the season has truly begun now
Commentator Hat asked in a mgoboard post he made about Minnesota's defense, wondering aloud how they could elevate from the worst in CFB to more than serviceable this season, so much so that the unit is helping tp spearhead one of the most dramatic single season turnarounds in Big 10 and college football history. I have some thoughts on the Minnesota team, but rather than keeping that thread going, I figured I would hog all the glory and write a diary piece on the matter.
I like this Golden Gopher team as I have bet on them four times (all winners) bet against them once (a loss) and taken the Over in two of their games (one win, one loss). Needless to say, I have found myself watching a lot of the Gophers this season. Here's how I see their turnaround happened, with much of the focus on the defensive end, which began the question in the first place. One caveat is that I am banging this out at work, so it might be a little unorganized and not every fact 100% true. Hey, I am writing on a blog, what do you expect.......J/K.
Send in The Fixer
First year defensive coordinator Ted Roof has gained a reputation throughout his career of turning around previosly bad defenses and molding them into quality stop units. He was the DC at Georgia Tech for 2000 and 2001. In 2000, the Jackets were 12th nationally in rush defense and 20th in scoring D. In 2001, the defense was ranked 23rd in overall total D. After that season, he moved to Duke, where the Devils defense had put up similar numbers to Minny's D last season. In his first year in Durham, the Devils, who had had the nation's 113th ranked total defense the year before, had the league top rushing defense and in 2002, they were ranked 58th nationally in total D. He knows how to turn bad defenses around, even if the reclamtion project is taking place at a program not known football winning, like Duke. Or now at Minnesota.
Unfortuneatly, Roof was such a good DC that he got the head coach position at Duke. Typically, he failed there, as most would and was fired after winning only 8 games in a four year stretch as the head man. Make no mistake, however, this guy can coach a defense. Many have defended UM's DC Scott Shaffer due to his reputation of being one of the best, young up and coming DCs in the country. Well, that was Roof before he made the fateful decision to take the Duke head coaching job. Free from task of first head coaching gig at a lonely, lowly place for football, Roof has said he feels rejuventated. He's probably having the most fun coaching football as he's had in a long time.
The results show on the field. The Gophers were the worst in the country last year in total yards allowed, permitting 518 yards a game. This season, they're giving up just 362 per game, good for 68th nationally. They've improved from 36.7 points per game (109th nationally) to 17.1 points per game (20th nationally). Only 11 football teams across the land have picked off more passes than the Gophers oppurtunistic D.
The Fixer has succeeded in turning around another defense. He ought to be a strong candidate for the Frank Brolyes Award, given annually to the best asssitant coach in the country.
Cupboard Not Bare
The Gophers weren't devoid of talent, but it was far and few in between. However, Minnesota has received solid to great play from the holdovers of last year's porous D. They had a good defensive line to begin with with Willie VanDeSteeg, Garrett Brown, Lee Campbell and Steve Davis. Michigan fans may remember Davis as the freshmen phenon the OL could not block in the 2005 Jug Game. This foursome is probably among the top 3 DL's in the conference and have a combined 18.5 sacks and 21.5 TFLs. As long as you have a solid DL, you can creat a good defense, right? Deon Hightower is a solid LB. Kyle Theret at Safety was thrown to the wolves last year as an undersized true freshmen. He's responded with a breakout second season, leading the team in INTs and second in tackles. He has a Jamar Adams type of game and tackles anything that comes near him.
Jazzing it up with Jucos
So, the Gophers weren't devoid of defensive talent and had a pretty good defensive line to build off. Despite that, this defense would not be clicking had they not had an influx of new talent to work with. Roof was hired after the recruiting season, so this is all the work of Head Coach Tim Brewster. He dipped into the JUCO ranks and signed six guys to play defense, three of whom have stepped right in to revamp the Gophers back seven which leaked like a sieve all last year.
Traimaine Brock (1, FS), Traye Simmons (15, CB) and Simoni Lawrence (21, OLB) have been JUCO revelations for this program. Newcomers to the team this season, that trio represents three of the team's top five tacklers and have given Minnesota big play potential. What's interesting is not one of them is playing the position they played last fall in Junior College. Brock was a corner, but now a free safety, Simmons a safety, but now a corner and Lawrence, a safety, now an outside LB. Lawrence has really impressed me. He plays up on the line a lot, next to one of Minny's pass rush specialists, either Davis and VanDeSteeg. Folks, this is pretty tough to block. Lawrence has had a big season with 3.5 sacks, 6.5 TFLs and he's scored a pair of defensive touchdowns. He's a big play waiting to happen. I cant wait to see how Michigan blocks him.
Minnesota has gone from one of the worst turnover margins in the nation to one of the best. They were -15 last year, and this year, I suspect they're over +10. I dont have those at my finger tips. Obviously, the recrafted secondary has a lot to do with that on the defensive end, but credit here belongs on the offense on many levels. QB Adam Weber threw 24 picks in his freshmen season. He has 3 this season. Wow. Just wow. Michigan is heading for a -10 or higher turnover margin this season, but ask yourself, how much better the team would be if they get a reversal like the Gophers have had? Or even enough change in fortune to break even on turnovers. The Wolverines would be at least 2 wins better in the standings, if not more.
Yeah, but they've played a high school schedule
The Gophers have not played a murder's row of a slate and they have the fortune of skipping MSU and PSU this year. However, that should not detract from their accomplishments. Both last year and this year, they played BGSU and FAU. Last year, they allowed over 30 to each team. This season, only 20 points combined. Last year, IU, Illinois and Purdue all had scored more than 40 on the Gophers before November rolled around. This season, a combined 35 points between those three teams. Their schedule may be 'meh' at best, but its basically the same slate they struggled to a 1-10 mark against last year. This is no faux improvement.
Ok, genius, you lost me about 1,000 words ago. Does this have anything to do with Michigan?
Oh yeah, about that. Clearly, we should fire Shaffer and hire Roof the Fixer. Actually, thats not a bad idea, but Roof is probably going to get another HC coach in the future and will probably stay at Minnesota until that inevitable offer comes his way. And, I took an oath, with many others here ,not to seriously call for anyone's head in the first year. One thing I like about Roof as a DC as opposed to Shaffer is that he's not rigid with his system. He's basically putting his best guys out there on the field and turning them loose. They have a new DC, but unlike the UM players right now perhaps they're not as burdened by trying to learn a fancy new system, which, like their offensive counter parts, might not exactly match their own personal skill sets.
In Shafer's defense, however, you could argue that Roof inherited as many quality, proven defensive players as Shaffer did. Honestly, I dont think that is a far fetched argument. The defensive lines are basically a wash, perhaps a slight nod to UM. But the LB Hightower and S Theret are better tacklers right now than anyone in the Michigan Back 7.
What Roof has that Shafer lacked are all those JUCO trump cards that he's been able to insert into the lineup and play all over the field. I will not suggest that Michigan hand out scholarships to a half dozen JUCO prospects a la Brewster. But, the lesson here, though, is to be creative with where players go on the field. Would the Gophers be as good now if they played Lawrence at his JUCO position of Safety? No. In fact, they're better because he was moved to that hybrid OLB spot, where he's been downright dominant for stretches of games. With this year's freshmen and next season's recruits, we can only hope that Michigan can find its Brock, Lawrence and Simmons they way the Gophers did this season. And, if so, its reasonable to think (in large part due to the testimonials of GSimms) that Shafer will use those parts to the benefit of his Okie D.
Minnesota in 2007/2008 is a case study for Michigan. They had tremendous success under Glen Mason. They were in a bowl game virtually every year and Mason, while never breaking through into the upper ranks of the Big 10, still led the Gophers to its best era of football in years. They set records for having multiple 1,000 yard backs in the same season. But, they canned him in favor of a younger, more energetic guy who ran the, gasp, spread. A 1-11 season ensued with a lot of people tsk tsking the administration for making the coaching change. Now Michigan has all the pundits mocking them for going the spread route and ruining decades of tradtion. We see what Minnesota is doing in Year 2 of their spread. We can only hope Michigan sees similar improvement.
The only other item worth stressing is the turnovers. Over the last 25 years, 70 percent of the teams who finished the season with a negative, double digit turnover margin went on to improve their record the next year. And, in the Big 10 we've seen woeful teams climb significantly in the standings by rebounding their TO margin the following season. Penn St did the trick from 2002 to 2003 going from 4 wins to a New Year's Day Bowl. Illinois went from 2-10 in 2006 to the Rose Bowl the following. And, now, we have the Gophers after a 1-10, 0-8 in the league season, starting directly at January football.
4 & 5-Star Recruiting Success
Brian’s feature on “How did we get here?” with OL and more recently with LB’s is one of my favorite new features on MGoBlog. It really puts in perspective the timeline of how we got to a decently talented backup playing as our starting OL/LB (pick a position.) It put me in an analytical frame of mind, and while I’m sure this has been done somewhere on the internet, I’ve never seen it.
So I grabbed all the 4 and 5 star recruits for us off of Rivals (Scout was incomplete, listing Ryan Mundy as “NR”. Clearly this is incorrect, so I avoided Scout.) I used the timeframe of 2002-2007. 2002 since that’s the earliest data they have, and 2007 since any later would be incomplete data. 2007 has 7 players, most of which we can assess for purposes of this exercise.
Then I divided this set into 3 groups: met expectations, kinda met expectations, didn’t meet expectations (or didn’t play much or at all.) Basically, the criteria is your excitement level if I described someone’s career to you. If you’d be excited, group A. Meh, group B. Nose wrinkle, group C. (EDIT: I am grading strictly for on-the-field result for Michigan.) Examples:
· Matt Gutierrez: “Great backup, only sees the field for mop-up duty.” Nose wrinkle, group C.
· Prescott Burgess is a prime example of group B. His career? “Plays sporadically and uninspiringly for three years and has a very solid senior season.” Meh. You want more than one good year from a 5-star.
· Steve Breaston, “average wideout, all-time yardage leader in returns” Sign me up!
I freely admit that I might have messed up on some players, and data isn’t all in on others, but the overall point is still valid. Don’t get ga-ga over an individual highly rated player, because less than four in ten amounts to what you think he will.
· 5-star successes (4) – Woodley, Henne, B Graham, Warren
· 5-star tweeners (2) – Burgess, Schilling
· 5-star misses (3) – Watson, Grady, Mallet
That’s 9 total, and counting the tweeners as one-half, a 55% rate on 5-star players.
· 4-star successes (16) – Avant, Breaston, Crable, Hall, Kraus, Long, Arrington, Branch, Jamison, Johnson, Trent, B Harrison, Manningham, T Taylor, Mathews, Van Bergen
· 4-star tweeners (8) –C Graham, Moosman, Zirbel, EDIT: B Minor, Mouton, Clemons, A Mitchell, M Williams
· 4-star misses (32) – Hood, Koloziej, C Tabb, Gutierrez, L Harrison, McCoy, Rembert, Van Alstyne, J Jackson, Mundy, W Paul, Presley, Richard, Zuttah, Dutch, Gallimore, Max Martin, C Rodgers, Bass, Germany, McKinney, Schifano, Slocum, Traitor Boren, Stevie Brown, Kates, EDIT C Brown, Mixon, Patterson, Panter, Webb, M Massey
That is 56 total, 36% hit rate.
Totals for 4 & 5-star combined is 65, 38% hit rate.
So we get 11 of these types, on average, every year. And only roughly 4 will work out the way we hope.
· DT 2/0/5 29% - Lot of total flameouts here
· DE 3/0/2 60% - Our best success rate, but low overall numbers
· LB 2/1/5 31% - Lots of DNP
· DB 4/3/3 55% - Better than I thought going in, frankly. I put Trent in this group though he was recruited as a WR.
· RB 0/1/6 7% - Yuck. This is a really bad track record. Doesn’t help with Mike Hart going for 4 years, but the truth is there wasn’t ever a truly worthy backup. Minor is a great runner, but unfortunately his hands leak warm butter. McGuffie will help this out a bit in the future I think. Whoever is evaluating these guys needs to step up. They’re missing something.
· QB 1/0/3 25% - This is the Henne effect more than anything. Oh, and Mallett being a complete candyass. Not that I’m bitter.
· WR 5/1/4 55% - Clearly a strength in predicting top-flight talent that will stick around. I stuck Breaston & Bass (ATH) in here as well.
· TE 0/0/1 0% - More than anything, this says we don’t recruit top-flight TE’s
· OL 3/4/6 39% - Average. Brian always says this is a tough one to project with ratings.
· 2002 2/0/8 20% – That flat stunk. Don’t do that again. I’m amazed they didn’t go re-recruit Kelley Baraka this season.
· 2003 5/1/7 42% – Much better
· 2004 6/2/5 54% - Best year by a long shot. Branch, Jamison, Johnson, Trent, Henne, Arrington. Great class.
· 2005 3/2/6 36% – Back to reality
· 2006 2/3/6 32% – Reality gets a little worse.
· 2007 2/2/3 43% – Still a bit indeterminate. Looking good from a % standpoint, but not great from a total numbers standpoint.
· If Will Campbell comes here, plays here, and has success here, it’ll be a miracle.
· I don’t know what other schools are at for a success rate, but I think 39% is lower than I expected. These are the cream of your classes, the foundation of everything you want to do. Kinda surprising that so many names on that list never really even saw the field, much less achieve great things. Even getting to 50% would have been another 6-7 players. That’s a lot of on the field difference-making.
· Volume, volume, volume. Make sense now why the SEC teams recruit 30 players a year? I’m not saying it’s right, but I understand why they do. Guy doesn’t pan out quite right? Next!
· Think of all the great players not on this list. Harris, Adams, Hart. Hmmm. OK, point made, but at least we got many, many serviceable starters from the 3-stars. The top of the rest: Bihl, Barringer, Riley, Rivas, Stewart, Butler, Mesko, Englemon (2*), and a lot of guys on the team right now.
· What the hell are we doing with our RB recruiting? We got lucky with Hart, no mistake. If not for him, we’d have been in deep doo. 7 guys and only 1 was/is serviceable? 6 total no-shows? I’ll say it again, someone is a crappy judge of RB talent.
· Replay the years 2004-2007 in your head without Mike Hart. Here’s an icebag for your headache.
· Damn Bass’ treacherous knee.
· The 2-year span in which we got 11 total players living up to their potential, 2003-4, set the stage for our biggest success on the field over this timeframe. 2006. In the equation recruiting + coaching + motivation = success, it’s probably in that order.
(Warning, I am a historian by trade, not a statistician,
so I may have made some incorrect conclusions, which is why I included
all of the data.)
Michigan's fatal flaw Saturday, literally, was third down
defense. While there were some positives, including two Brandon Graham
sacks, the big plays on third down were the difference in the game.
I've made a chart, because, well, I needed a chart. Basically, I wanted to see if the stats backed up up on this, and certainly, they bore me out. I also hope the formatting remains.
|Quarter||To Go||Result||Pos. Yards||Neg. Yards||Play||Notes|
|1st||16||Converted||23||23 yard pass|
|1st||5||Converted||61||61 yard pass||TOUCHDOWN|
|1st||6||Not Converted||0||Inc. Pass|
|1st||9||Converted||12||12 yard pass|
|2nd||1||Converted||2||2 yard rush|
|2nd||1||Not Converted||-3||(3 yard rush)|
|2nd||10||Not Converted||0||Inc. Pass|
|2nd||8||Not Converted||0||Inc. Pass|
|3rd||12||Not Converted||-7||(7 yard sack)|
|3rd||6||Converted||50||50 yard pass|
|3rd||6||Not Converted||0||Inc. Pass|
|3rd||6||Converted||12||12 yard pass|
|3rd||12||Converted||44||44 yard pass|
|4th||19||Not Converted||-8||(8 yard sack)|
|4th||6||Converted||17||17 yard pass|
|4th||1||Not Converted||0||0 yard rush||Converted on 4th|
|4th||7||Converted||7||7 yard pass||TOUCHDOWN|
|4th||14||Not Converted||-2||(2 yard rush)||Clock Drain|
Basically, Michigan had MSU in an
average of 3rd and 8 and allowed an average of 11.56 yards on all plays,
or 20.73 yards on the positive plays. Two of these plays were actual
So, to show this was not a fluke, I went back and looked at Penn State and Illinois. (I could have looked at Toledo, but that portended doom)
Penn State numbers, average to go 5.93, average gain on all plays 9.75, average gain on positive plays, 18.29 yards.
|Quarter||To Go||Result||Pos. Yards||Neg. Yards||Play||Notes|
|1st||11||Not Converted||0||Inc. Pass|
|2nd||7||Not Converted||0||Inc. Pass|
|2nd||2||Converted||2||2 yard rush|
|2nd||1||Not Converted||-1||Fumble, -1 yard|
|2nd||7||Not Converted||6||6 yard pass|
|2nd||3||Converted||3||3 yard pass||TOUCHDOWN|
|3rd||6||Converted||9||9 yard rush|
|3rd||10||Not Converted||0||Inc. Pass|
|3rd||2||Not Converted||1||1 yard rush|
|3rd||7||Converted||15||15 yard pass|
|4th||10||Converted||11||11 yard pass|
|4th||6||Converted||8||8 yard pass|
|4th||1||Not Converted||0||0 yard rush|
|4th||10||Converted||80||80 yard pass||TOUCHDOWN|
Illinois: Average to go: 7.28. Average yards on
all third down plays (including penalty yards): 10.94. Average yards
gained on conversions: 20.22
|Quarter||To Go||Result||Pos. Yards||Neg. Yards||Play||Notes|
|1st||10||Not Converted||0||Inc. Pass|
|1st||6||Not Converted||6||6 yard pass||After ILL holding|
|2nd||2||Converted||3||3 yard rush|
|2nd||3||Converted||9||9 yard pass|
|2nd||1||Not Converted||-1||(1 yard rush)|
|2nd||10||Not Converted||4||4 yard rush|
|2nd||16||Not Converted||-6||(6 yard rush)|
|3rd||9||Converted||9||9 yard pass||ILL Hold Accepted|
|3rd||10||Converted||77||77 yard pass||TOUCHDOWN|
|3rd||8||Converted||15||15 yard penalty||PI on Harrison|
|3rd||15||Not Converted||4||4 yard pass|
|3rd||12||Converted||14||14 yard pass|
|3rd||6||Not Converted||0||Inc. Pass|
|4th||5||Converted||4||4 yard penalty||PI on Ezeh|
|4th||2||Converted||50||50 yard rush|
|4th||1||Converted||1||1 yard rush||TOUCHDOWN|
|4th||8||Not Converted||3||3 yard rush|
|4th||7||Not Converted||5||5 yard rush|
So, in my mind, the stats bear it out. Michigan is
solid at getting teams into third down situations, only to have them
explode in their face on third down. Six touchdowns, and five plays
over 40 yards. I lack the historical data to know if this is an
all-time low, but it doesn't exactly look good and it certainly at least makes me feel better that I'm not just percieving things this way.
Maybe it's a sickness or just an obsession but I had to crunch some #'s after watching the game on Saturday. The offensive coordinator from UM couldn't have been deceiving anyone from MSU because even my wife knew when a running play was going to be ran vs. a passing play. This is also the same woman who thinks she can predict who will win the game by the color of their uniforms. She told me in the 2nd quarter, "it seems like UM always runs on 1st down". After I got home I watched the game on DVR and she's right. Check out these stats.
UM ran the ball 65% of the time when it was 1st down. If you subtract the plays that were ran after UM was down by 2 TD's that # jumps to 71%.
UM only passed the ball 35% of the time when it was 1st down. If you subtract the plays that were ran after UM was down by 2 TD'S that # falls to only 29%
UM passed the ball 84% of the time when it was 3rd down.
MSU convereted 56% of their 3rd downs
It doesn't matter how well UM executes when the other team already knows what play is about to be run against them. Can you imagine how well the UM defense would play if they knew what play the oher team was going to run? The coaching staff needs to put these kids in a position to succeed and they need to mix up the play calling. If my wife knows what play UM is going to run surely someone from the MSU can figure out the UM play calling.
Those #'s don't lie and neither does my wife
#1 - The absolutely most frustrating thing about this team has been the pass "defense". Any team that can make Hoyer look above average must be pretty bad. I have no idea if it's the scheme or the execution, but it's probably both. The 1st half of the Utah game was no aberration. When opponents have 3rd and 8, 10, or 16 (16!!!), conversions have looked easy unless there is a sack or intense pressure on the QB. My hats off to teams if they make heroic plays to move the chains, but taking 15-20 yards at will is ridiculous.
#2 - I'd recommend that when opponents have 3rd and long that UM fans remember the Seinfeld phrase "SERENITY NOW!!"
#3 - I expected the offense to be pretty rough this year, and Threet's elbow problems don't help, but I never expected UM's defense to be ranked 10th in the conference.
#4 - The zone stretch play hasn't really worked since the Notre Dame game. I looks like UM runs the ball better out of the good old-fashioned I formation. Minor doesn't seem suited for the zone stretch - he's more of a north-south runner.
#5 - While criticism is warranted, the flaming and booing of the players is disgusting. These are just kids after all, and most of them won't be going on to NFL riches. They are playing hard, so give them a break.
OFFENSIVE PLAYER WHO SHOULD KEEP HIS JOB
DEFENSIVE PLAYER WHO SHOULD LOSE HIS JOB
Steve Brown, FS. For God's sake, Steve Brown. For God's sake. For. God's. Sake. I had high hopes for Steve Brown. I really did. I watch him run and he's fast. I see him body slam people to the ground on special teams and I cringe. The kid has some sort of mental block or confidence loss when he's at free safety. I don't know what it is, and I don't know how to fix it. I feel bad for him, because I always hear good things about him and I honestly think he tries hard and feels bad when he screws up. But the screw-ups are mounting too quickly for the coaching staff to ignore anymore. I was watching the game at the bar yesterday, so I was distracted a little more than I wanted to be. But he missed an easy tackle on former walk-on Blair White that led to a 61-yard TD pass. He was also the one targeted on the long pass down the left sideline (to Mark Dell, if I remember correctly) where he was in position but just failed to find the ball and make a play. Brown isn't completely useless, since he did make a sack and force a fumble. However, his shortcomings are too significant. I don't care who they put in there. Normally, I'd say Michael Williams, but Williams got a concussion in yesterday's game. Charles Stewart. Move Morgan Trent to free safety and plug in Cissoko at corner (Trent was benched for stretches, anyway). Artis Chambers. Insert Mouton at SS and move Harrison to FS. Hell, burn JT Floyd's redshirt and plug him in there. Something. Anything. But if Brown isn't going to improve (and at this point in his career, I have a hard time picturing significant improvement), the coaches need to start grooming someone to take over the position. The offense will improve in 2009 with every significant player returning. But the defense will have a maximum of two seniors in 2009, and both of those guys are defensive ends (Brandon Graham, if he doesn't declare for the NFL, and Adam Patterson). On such an inexperienced defense, we can't afford to have such horrible safety play. Get a youngster some experience now.
DEFENSIVE PLAYER WHO SHOULD KEEP HIS JOB