"I love it that Ivy League coaches are coming to our camp and Big Ten coaches are coming to our camp. South Florida is coming. We've got about 70 schools that are coming to our camp."
Remember when, before the season began, I read some tea leaves and used this ranking of George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series as a metaphor for the various possible scenarios? Remember how I predicted we’d win 9 or even 10 games? Those days were awesome, man. Unfortunately, right now we’re staring at one of the most underwhelming 5-1 midseason records I can imagine, highlighted by almost losing to both Akron and UCONN. For the record, Akron and UCONN are now a combined 1-11.
It was bad enough when we were 5-0, but then again, we’d just pasted Minnesota, a not-completely-terrible Big 10 team, so things looked like they were on the up. All we needed was a win over an equally not-completely-terrible Penn State to ensure a bowl game and finally put to rest the notion that 2013 is some sick re-run of 2009.
Things started poorly. Turnovers gifted Penn State with 14 points, as we’ve gifted opposing teams all season. Al Borges continued to call the zone stretch to Toussaint, and as usual, these plays typically went for 0 to -2 yards. But then we opened things up. Gardner threw. He ran. He did not turn the ball over.
Yet, for some reason, with us up 10 and less than 2 minutes left to play, the wheels came off and Borges returned to…the stuff that didn’t work in the first half. Now, running a zone stretch or inside power in overtime when all you need is an FG would already be a Captain Obvious call if you had Mike Hart and were averaging 4-5 yards per carry. But it simply doesn’t make any sense whatsoever when you’re up, you’re in one of the loudest, most difficult stadiums to play in, you have a chance to win and yet you know that your kicker is having an off day and--crucially--your running backs are averaging under a yard per carry. On the other side of the equation, on both PSU’s final regulation TD drive and the winning drive in overtime, Mattison dialed up a few too many soft cover 2s against a team that passes pretty well when they protect the quarterback, but terrible when they don’t. Hoke, Borges and, yes, even Mattison played not-to-lose and guess what? We lost.
Now, as an aside, can we please bury the notion that this result had anything to do with inherent superiority of offensive scheme or philosophy? We didn’t lose because “MANBALL” (i.e. i-formations, power running, play-action and so forth) is inherently worse than “basketball on grass.” (i.e. shotgun spread formations, read-option running, constraint passing and so forth). We lost because our coaches called plays we don’t have the personnel for, then called them again and again when it should have been clear that we couldn’t execute them. Wisconsin, Stanford and Alabama can. We cannot. It’s that simple.
The question now is: where does this leave us? And the answer is still somewhere between 2009 and 2011, but the center point in that distribution has shifted downwards towards 2010. I’ll go through each remaining game one-by-one and tell you what I think our chances are.
The Remaining Games
1. Home vs. Indiana: .67 probability of winning
They have offense but not much defense. We have Charlie Sheen on offense and soft cuddly zone on defense. But Ryan and Lewan should be back full-time, we’re at home and we can actually be aggressive on both sides of the ball, so the question really is whether we will. If we are, we win. If we’re not, we don’t.
2. Away vs. Michigan State: .40 probability of winning
East Lansing is not a happy place for us, especially in the Mark Dantonio era. And Sparty’s defense is as good as ever. That’s bad. On the other hand, they are not a good offensive team. That’s good. But their offense is getting better and they like to throw to tight ends. That’s bad. Expect a close one, but don’t expect a win.
3. Home vs. Nebraska: .60 probability of winning
Nebraska is a lot like Indiana, but with a higher national profile. We beat them handily two years ago and were on the road to beating them last year until Denard went down. If Borges stops pretending he has the 2006 offense and just sticks to the plays he has the personnel for, I think we surprise the national folks with a comfortable win here. But that’s a significant “if.”
4. Away vs. Northwestern: .40 probability of winning
At one point I had this as low as .33, but then Northwestern laid that egg against Wisconsin and, well, they just didn’t look all that scary anymore. Mind you, neither do we, it’s away (sort of) and we’ve had issues with spread offenses so far. As I see it, this will all come down to Mattison and the defense he rolls with. High-tempo spread offenses tend to result in death for the soft cover 2, so look for a lot of blitzing. If now, how are we going to keep them under 45?
5. At Iowa Hawkeyes: .67 probability of winning
Before the PSU own goal, I would have picked Iowa as the most likely candidate for “loss we didn’t see coming.” I can just hope we see it coming this time and don’t get into a Dinoball pissing contest with Kirk Ferentz like we did in 2011, you know, the one we still don’t have the personnel for.
6. Home vs. Ohio: .25 probability of winning
I had this as a tossup at the beginning of the year, in part because I didn’t expect Gardner’s turnoveritis, did expect 3-5 YPC from the running backs and figured we’d keep blitzing because that’s what Mattison does best. We are clearly not the team I expected us to be at this point. On the other hand, Ohio is exactly the team I expected them to be at this point—nationally overrated but coasting through a piss-easy schedule, and clearly the best of this middling bunch we call the Big 10 conference. The game’s at home, which gives us a puncher’s chance, but does anyone seriously see us winning? Seriously? They have tight ends too. And a mobile quarerback. And a defensive line that can get pressure all on its own.
The (Updated) Math
5.00 + 2(.67) + .60 + 2(.40) + .25 = 7.98
Hey that’s…not as bad as expected! On the other hand, we’ve gone from expecting a 9-10 win season to hoping we can salvage 8 wins and thus not look like we’re going backwards. And truth be told, I’m even pessimistic about getting 8, as there isn’t a single game left on the schedule that I’d characterize as “in the bag.” We’ll know a lot more when we see how the coaches and players react to this bit of adversity.
(Updated) Song of Ice and Fire Scenarios
1. A Clash of Kings.
Scenario: Non-stop action and death dealing! Our offensive line grows up quickly, and the move from experience to talent proves fundamental to a revitalized ground game, while Devin Gardner gets enough pass protection to tear up the Big 10’s mostly mediocre defenses. Meanwhile, we hold serve on run defense and even improve against the pass, which is enough to stymie the few good offenses we face. We stare down an invasion from
Stannis Baratheon Urban Meyer and repel him with our wildfire defense and an epic flanking movement passing offense.
Record: 12-0. We run the table and get to the Big 10 Championship Game, where we probably face Ohio for the second time in a week. A BCS bowl is a lock.
P = .05. Essentially, this would be our equivalent of what Notre Dame did last year, and would require a similar amount of luck and collapsing of the once-scary opponents (in our case Ohio and Sparty, in their case Oklahoma and USC). The Clash of Kings scenario is more likely than running the table was in 2012, but still not exactly likely. Ohio is going to be good, and though we can certainly beat them, Sparty is always fired up against us and especially when playing at home. Plus there’s uncertainty tied to the rest of the road games—are we talented, experienced and lucky enough to not blow any of them and still beat all the rivals? Maybe, but probably not. P=.00. ELIMINATED. We don’t have a “revitalized ground game” and our pass defense is terrible.
2. A Storm of Swords
Scenario: We go red wedding on the Big 10 but get caught with our pants down in the toilet at one inopportune moment. Everything else from scenario #1 still applies.
Record: 11-1. We either run the table up to The Game or beat Ohio and lose to one of the other likely candidates. We probably get a Big 10 Championship Game out of it, though that would depend on the others; either way we still get our best regular season since 1997.
P = .15. Okay, now we’re talking plausible-ish! Of course, all the disclaimers for scenario #1 apply here as well, with the caveat that we’re allowed our one bad day. That automatically makes it more likely, as even Alabama has had that over the past two years. Unfortunately, I see too many question marks on the roster to really get behind this scenario: an inexperienced interior O-line, no clear sense of whether we’ll get a pass rush, questions of whether Countess, Fitz and Ryan can return to form after rehabbing from serious injuries, etc. While I do expect these things to turn out well, when the entirety of the season is considered, they may not manifest positively in each and every game. P=.01. Still technically possible, but as Brian likes to say, CUMONG MAN. See above.
3. A Game of Thrones
Scenario: Taut. Gripping. Tantalizing yet never delivering that crucial victory. We are generally awesome, and kick some ass in
the Whispering Wood The Game/Conquest of the Juggalos, but run into a few roadblocks on the way.
Record: 10-2. Likely losses = 1 of Sparty/Ohio and 1 more from your “tossups,” “likely-buts” and ND. Whether we win the Legends Division in its final year depends on whom we lose to and how they do over the course of the season. Just like it did in 2011.
P = .30. Though the rational part of my brain is a bit more conservative, the enthusiastic, emotional fan part feels as if this is the way things will play out. It just keeps repeating “schedule, schedule, the schedule is faaaavorable” until I believe it’s more true than “roster, roster, the roster is inexpeeerienced.” P=.10. This could happen. I mean, it’s not likely, but the whole scenario was predicated on 1 loss against Sparty/Ohio and 1 from the tossup category, which included PSU. A guy can dream, right?
4. A Feast for Crows
Scenario: A mostly enjoyable ride that ultimately doesn’t live up to hopes and expectations.
Record: 9-3. I’d guess this means we lose ¾ out of the “likely-but” and “tossup” games. An early loss to ND (considering we don’t have Ryan and will be working out experience issues on the O-line) is not out of the realm of possibility either.
P = .35. Unfortunately, but not too unfortunately, the math suggests this is the most likely scenario, slightly beating out the more palatable 10-2 (since both of the estimates produce predicted win totals under 10). It would still constitute a bit of progress from 2012, though. That’s good. But it will probably produce a cavalcade of obnoxious “I told you so” columns from everyone’s “favorite” Freep columnist that evince a total disregard for logic and rationality. That’s bad. P=.20. Very much still in the running, but has gone from the center point of the probability distribution to the right slope. We’d have to win all the games we should win (Indiana, Nebraska and Iowa) and one of the ones we’re not in good position for at the moment (Sparty, Northwestern or Ohio). Doable, but remember--we almost lost back-to-back games against Akron and UCONN.
5. A Dance with Dragons
Scenario: Where are we going? Why is this
Quentyn Martell section [insert player] injury rehab taking so long to resolve? Why is this Jon Snow/Danaerys storyline offense so boring and listless?
Record: 8-4 or lower [let’s say 7-5 even though I didn’t do that at the time] Things just don’t go as planned. Maybe that’s due to an injury, or maybe something just doesn’t work on offense and we don’t have Denard to bail us out with his legs.
Last year we went 8-4 in the regular season, having played eventual national champion Alabama (away), eventual runner-up Notre Dame (away), eventual undefeated Ohio (away) and a decent-ish Nebraska team (away) after losing Denard and not, apparently, wanting to put Devin in. The idea that we’ll do the same or worse when there’s no Alabama, a crappier Notre Dame at home, Nebraska at home and Ohio at home strikes me as unlikely. But it isn’t impossible to imagine either, especially considering our lack of depth at key positions cough quarterback cough. P=.50. The offense is boring and listless, unless you count "not knowing if we will run the plays that usually get us yards, or go with the plays that almost always end in TFLs" as excitement. The whole “maybe something just doesn’t work on offense and we don’t have Denard to bail us out with his legs” thing is half right, because Devin does just fine with his legs. Too bad our coaches think we play in Tuscaloosa and have 8 years of oversigned, 4/5 star-rich recruiting classes to work with.
6. George R. R. Martin’s Secret Viserys/Joffrey Slash Fiction
Scenario: It’s 2009 again, yo!
Record: 6-6 or 5-7. We go 1-5 or 0-6 over the last stretch. Someone on the staff gets fired.
Probability: .19. Yes, we have to entertain this possibility now.*
DEPRESSO ADENDUM: If anyone thinks this is unlikely, I suggest you remember what it was like in 2009, when we were 4-2 but had just lost a sqeaker to a pretty good iteration of the Ferentz Hawkeyes. Did you seriously, at any point, entertain the idea that we'd go 1-5 over the second half of the season? Sure, I didn't exactly expect to beat Ohio, Penn State or Wisconsin that year, but wins over fairly crappy Illinois and Purdue teams seemed likely, and it wasn't unimaginable that we might pull of an upset either. I saw us as that transitional 7-5/8-4 Rich Rod team well on the road to 2007 WVU-style domination. You probably did too. In reality we were a 5-7 team on the road to nowhere.
OPTIMISITIC ADENDUM TO THE DEPRESSO ADENDUM: All that said, we did sort of have a horrific defense that was poorly coached at the positional level, overseen by GERG, and meddled with by Rodriguez. I don't see anything like that on our offense, which does seem able to do its job when not shackled by the obstinate insistence that we are another team entirely. So yeah, possible but not that likely.
Throw The Damn Ball!: That may sound crazy with M ranked #124 for interceptions thrown percentage. Even with all those TOs, Gardner is ranked #51 in QBR with a 143.5 rating. It is completely ridiculous to believe Michigan can run against opponents that are stacking the box with 8 or more defenders and selling out on the run. Do the math. When the quarterback hands off, the defense has 2 more defenders than the offense has blockers. Unless you force the defense to take some of those defenders out of the box to cover receivers, running the ball will not work. Penn State is ranked #20 in rushing yards allowed per game and M still ran the ball 63% of the time for a paltry 2.8 yards per attempt (Toussaint only averaged 1.0 YPA). M is ranked #9 in rushing defense yards per attempt. So, what do you think the opponents are doing?? Yeah, passing the ball – Opponent rushing play percentage is just 43.7% (ranked #10)! BTW, Indiana is ranked #98 in rushing yards per attempt so don't get all excited if M can run against them. After that MSU #2, ohio #5, Iowa #12, Nebraska #48, NW #83. Throw the damn ball!
Michigan improved to #14 in scoring offense but slipped to #34 in scoring defense. Manball unfortunately continues with a 63% run play percentage for the game and 60.8% for the year (ranked #16). Yards per rush is ranked #69.
Synopsis: Michigan's TOM for the game was +1 and for the year it is now – 2 (– 0.33per game) which improved slightly to #82. Turnovers were not a primary factor in determining which team won the game (but should have been). Michigan had an advantage of 3.34 expected points at the end of regulation even though total turnovers were the same for both teams. Without turnovers, M would have lost in regulation. In OT, the turnover by PSU should have resulted in a Michigan win – it didn't.
Clark got his first 2 fumble recoveries and Ross III had his first forced fumble. Taylor and Wilson both added their second interceptions. Gardner threw two interceptions, had two fumbles, and lost one fumble.
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.
There are going to be references to wrestling here. I might link to some dumb Youtube clips. You probably won’t agree with everything I say. Even the positives are pretty negative. I don’t care; deal with it.
Best: Crown Their Ass!
"That everything is on fire, slow fire, and we're all less than a million breaths away from an oblivion more total than we can even bring ourselves to even try to imagine..." -
This is UM football in 2013. It’s a collection of mismatched players and coaches groping in the dark at 2am, looking for a light switch that is connected to a single outlet with frayed wires that at any moment could spark and burn the whole house down. For 5 games, though, it was enough and UM kept on winning, despite enough “stirring” comebacks against mighty Akron and UConn that ESPN had a video montage queued up for late in the game. They probably should have lost a game before this one; now they have it out of the way so people can stop being teased with the least impressive run at perfection seen in Ann Arbor for decades. The house has officially burned down and now, perhaps, they can try to build something from the ashes.
UM is what we all thought they were; it just took the weirdest f’ing game to come to reality.
Supplementary Best: Now THAT’s MANBALL
And you know how people constantly argue over the meaning of MANBALL? Well, we just saw what it probably means to this staff and, really, throughout most UM history save for a divergence of sorts under RR. It’s about playing the percentages to an extent, but also cutting your playbook into a tiny sheet that says “Run dat ball dog!” and “Whatever, let Devin do something” once you get a 10-point lead. It means looking at your offensive line, seeing a bunch of first-year players and Schofield in the second half and figuring you might as well abandon the only positive running plays you have (read options and/or designed QB runs) for the same crappy -2-yard jabs into the line.
And perhaps most criminal of all, it’s relying on a college kicker, in a very hostile environment, to kick some game-winning FGs instead of trying for first downs in OT because you’re afraid of, I don’t know, turnovers or dragons or something equally asinine. I don’t care if Borges or Funk are around tomorrow, but this offensive staff has been stuck in this broken loop of playcalling for most of the year, and maybe a loss like this, the way it happened will snap them out of it. Or, you know…
For lack of a better term, once UM secured that 10-point lead Borges and Hoke adopted Heroball as the base offense: holding onto the ball until the last moment, telegraphing every play from a drastically shrunken playbook, and replacing any semblance of misdirection or creativity that got them that lead with predictable play-calling and the misguided hope that “everything will work out.” Well, it didn’t.
[Jump for Worst (ever).]
NOTE: For purposes of showing everyone where the conference is at in a more meaningful way perhaps, we’ll go back to cumulative statistics for this one - report-card (sort of) style.
SCORING OFFENSE AND DEFENSE:
All in all, the conference is not having a lot of problems scoring points. Indeed, all but two teams are currently averaging 30 points or more on the season. On the flip side, only two teams are giving up more than 30 points on average, which isn’t the best but also isn’t bad within the whole of Division I. You’ll know that four teams, in fact, are typically giving up less than 20 points per game. The point differentials are also mostly positive (save for Purdue).
TOTAL OFFENSE AND DEFENSE:
We’ll focus on Michigan here for a moment – we’re ninth in total offense by total yards, but fourth in the same metric on defense. That might not help with anyone’s confidence right now per se, but it should be noted that we still give up less than we gain. You can see on the differential chart that we still maintain a positive yards per play differential, something which I believe is far more telling when it comes to success.
RUSHING OFFENSE AND DEFENSE:
I’ll keep the focus on Michigan here since the running game is foremost in a lot of minds. Compared to our conference compatriots, we don’t excel in this regard but we do a decent job of stopping it, which might even be more important in the end. The top performers here on offense are pretty much the same as they’ve been all year, and the bottom performers on offense also have not moved much.
PASSING OFFENSE AND DEFENSE:
The stats were posted in a few threads yesterday, but from a production standpoint, Michigan is improving here even if you don’t think of being fifth in the conference as stellar right now. Indiana and Penn State top the conference in passing offense right now, but we’re not in bad company. On defense, the numbers after six or seven games (depending) are interesting. A fair number of teams appear to be having similar success here.
The chart here is top-heavy on offense – it takes ten teams before you find someone with less than 40% success on third down conversions. On the other side of the ball, there are six teams that allow less than 30% of third downs to be converted, and I am sort of pleased that Michigan is – if nothing else – the first team below that bar, not that 37.1% is impressive. The differential chart now might be starting to paint a picture of how the conference might pan out.
Here is the first down differential chart, which shows us that Michigan is getting only slightly more first downs per game on average than their opponent. I show this as a supplement to any discussion of third downs.
SPECIAL TEAMS STUFF:
Miami (NTM), UMass, FIU, Louisiana-Monroe, North Texas, Wake Forest, Oregon State…
What do these teams have in common?
These are the 8 teams that have averaged less than 2 yards per carry from their running backs on first down at least 2 different times this season. This is not a good list to be on. Miami (OH) has done it three times and has fired their coach. You know what is different between the fired Don Treadwell and the Michigan offense. When it wasn’t working they stopped doing it. Against Marshall, Central Michigan and Kentucky they averaged between 1 and 1.7 YPC from their running backs on first down. They gave them the ball 14 times total in those three games.
Against Michigan’s two best opponents, Notre Dame and Penn State, Michigan has averaged 1.7 yards per carry from it’s running backs on first down. Michigan has run the ball 35 times on first down. No other team has called more than 26 running back carries in games with under 2 YPA.
What is Michigan getting for their sacrifice?
Michigan is ranked 41st in bonus yards, my measure of big plays. It’s not a bad number but it doesn't indicate a massive advantage. Michigan’s average third down is 7.6 yards. They haven’t had a single game better than 7 yards to go on average for third down. 95 teams average less than 7 yards to go on third down for the season. 95 teams average third down is better than Michigan’s best game average. Michigan hasn’t even been that great at converting third downs once you account for their horrendous third down to go distance (-3%, 108th out 125). Michigan is getting no discernable advantage from the first down runs.
This has to stop. It’s at the point of absurd. The funny thing is when I initially pulled the numbers, this was Michigan’s second best 1st down day on the ground (a measly 4 and change per attempt) on the season but that was all driven by Devin Gardner. Obviously he can’t take every carry but the playcalling has to dramatically change. Michigan is among some of the worst overall teams in the country when their running backs run the ball on first down, they are the only teams that keeps doing it.
End of Game Punt Call
No issue whatsoever with the decision to punt the ball. Should they have let themselves lose the 5 yards on the delay of game, absolutely not. That was the error. Field goals from the 35 in the fourth quarter or OT are good 40% of the time, but there is a lot of self selection in the group. Only 36 field goals have been made of that distance or longer in the fourth quarter or overtime in the last 10+ seasons. Making a kick of that distance late in the game happens a couple times a year in all of college football.
By kicking it, Michigan forced Penn State to go at least 80 yards with less than minute to go and no time outs. Since 2003, only 6 teams have scored a TD under these circumstances, one of which was Michigan in UTL1. Yes a field goal would have won it but that is a low likelihood possibility. I have no issues at all with the decision to punt.
Since 2007, teams getting to go second on offense in overtime have won 55% of the time. In 287 overtime periods the team going first has gone scoreless 79 times. 13 of those times the second team went scoreless, as well. This hadn’t happened twice in a game until this season, but now it’s happened three times this season. Michigan is the only team since 2007 to blow two freebies in one game.
Missing Three Game Winners
Brendan Gibbons missed three field goals that would have been walk-offs. Twitter user @jquesnelle asked if that had ever been done before? Since 2003 I found five games where a team missed three kicks in fourth quarter or overtime and lost, some of them are brutal, but nobody had three walk off attempts missed/blocked.
Here’s the five to share in the pain.
2003, Cincinnati beats Temple 30-24 in 3OT
- Cincinnati misses 33 yard FG tied with 4:45 left in a tie game
- Temple misses from 37 in the first OT period, Cincinnati blocked from 38
- Cincinnati misses from 41 to start second OT, Temple misses from 51 to follow
- Temple misses from 24 yards in the third OT before Cincinnati scores a TD on the second play to seal the game
2005, LSU beats Auburn 20-17 in OT
- LSU misses a 28 yard FG to open the 4th quarter, leading 14-10
- Auburn comes back and misses a 37 yard FG on the next drive
- Auburn misses a 49 yard FG with 1 second left, game goes into OT tied at 17
- Auburn misses from 40 yards that would have sent it to 2OT
2008 Apple Cup, Washington State beats winless Washington 16-13 in OT
- Washington misses from 40 yards leading by 3
- Washington misses from 28 yards leading by 3 with under 4 remaining
- Leading by 3, Washington punts on 4th and 3 at the WSU 36 and less than a minute on the clock
- After hitting from 22 to start OT, Washington comes back and misses from 37 to open the door for WSU
2010 Liberty Bowl, Arkansas beats East Carolina 20-17 in OT
- East Carolina misses from 42 with a minute remaining and tied
- Gets the ball back 19 seconds later after three Ryan Mallet incompletions and a punt
- Misses again from 39 as time expires
- Opens overtime with a 35 yard miss
2012 Temple 17 UConn 14 in OT
- UConn misses from 42 to start the 4th quarter, leading by 7
- UConn blocked from 45 with 3 minutes left, still leading by 7
- UConn misses from 28 to open overtime
"We want to be able to run the football with a back in the backfield."
- Brady Hoke in 2011 interview upon hiring at Michigan
“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle”
- Sun Tzu in The Art of War
Offense: Who We Want To Be
Coach Hoke has made it clear from the word 'go' that his vision for Michigan includes a stout offensive line that fuels a power running game. Wear the opponent down. Use the run to set up the pass. Control the clock. Preserve your defense. He walked into a roster ill-equipped to play this style of offense, but he promised to be patient and flexible during the transition. Denard Robinson can probably tell you whether this was successful or not.
Regardless, Hoke must feel pretty good about making progress toward this goal of a power running game after his first few recruiting classes at Michigan. Top tier offensive line classes in consecutive years. Stud workhorse running backs. Tight end restocked. The pieces are in place for a good power running game at Michigan in the future.
This season is not the future.
Offense: Who We Are
Who are we as an offense? This is a tough question to answer. Let's start with who we are not. Yesterday, we ran 34 plays on first down. Here are the results:
|Play call||No.||Yards per play||<2 yard plays|
|Running back run||17||1.8||11|
In a power running offense, you rely on three to five yard runs on first and second down to gain short-yardage situations on third down. Yesterday we averaged 1.8 yards per play on first down runs, including 11 of 17 plays that went for one yard or less. When Devin Gardner ran on first down, he gained 8.4 yards per play with only one run for less than two yards. On the 12 occassions that passed on first down, we averaged 13.8 yards, including incomplete passes that gain zero yards.
We are not a power running team.
It is not clear that the coaching staff yet appreciates this, and as a result we are succumbing in every battle. It seems that the staff thought that this would be the year that they could transition fully to a power running game base offense. They tried to impose their will against Akron, UConn, Minnesota, and Penn State. In each case, it hasn't worked.
Whatever our opponents' self-knowledge, they can all be sure that when they play Michigan, we will try to operate out of a base offense that runs on first down. Whatever you think about our talent/youth/experience on the offensive line, we have consistently run into walls of defenders who are happy to not have to make decisions but rather just move ahead and fill a running lane.
We need to recognize who we are on offense and make a fundamental shift in approach.
A Note On Psychology
Albert Bandura's theory of self-efficacy explains how people come to believe that they are able to do something well. How people develop confidence in their ability. Devin Gardner's confidence is in the tank right now. It was clear that by the second half of the UConn game, he was trying to not throw interceptions more than he was trying to complete passes. But the coaches aren't helping him.
Self-efficacy theory holds that the best way to build confidence is to cultivate "mastery experiences," opportunities to be successful in the task at hand. In our case, this means giving Gardner easy passes--like screens, quick slants, and running back passes--to allow him to have little successes and rebuild confidence. Right now, we're doing the opposite. We've reacted to his turnovers by going into a shell and reducing his throwing opportunities. This has created a vicious cycle with us running into a loaded box of defenders, failing, then giving Gardner throwing opportunities in third and long situations, where he has less opportuntiy for "mastery." Gardner makes a mistake, loses further confidence. Coaches lose further confidence in his passing ability. Rinse. Repeat.
So, Who Are We, Again?
I'm not a coach, but it seems like, at this point, we need to fundamentally alter our approach to de-emphasize the early down running game. Power football doesn't work with 1.8 yards per first down run. We have had success in the short passing game, including last night. These plays have to become the new normal on first and second down. Whether this is spread or west coast or whatever, the pass has to start setting up the run.
That's not what Hoke wants, but it's better to be honest with oneself than aspirational. Will we make the change? We'll see. We know coaches to be a prideful race.