into that with greater detail below). Throw in a 13-yard sack and a final completion to Gallon with about 13 seconds left and the clock running, and all seemed lost. But then something magical happened, and a team that was so discombobulated that it had to convert two 4th-and-4s on the last drive was able to switch out personnel in mere seconds, spot a wet ball, and send the game into overtime with a no-doubt-about-it (oh gawd, I’m starting to talk like Berman) 44 yarder. Like most readers of this blog, I’ve not been a fan of the special team’s reliance on an archaic punt formation, blocking on FGs, or returns, but this squad and its coach deserve immense credit for executing when it was needed most. I’d also like to point out the great slide by Dileo to get into his holder position, which helped save a second or two that was obviously needed to get the play off.
Best: Northwestern: The ‘Eat Your Vegetables, There are Starving Kids in X’ of College Football
It’s a bit cliche, but I remember my mom whipping out the tired “eat your food, there are kids with far less around the world” argument when I wouldn’t finish my broccoli. Of course, little did she know that broccoli is the most deadly of the vegetables. Regardless, the point was to remind me that there were people out there with it worse off, and not to take for granted the bountiful opportunities before me.
Well, for UM fans those starving children are Northwestern. After a 4-0 start, NW has lost 6 straight, including one game on a last-second Hail Mary from Cereal Empire Progeny Ron Kellogg III and another after being Gibbons’ed with about a second left. Unless they somehow pull off an epic upset against MSU, they will finish with a losing record before they match up against Illinois, and a season that began with talk of a Rose Bowl bid will, at best, end with them playing in some god-forsaken shanty-town (or Detroit) in a late-December bowl game named after a Dave Brandon’s Mortal Enemy or the state in which it is held. So the next time you complain about being “only” 7-3, remember that there are a bunch of future hedge fund associates and medical school colleagues being bummed out for a couple more weeks.
Worst: This is Still the Offense
Lost in the OT victory is the fact this team had 6 points until about 2 seconds left in regulation, and failed to convert on a 3rd down play until OT (going 0-13 in the process). 17 of 24 completions, and 176 of 226 total passing yards, went to Gallon and Funchess, which in one sense feels like a revelation but on the other hand highlights just how dependent this team is on those two winning individual matchups. When the opposition allows it, this is a pretty good receiving core; when the defense can get to Devin and/or bracket the two in coverage there doesn’t appear to be a third option unless Butt is starting to take control of the position (5 catches for 50 yards and a TD the past two weeks). And though I get into it with greater detail below, the running game had a slightly below-average performance, which given the past two weeks makes them f’ing Army out there.
My issue with the offensive gameplan remains the reliance on elements that simply don’t work with nearly enough consistency to warrant the reliance we’ve seen thus far. The announcers noted on that last drive of regulation how the team was able to complete a couple of short passes, and throughout the game it did feel like there was a concerted effort to pick away with short and intermediate routes at times. But there were still far too many two-route formations that screamed pass (or Devin scrambles), and I found myself guessing the offensive call about 75% even with the added wrinkles. And at the most minor hint of establishing a running game, the playcall inevitably came in for a long play-action pass that rarely hit because, again, NW hadn’t been burned enough for them to really start over-playing against the run. Ultimately the game devolved into the Devin Gardner show, which worked because it put the ball in the hands of the most dangerous player on the offense and produced mismatches because the defense had to react to real uncertainty.
I know people will complain that I am focusing too heavily on the negatives and am showing my anti-Borges agenda, and I’ll cop to thinking the guy shouldn’t be the OC anymore. But the fact remains that over the past 12 quarters of regulation, the team has scored exactly 1 TD, and mounted 7 drives of 50 yards or more out of a total of 34 real drives. Again, ignoring the major outlier that was Indiana, this team has averaged about 25 points a game during the conference season, and that includes a pair of 3OT games. It’s a unit that relies on its defense to keep the game close (and at times carve out decent chunks of yardage), and for the money being spent on this staff I’d have expected a more coherent performance even given the weather conditions.
Best: Let Them Play!
It doesn’t seem like too many people took issue with Hoke’s decision to go for the lead with about 5 minutes left in the 4th quarter, and throw my hat into the camp that thought it was the right call. Sure, going for the tie is fine, but this offense hadn’t been able to move the ball much at all throughout the game, and being that close to a game-winning TD made it a no-brainer. At worst you leave NW with poor field position and facing a defense that had largely stymied them all day, and a TD forces NW to drive all the way down the field for the win. With heavy winds and a wet field, that would have been a tall order. Plus, this team had already seemingly played for a tie since the 1st quarter, so it was nice to see Hoke attack convention despite the less-than-optimal results.
To say that Devin Gardner had a “variable” game against Northwestern would be to insult the notions of weak typing and celestial bodies. By raw numbers, Gardner had a slightly below-average game (24/43/226/1TD/0INT) mitigated somewhat by some nasty weather and a remarkably stout Wildcat pass defense. Interspersed amongst those 19 incompletions, though, were a number of throws that this ball-hawking NW defense could have easily caught and returned for TDs, and of which would likely have dramatically altered the outcome of this game. On the first drive along, Gardner threw at least two balls that bounced off defenders’ hands with nothing by grass between them and the endzone, to even the final drive of regulation where a game-ending INT simply slipped away from a DB’s grasp.
And most of these near-turnovers were simply due to bad throws or misreading coverage, from locking onto Funchess on the sideline despite a LB clearly lurking not two steps away to throwing at Innerspace-sized windows. Perhaps it was cosmic penance for some of the wacky interceptions that occurred earlier in the year or Gardner’s private incantations to drive out bad spirits, but Northwestern left dozens of points on that field, any of which would have eliminated the insanity that led to UM’s win. On one hand it was further evidence that Gardner has a great deal maturation ahead of him if the mental aspects of his game are to catch up to his physical skillset, taking him from an inconsistent talent to a transcendent one. On the other, though, it was the first time in weeks that it felt like Gardner was even thinking of throwing the ball aggressively, and credit for this revelation should go to both him and Borges. It wasn’t smooth sailing by any stretch, but at this point in the year I’d rather see them taking chances than going deeper into the well-fortified shell they’ve seemingly occupied since PSU (save for the And-1 mixtape that was IU).
Worst: Out with the Old Poor Damn Toussaint, In with the They Can’t Be Worse
I am an avowed Fitz fan, and have been for most of the year. I thought his struggles running the ball mostly had to do with the offensive line, and I still wouldn’t be surprised to see him catch on in the NFL as a free agent for at least a cup of coffee. He still seems to possess the shiftiness and speed that made him so promising a couple of years ago, even though I’m sure his injuries have taken a toll. And as others have noted, Fred Jackson is a lot of things but “coach able to develop RBs beyond their natural talents” maybe isn’t one of them. But as the past couple of weeks have shown, his struggles as a blocker on passing downs are not going away, and considering he’s a senior who has recorded 26 yards total the past 2 weeks and maybe, possibly a little injured, it was time for a change to Green and Smith.
With the two freshmen in the lineup, the team “rolled” for 4.4 yards per carry from the RB position, and generally looked semi-competent rushing the ball even though even the 4.4 was goosed by two long runs of 23 and 16 yards. Drop those two long runs and the average was closer to 3.2 ypc, but for the first time in a couple of weeks there felt like the threat of running the ball was there for the Wolverines.
Now, caveats aplenty do apply. NW still recorded 10 TFL including 5 sacks, and a couple of those came from said freshmen whiffing on blocks just as badly as Fitz. Green and Smith were intermittently able to run after first contact, but against a mediocre rushing unit in the rain I’d be careful about extrapolating too much. Next week against Iowa will be a truer test, and I’d be surprised if they saw similar success against a decent Hawkeye front 7. It seems a bit unfair to pull Fitz after having him suffer running against the best rushing defense in the country and a hyper-aggressive Cornhusker unit that was calling the offensive plays at the line, but this being results-based grading I suspect his role will be further minimized until such time as Green and/or Smith struggle to run the ball effectively. That may be after the 1st quarter next week, but until then this may be the ignominious end to the star-crossed UM career of PDT.
Best: 9 Points the Hard Way
Some will issue with the fact that I questioned the offensive playcalling despite the weather conditions while ignoring the fact that NW only scored 9 points in regulation. And yes, this particular NW outfit doesn’t possess the dynamic offensive talent we’ve come to expect from the Wildcats, even with Colter and Siemian on the field. Still, the defense faced 11 drives and forced punts on 8 of them, which was doubly impressive given the fact that NW was coming off a bye week and (outside of Venric Marc) had its full complement of offensive weapons. The defense still held the Wildcats to 308 yards on 73 plays in regulation, including a Nordic Minnesota-esque 16-play FG drive on NW’s first drive that (along with UM’s own 12-play FG march) basically ate up the 1st quarter. And perhaps most inspiringly, the unit held its own late in the game, forcing punts on all three 4th-quarter possessions while only giving up about 55 yards.
That said, the unit remains inconsistent. It still can’t produce much in the way of an organic pass rush, though it was able to record two sacks, including Jibreel Black’s final drive-crushing one in OT. It largely kept NW from exposing the edge or gaining many yards after initial contact, and NW averaged under 3 ypc despite running the ball 49 times. And perhaps most excitingly, most completions tended to end with near-immediate tackles, limiting the YAC that is the bread-and-butter of the best spread offenses.
I find it hard to write much more about the defense, simply because it has been remarkably consistent save for about half of the IU game. It bends more than I’d like, but it has always kept UM in the game and rarely blows assignments; in short, it looks well-coached despite having sub-optimal talent. Most importantly, I see how incremental improvements can turn it into a championship-level defense, and the coaches and players seem to have bought into the system that will get them there. Maybe they’ll get blown out of the water by OSU or the bowl opponent, but right now this feels like the next evolutionary step in a dominant defense.
Best: Frank the Tank
I’ll admit to not being a firm believer in the Frank Clark Hype Machine when it left the station at the beginning of the year, but I wanted to point out how nicely he’s come along. Early in the year he just looked like an athlete trying to figure out how to play football; now he seems to get how to play his position with a fair bit of consistency. He isn’t perfect by any means and I’m not sure he’ll ever be a dominant end, but now when a play breaks down it isn’t usually because of something dumb he did, and it does seem like teams are starting to have to gameplan a bit to stop him. I’m not really able to dedicate the time to analyze the tape to confirm how much of an improvement he’s made, but the UFRs have been showing a steady improvement by him as well as Black as the year has progressed.
The game featured a total of 4 penalties for 35 yards, which given the pedigrees of the teams (and the sometime-haughtiness of the fanbases) probably shouldn’t surprise anyone. And unlike in years past, Pat Fitzgerald didn’t jump around and celebrate a late hit, so it was downright civilized in Evanston.
Best/Worst: Freedom is the only way now!
An obvious best for Veterans Day and the overall recognition of the service provided by those in uniform. I’m not getting into the underlying political issues surrounding the development and use of the U.S. military during both wartime and peactime, but only applauding a day that recognizes many of the sacrifices made by those in the military. It always seems a bit weird when sports teams don one-off uniforms designed to recognize the military because they can feel a bit tone-def or commercial, but I tend to believe their hearts are in the right place.
That said, my gawd were those Northwestern uniforms weird looking. I’m usually not a guy who cares about sartorial choices, but from the faux-tattered flag helmets, the military-academy-approved names such as Freedom, Commitment, and Courage nameplates, to the obscene amount of gray during an overcast and dreary game which would end under the lights, it was a bit too jarring especially given the fact Veteran’s Day was nearly a week ago. Looking back, it felt a bit like the Washington Generals were trying to play football, which should have been a good sign for the Wolverines. And unlike UM and their CEO AD, this didn’t feel like an attempt by the NW brass to rake in money; it just felt like good intentions with meh implementation.
Worst: All These High Horses Sure Do Produce a Bunch of Sh*t
So I thought this was settled when it had to be stated AGAIN not to attack players via social media and question their “heart” and “dedication”, but as I delved through the open threads and twitter I saw a number of people say the “Player X (usually Gardner) should be benched” because he was too dumb, too lazy, etc. to play the position. Now, I’m an avowed opponent of Feelings-Ball, and nothing drives me crazier than (usually older) fans challenging the intelligence and dedication of college kids playing a game. So let me again state to all those out there: STOP QUESTIONNING THE INTELLIGENCE AND DEDICATION OF COLLEGE FOOTBALL PLAYERS. I’m happy you made it to the Regional finals with your HS team back in 1998 (Go Cougars!), but there is about a 0% chance that most of the Internet could even play a whole series of downs against this level of competition without dying, let alone perform as well as most of these kids have this season. That doesn’t mean you can’t take issue with the results (i.e. pointing out the offensive line has struggled is just making a factual observation; saying that it is because one of the linemen is lazy and stupid is being a dick).
In particular, Devin’s struggles are not because he doesn’t “get” the offense worse than Morris (or more importantly, the mythic Morris who isn’t a freshman playing behind a pretty poor offensive line), but because he is playing in a sub-optimal situation while still learning whatever offensive philosophy the coaches are trying to install along with the other 10 guys on offense. I don’t think there is a racial component involved in much of this taunting (I’d be foolish to believe there isn’t a segment because I saw the same with Denard), since John Navarre is one of the most “classic” QB’s you’ll ever see and people were merciless with him when he played at UM. And while the great “execution” versus “coaching” debate remains just as lively as ever here, you can make the argument about the play on the field without questioning the intrinsic characteristics of the players involved.
Best: False or Real, I’ll Take All the Hope You’ve Got!
Yes it was Northwestern and it was a crazy finish, but this team now has a chance to finish the season with some momentum if they can play up to Iowa and then, maybe, stay competitive with OSU. While I’d be happy with a split, the Buckeyes showed just enough weakness against Illinois to give me a sense that this game could be interesting, and at home in a rivalry you never know. And seeing as how the Buckeyes were passed over by Baylor and Oregon is nipping at their heels, UM could still at least play spoiler like they did during most of Cooper’s run. And along the way, UM still could finish with 10 wins, which would be a pretty amazing accomplishment given the way this season has unfolded.