that makes one of us
Rerum omnium magister usus.
Experience is the teacher of all things.
Julius Caesar, Commentarii de Bello Civili, Book 2, Chapter 8
Setting. As the 2013 football season rolls on, the problems in Michigan’s run game have become more and more glaring. This has led to much ballyhooing and debate as to the main causes of Michigan’s ground game woes. The most basic argument is whether our problems are caused by weakness on the line or at the running back position. Brian’s UFRs come into play here, and while Fitz and the gang haven’t been perfect by any means, the play-by-play breakdowns seem to suggest that the problem lies with our offensive line. A phalanx our line is not.
Identifying the line as the problem, however, has not really made anyone very content. Rather it’s sparked a debate between the baby blamers – those who see Michigan’s youth as the source of their problems – and the crappy coach contingent – those who find fault with our coaches development of our o-line talent, not to mention play calling.
Previous Work. The MGoCommunity has already produced some solid work on this topic. The Mathlete’s preseason study looked at other teams who had offensive lines with an 1st round NFL pick combined with 2+ freshmen. Although he eventually admitted that we were still probably a year away, his comparison grouped us with the likes of Alabama, Oregon, and Stanford. GuloGulo’s diary from back in September looked at the relationship between average o-line experience in the Big 10 and success mainly defined as yards per play. After the first four weeks of the season, he concluded that we were about average in both experience and success. Gameboy’s recent diaries have shown that Michigan’s line is relatively young whether you take a “number of years in the program” or “number of previous starts” approach.
Questions. In this study I want to delve a little deeper into what we mean by “experience,” what we mean by “success,” and how those two variables are actually related. I will attempt to answer four questions:
- Can offensive line experience explain run game success?
- Are years or starts a better measure of experience?
- Is interior line experience more important that tackle experience?
- Is average experience a better measure than the weakest link?
Definitions. Neither experience nor success have single and obvious definitions. With regard to the o-line, success could be defined by wins, yards per play, yards per rush, sack percentage, or play-by-play results a la UFR. For the first part of this study, I use yards per carry as my metric for success. Experience, likewise, can be defined in a variety of ways, including the number of years in the program, the number of starts, or the number of snaps. This analysis primarily uses the number of years in the program as its measure for experience. This isn’t because it’s necessarily the best measure – we’ll test that in a bit – but rather because it’s the measure that’s easiest to find information about. Redoing this study with a start- or snap-focused measure of experience would be a worthwhile endeavor. In the graphs below, the year of the players are equated with numbers, so that freshman = 1, red shirt freshman = 1.5, sophomore = 2, red shirt sophomore = 2.5, and so on.
Data. The data for this study are drawn from this 2013 season. All 125 FBS teams are included. The YPC stats come from ESPN and the experience info comes from the a scouting site. Because this isn’t necessarily about Michigan’s o-line this year, but rather about the general relationship between offensive line experience and success, data from any recent season should apply though. Giving this thing some time depth would probably improve its efficacy. The stats are current as of 11/6/2013. All the images are from the MGoBlog flickr account; Bryan Fuller gets the credit, I believe.
This is a primarily quantitative study, but I’m in no way a statistician. My background is in Classics, as in Greek and Roman studies, so although I’ve tried brush up on my stats, there’s certainly the possibility that these metrics aren’t employed or interpreted perfectly. Feel free to correct me.
With that said, it’s probably useful to give a brief overview of the statistical measures in an attempt to describe what they actually tell us. I’m looking at 4 main metrics: correlation coefficient, r-squared, p-value, and slope of the linear trend line.
Correlation coefficient: The correlation coefficient quantifies the degree of linear relation between two variables. The coefficient ranges from -1.0 to 1.0, and the larger the absolute value of the coefficient, the stronger the relationship. This will provide a single number for the strength of the relationship between o-line experience and yards per carry.
R-squared: The r-squared provides a measure for the amount of variance in one variable that can be explained by another variable. This will be used to assess how much of the variance in yards per carry can be explained by o-line experience. It’s important to note here that there are obviously many other factors other than experience that govern running game efficiency (coaching, scheme, running back skill, etc.). A low r-squared doesn’t necessarily mean that experience is unimportant, just that other factors are also important.
P-value: The p-value let's us know whether our results are statistically significant; more specifically it provides a measure to assess whether we should discard the null hypothesis. In this case, the null hypothesis is that there is no relationship between o-line experience and running game success. The p-value ranges from 0 to 1. A small p-value, < 0.05, suggests that we reject the null hypothesis, while a large p-value suggests we retain it. If p-values are low, we should have faith in the relationship between experience and success; if they are high we should feel less confident about that relationship.
Slope of linear trend line: The trend lines in the graphs below show the linear relationship between experience and success. The slopes of that lines indicate the extent to which we’d expect YPC to change as a result of a change in experience. For example, if the slope was 0.5, the data would suggest that an extra year of average o-line experience is worth ½ of a yard per carry.
Question 1: Can offensive line experience explain run game success?
Good habits formed during youth make all the difference. - Aristotle
The scatter plot below depicts the relationship between average offensive line experience in years and yards per carry. Click for enlarged scatterplot with all BCS teams labeled.
The data broadly confirm what we’d expect. This is good! This means that we’re right in claiming our youth is (partially) the problem. The older your offensive line is, on average, the more yards per carry that team produces. The correlational coefficient is 0.16 for this data set, indicating that there’s a slightly positive correlation between offensive line experience and yards per carry. The r-squared is small, however, suggesting that only about 3% of the variation in teams’ yards per carry can be attributed to the experience of the offensive line. A p-value of 0.07 is marginal, meaning that it’s not particularly clear whether we should interpret these results as significant or not. Let’s start by giving experience the benefit of the doubt though, and for the time we can conclude that experience does indeed influence ground game success. The slope of the linear trend line suggests that an extra year of average experience is worth about 1/3 of a yard per carry.
At first glance, there does seem to be a positive correlation between o-line experience and YPC, although there is still a lot of variance in YPC that cannot be explained by experience.
Question 2: Are years or starts a better measure of experience?
One of the arguments against the approach taken in question one is that an offensive lineman’s number of previous starts is a better measure of experience than the number of years he’s been in the program. Let’s take a look; the graph below plots this alternate measure of experience against yards per carry. Click to enlarge and see Oregon and Wisconsin put up 6.7 YPC despite having less total starts along the o-line than Michigan.
The relationship between the number of previous OL starts and yards per carry generally mirrors the pattern produced when the number of years in the program is taken into consideration. The correlation coefficient is actually slightly higher (0.23 compared to 0.16), suggesting that starts is indeed a slightly better measure than years in the program for the purpose of predicting o-line success. The r-squared suggests that previous starts can explain about 5% of the variance in yards per carry, and a p-value of 0.01 indicates that these results are indeed significant. The slope of the line suggests that each extra start is worth about 1/100 of a yard per carry, meaning that 50 extra stars is worth about ½ a yard, and 100 extra starts is worth about a full extra yard per carry.
Now that the data show that “number of starts” is probably a better measure of offensive line success, I’m going to revert to “number of years in the program” as my main metric of experience. This is simply due to the convenience of the data. If someone can get number of starts for all the programs, that should improve things. Perhaps another day.
Question 3: Is interior line experience more important than tackle experience?
Why doesn't Lewan make everything okay?
One of the most common arguments against using the average or total experience of the entire offensive line is that all spots along the line are not created equal. Lewan being an awesome LT doesn’t help our RG Mags getting crushed by the NT. Essentially, interior line experience is more important than tackle experience. But does it really matter whether your experience comes on the interior or exterior of the line?
Let’s start with tackle experience first. The graph below shows the relationship between the average experience of each team’s tackles and their YPC.
Check out Michigan and Purdue with their bookend fifth year senior tackles. This doesn’t bode well for a positive relationship. Looking across the entire spectrum of the FBS, there appears to be no correlation between the experience of a team’s tackles and their ability to run the ball successfully. Once again, this is good news for us. It’s not that we’re not taking advantage of our great tackles, it appears that on the whole, tackle experience just doesn’t influence ground game success all that much. The correlation coefficient is a measly 0.02, the r-squared is <0.01, and the p-value is 0.81, which is incredibly high. The slope of the trend line suggests a very, very slight decrease in YPC as tackles increase in age, which doesn't make any sense at all.
This is really interesting actually, as all metrics suggest there is essentially no connection between tackle experience and yards per carry. If tackles aren’t the cause of the correlation between total experience and YPC, then it must be the interior of the line, right? Click to enlarge and see us at the children's table with UCLA and Purdue.
It appears as though the “our interior line is full of infants” excuse is actually a pretty good one. With a correlation coefficient of 0.22, the relationship between these two variables is stronger than when offensive line experience as a whole is averaged (in years) and an order of magnitude stronger than the correlation between tackle experience and YPC. The r-squared indicates about 5% of YPC variation can be explained by experience along the interior of the line, and a p-value of 0.01 suggests these results are significant. The slope of the trend line suggests an extra year, on average, is worth about 1/3 of a yard per carry.
If you extrapolate that out over the course of a season, that’s about 150-200 extra yards of rushing per year (Michigan had 502 rushing attempts in 2012 according to ESPN). Interior line experience does seem to be a big deal. Also, we’re one of the 3 youngest teams out of 125 FBS teams in terms of interior line experience. That is young indeed.
Question 4: Is average experience a better measure than the weakest link?
The foundation of every state is the education of its youth. - Diogenes
Thus far the data have shown that interior line experience is a better predictor of running game success than total offensive line experience. The next question is whether average interior line experience is a better predictor of success than the “weakest link” along the line. In this case we’ll call the youngest person on the interior of the line the weakest link. This really has nothing to do with their ability, it’s just a measure of their experience in the program. Click to enlarge and see Auburn averaging 6+ YPC while starting a true freshman interior lineman.
It looks as though there is something to the “weakest link” argument. The correlation coefficient in this case is 0.29, which stands as our strongest correlation yet between some measure of experience and yards per carry. The r-squared indicates that this measure can explain about 8% of YPC variation, and a p-value of 0.01 suggests that these results are indeed significant. The slope here once again suggests that an extra year is worth about 1/3 of a yard per carry.
The fact that the age of a team's youngest interior offensive lineman is a better predictor of run game success than its average offensive line experience, or even the average experience of just the interior line, is rather unexpected. This should bode well for Michigan's future along the line as we gain experience and depth in future seasons.
First off, offensive line experience leaves a lot of the variance in yards per carry unexplained. So even though this study supports the conclusion that offensive line experience does indeed influence success in the running game, there are clearly many other factors that also play a role.
In this study, experience has been measured in in two ways, both as “years in the program” and as “number of starts.” While both serve as decent predictors of success in the running game as judged by YPC, number of starts seems to be the better measure. Unfortunately, it’s also the measure that is more time-intensive to track. When looking at the outer vs. interior line, the data suggest that success on the ground is much more closely tied to the experience of the interior line than it is to either the tackles or even the average experience of the line as a whole. Surprisingly, tackle experience seems to be completely irrelevant as a predictor of run game success. Finally, the level of experience of the least-experienced person on the interior line serves as an even better metric for predicting running game efficiency. The “weakest link” argument appears to hold water.
Unit of Measurement
|R-Squared||P-Value||Effect on YPC|
|Total Experience||Years||0.16||0.03||0.07||Extra year = +1/3 yard|
|Total Experience||Starts||0.23||0.05||0.01||Extra 10 starts = +1/10 yard|
|Interior Line Experience||Years||0.22||0.05||0.01||Extra year = +1/3 yard|
|Youngest Interior Lineman||Years||0.29||0.08||0.01||
Extra year = +1/3 yard
What does this mean for Michigan? As Gameboy showed us in his diaries, Michigan is young along the O-Line, whether you’re judging by years in the program or by number of starts. What I hope to have demonstrated here is that (a) being young really does matter, and (b) we’re especially young where it matters most (i.e., tied for 2nd youngest on the interior OL out of 125 FBS teams).
Borges and Funk in happier times
There’s been a lot of heat on Borges and Funk recently, and it’s appropriate to ask whether this study indicts or absolves them. Unfortunately, I think the data tend to side step the question. The fact that o-line experience does seem to influence YPC, and especially the finding that interior line experience seems to be of utmost importance, combined with Michigan’s position with regard to these measures (i.e., they fall almost exactly along the linear trend line in both the interior line experience graph and in the weakest link graph), would initially suggest that the line is performing about as expected.
This doesn't let the staff off the hook. The relatively low r-squared values would indicate that there is a lot more than just experience that goes into producing a successful running attack. Coaching, both in terms of scheme and player development, is probably one of the most influential factors in governing run game success, and this study doesn’t attempt to measure or control for that aspect of the game. Moreover, this study doesn't account for talent along the offensive line, which would probably suggest Michigan is underperforming relative to the recruiting rankings. Strength of schedule is also omitted. Having played CMU, Akron, UConn, Indiana, and Nebraska, adding this variable could also raise our team's expected YPC, and in doing so lower our performance relative to expectations.
According to the eyeball test, the apparent regression along the offensive line would seem to indicate that there are some seriously problematic coaching issues. There are several BCS programs with similar youth-related issues on the interior line, both when experience is averaged (e.g., UCLA) and when experience is defined by the youngest interior lineman (e.g., Notre Dame, Arkansas, and Auburn), and these programs still manage to perform significantly better than us in terms of yards per carry. When viewed within the context of the entire FBS, however, the data suggest that Michigan’s youth is a real and influential issue.
On the bright side, this should give us hope for future seasons. As our interior line matures, both in terms of average experience and in terms of its weakest link, we should improve. This only holds, of course, if all the other factors that go into producing a successful offensive line – namely coaching scheme and player development – are on par with the rest of college football. That, unfortunately, is not guaranteed.
Rome wasn’t built in a day, but it did progressively grow bigger and better until it reached a point where it dominated at the point of attack. Let’s hope our offensive line can do the same.
Coming in part 2: Shouldn’t our veteran tackles at least make us better at pass protection?!?
Awww, come on.
 Actually, upon further review, I’m not so sure this is accurate. Over the course of 8 games, Fitz has 5 positive UFR games, 2 negative, and 1 around zero, while the OL has 5 positive UFR games, 2 negative, and 1 around zero. Obviously RB and OL numbers aren’t perfectly commensurate, but this probably suggests the blame should be shared.
By the Big Ten, anyway.
Holy Offensive Extravaganza Batman! In the interest of time, I'm going to break format again, skip the introductory paragraph and get right to the numbers. Michigan gained 1237 yards on 98 plays, accruing 73 first downs in the process. Devin Gardner led the way with 712 yards passing. Jeremy Gallon's 26 receptions accounted for 560 of those yards. The rushing game returned in grand style, with Fitz Toussaint running for 234 yards and 8 touchdowns, behind a line featuring a fourth string left guard and three high school seniors. Michigan won the time of possession battle, 52:12 to 7:48. Michigan punted negative three times, and finished seven for four on third down conversions. Raymon Taylor led the defense with 37 tackles and 16 pass breakups. Yes, these numbers are completely made up. They are ridiculous, but so are these numbers:
Burst of Impetus
* Early in the game, it was obvious that Indiana was throwing to the receiver guarded by Raymon Taylor. Taylor got beat deep, giving up a 59 yard TD to IU. On the next drive, they went back at Taylor, hitting Latimer for a 14 yard gain. After an incomplete pass and a five yard run, Sudfeld went back towards Taylor. Taylor absolutely lit up the TE, Bolser, forcing an incompletion. Later in the first quarter, on another third down, Indiana went back at Taylor down the sideline. He just barely turned his head around and got another deflection. Later in the game he got another PBU on third down and forced a field goal. The boxscore lists him with 4 of Michigan's 5 pass breakups. He did make 9 tackles, so it's obvious Indiana was targeting him and giving him opportunities. He wasn't perfect, BUT HE MADE PLAYS. In a back and forth game, the key to winning was who was going to be able to break serve. Indiana was 8 of 14 on third down. Half of those stops are directly attributable to Taylor. The other defensive player who MADE PLAYS (2 of them, in fact) was Thomas Gordon. He did not record a tackle, but he did make two huge interceptions that gave the Impetus back to Michigan both times.
* Devin Gardner was 21 for 29 with ZERO INTERCEPTIONS! (That's not difficult to do when IU's DBs were rarely in the same time zone as our WRs, and the line provided good protection for the most part.)
* He threw for 503 yards, 2 TDs, and a long of 70 yards (thanks to Gallon.)
* His bad habit of flinging wild throws to avoid sacks returned, but fortunately, did not result in any INTs.
* Al Borges is the QB coach. Is Al the one responsible for teaching Devin how to pitch the ball to Fitz? I'm, of course, referring to the fumble. It was attributed to Fitz, but the pitch was the problem. I have a hard time picturing in my mind, Al out on the field giving Gardner instructions on the proper way to pitch the ball back to the RB.
* After suffering through the 27 for 27 documentary, Fitz ran 32 times for 151 yards net. The longest run was only 27 yards, so this is not one of those cases where a guy's stats are inflated by a 60 or 70 yard TD run. He scored 4 TDs.
* Derrick Green pitched in 21 yards on 6 carries.
V. Sinha Legends Jersey
* Jeremy Gallons actual stats were 14 receptions for 369 yards and 2 TDs. He caught 2/3 of Gardner's completions.
* Devin Funchess was the second option, catching 4 balls for 84 yards. Towards the end of the game UofM was trying to run out the clock. They faced a 3rd and 6. Instead of running on third down, Al called for a pass. 38 yards later, Funchess had given UofM another first down, and three more opportunities to run clock. I think that is the go-for-the-win attitude that we became accustomed to under Brady Hoke, that was sadly missing last week against PSU.
* Jeremy Jackson returned to the field, catching 2 balls for 23 yards.
* I love Dileo and if I were in charge of the offense, I'd involve him more, so what I'm going to say next may amount to heresy. Is it possible that he's not getting open on the other ~60 plays, or that he's not great at blocking? I also wonder if he got hurt, because he wasn't back there fielding punts. Maybe Borges just wanted to give Devin a slightly bigger target in Jackson.
* Midway through the first quarter, Joey Burzynski got hurt. So let's review our situation at Left Guard this year. Glasgow started the season there, only to move to center in an attempt to shore up the middle. Chris Bryant was the next man in. He's either injured or not as effective as the staff would like, so he was replaced by Burzynski. When he got hurt, Kyle Bosch entered the lineup. Yep, our 4th string left guard. Indiana did get 2 sacks and 7 TFLs, but I can honestly say, I didn't notice Bosch out there, and that's a compliment for a lineman. He may have made a mistake or two, or missed an assignment, but I didn't notice.
* A bruised and bloodied Taylor Lewan returned to the lineup. I was a little worried before the game started, as Lewan showed very little enthusiasm jumping up to touch the M Club banner. To think he could be making millions of dollars today, all I can say is thank you, we appreciate your effort and loyalty to our shared University.
* I would be remiss not to mention Graham Glasgow's hustle. At the end of Gallon's 70 yard run after the catch, Glasgow was right there. There were several other long plays where I noticed Glasgow hustling down the field looking for another block. The guy can move for someone his size.
Norf and Souf
* Norfleet returned 6 kicks for 121 yards. He made a couple poor decisions, but on average, the results were fine.
* So is this blocked FG thing something I'm going to have to worry about for the rest of the season?
* Five of Wile's 10 kickoffs were touchbacks. IU didn't do much with 4 of the 5 they returned.
* On one kickoff, we kicked from the 50 due to an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on IU. Doesn't game theory demand an onside-kick there? Or at least a high, short, coverage kick where you can pin them back inside the 20? If they recover the onside kick, they get the ball at their own 35. Instead, we kicked it out of the endzone and they got the ball at the 25. For 10 yards, I'd take that chance at getting the ball back. This was not a field position game. This was a ball possession game, as in, if you had possession of the ball you were likely going to score.
I'm an international umpire
* The refs let them play. IU had 3 penalties for 20 yards and Michigan had 4 for 15 yards. I noticed some holding and maybe some DBs getting to the WR a little early, but nothing outrageous, and the officials didn't get nitpicky. I'd rather they call a foul a foul, but it kept the flow of the game going nicely, and they were consistent, which is all you can ask for.
* I covered the important stuff in the Impetus section. We got some stops.
* Help me out, Alannis Morrissette, is it ironic that we ended the game by sacking IU's QB? I say yes.
* Besides Taylor's 9 tackles, JR3 had 8, Jourdan Lewis and Morgan had 5, and Wilson had 4. That's a lot of DBs, but that's to be expected in a game like this.
* It seemed like neither defense could stop the opposing offense. In fact, it seemed like neither team faced many difficult third downs. So I decided to review the play-by-play and see how the two teams did on first and second down. My numbers aren't quite adding up, but they are close to being accurate. In the all-important second down conversion stat, Michigan dominated Indiana going 14 for 26, to Indiana's 10 for 24. On first down, Michigan was 14 for 41 to Indiana's 10 for 35. That's right, we had 35 first downs, and gained 28 of them, 80%, on either first or second down. Indiana's defense is horrible.
* I mentioned in the Game 1 diary that my dad passed away from cancer this summer. Michigan broke out the pink accoutrements to raise awareness. I think most people are "aware" of the major cancers - breast, lung, prostrate, etc. In fact, my dad was a five year survivor of prostate cancer. Spending our limited resources attacking the most common cancers makes sense (Spock would agree, the needs of the many, etc.) but let's also spend some time raising awareness of the less common cancers, because these are often the ones that aren't diagnosed in a timely manner. A year and a half ago, dad was diagnosed with urothelial cancer. The problem was mis-diagnosed for a good 3-4 months, during which time the cancer may have doubled in size and changed from something that could be dealt with, to something that was fatal. I'm all for raising awareness, but I also think we need to be doing more in terms of improving diagnosis and treatment options.
My dad took my brother to the Anthony Carter/IU game. I suppose I should be jealous of my brother for that, but I was the one who got to hear Bob Ufer call the play. So who was the lucky one? HONK! HONK! HONK! HONK! HONK!!!
I know you feel, John…
Worst: Totally Meta
To let you in a bit on how the sausage is made with one of these posts, I usually sit down with my laptop during the game and play around in the liveblog while taking some really cursory notes. While I’m sure I could figure out how to watch lineplay and defensive adjustments intricately in order to make really astute observations about particular players, there are lots of people here at MGoBlog who do a great job with that level of detail and, frankly, I doubt I’d be able to add much. No, the Best and Worst is all about a layman’s observations of a game, with (I hope) a bit of humor, some fun long-form ideas, and insufferable references to wrestlers and 90’s television shows.
Well, usually my notes take on a bit of a narrative as a game progresses; I inevitably start ordering comments into Offense, Defense, Special Teams, Coaching, etc. buckets, so by the end I’ve got my talking points, as they are, laid out. Given the opponent, I figured they’d be succinct and pretty general; it’s hard to derive too much from a blowout.
Well, by the last 4 minutes of the game, my notes spanned 2 pages typed and, if my keyboard was both sentient and possessed the necessary funds to file documents with a court, would be Exhibit A of a battery suit brought against me. People joke about how typing “OMFG” or “ROFL” negates the emotion you are attempting to convey, like telling someone how funny something is instead of actually laughing. But part of the reason you use these shorthands, though, is because “nfsakjf528095353u55b25jewrnijrggrehjigh3u04u-421” followed by your dog fleeing the room is hard to convey in words. So yeah, based on my notes…
Worst: Goliath has Fans Too
I’m usually not one to complain too much about announcers except if they go full Spielman and openly root for one team over the other, but the announcers were extremely excited about the possibility of Akron beating UM. And that got me thinking; seemingly everyone loves the David vs. Goliath matchups that end with David victorious. At first blush, it totally makes sense; David represents the everyman, overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds with character, ingenuity, and guile. To root for David is to root for the human spirit and the impossible dream. Rooting for Goliath is like rooting for the house in blackjack.
But here’s the thing; being “Goliath” is not free of context, nor is it purely a “you vs. them” dynamic wherein everyone agrees how the story should end. In other words, Goliath has fans too, and in most cases they don’t view themselves as the bully, the victor, the unstoppable force OR the immovable object. Goliath is just a guy who is blessed with some physical advantages that he honed with rigorous training and passionate loyalty to a cause. In the eyes of Goliath, he’s entering into fair combat against another warrior who just happens to be smaller than him and who wields a slingshot. He’s not Razor Ramon or Vince McMahon, “heels” personified who want nothing more than to ruin the face’s day. No, He’s not the “bad guy”, unless “being tall and strong” and winning most of the time are dastardly traits. He is the Big Bad because the only lens used to view him is as the seemingly unattainable or antithesis model, the personification of David’s shortcomings.
So saying you love David vs. Goliath games is really saying you like to see the big guy lose not necessarily because you have a rooting interest in David or against Goliath, but because you don’t want to be reminded that not everyone has David’s problems. On some level, you hold Goliath’s strengths and accomplishments against him, believing something must be cosmically wrong to explain his winning ways, and that a loss will somehow right this off-kilter universe.
But that really isn’t fair to either party; Akron is just a bad FBS program trying to find its footing and UM is the winningest program in college football history. UM has all of those wins because, for most of its existence, it has fielded talented, well-coached teams that beat other ones on the football field. Akron, not so much, but that isn’t because of something UM did. And, humorously, the tables are turned in the other “football”: Akron has been one of the best college soccer teams for years now while UM is the “upstart” that scored a major 1-0 upset over the Zips a couple of years ago during an otherwise poor season.
I’d say millions of people partook in today’s game in some way (live, TV, radio, internet, etc.), and a significant number of them are probably fans of UM football. They wanted to see UM win for any number of reasons, and few if any thought Akron winning would be a “good thing”. Russians certainly didn’t think losing to the US at the Olympics was a good idea, nor are Phi Slamma Jamma fans clamoring for Lorenzo Charles (RIP) memorial jerseys, and I’m guessing Lloyd Carr isn’t sending Armanti Edwards holiday cards. Had Akron pulled off the win, it would have been heralded as a huge upset both for the year as well as historically, and people who “like” upsets would have another moment to cheer about. But for the fans of Goliath, David is just the guy who got lucky, and no amount of culturally-endorsed schadenfreude will change that.
Today’s game ended with Goliath winning, though it was obviously closer than expected. The narrative is that Akron gave UM all they could handle, and that in a game of inches UM got lucky that Akron came up a bit short. But it was a game that both teams had a chance to win, and this time Goliath benefitted from a missed opportunity; history hasn’t always been so kind. I’m certainly not going to complain.
Worst: It’s a Win? (as said in the voice of Ron Burgundy)
Yeah, I’m not going to be one of those people who says it would have been a better “learning experience” if they had lost; I’m a results-based grader so a win is always better than a loss. That said, this is up there with narrowly beating Indiana and Illinois under RR and a turrible 10-7 win against 5-6 Utah in 2002 (a game I attended and apparently blocked from my memory until now). And unlike those games where you could at least point to one element of the performance being a positive, it isn’t really hypoerbole or “ESPN talking head”-ole to say UM was beat in all three phases of the game.
Best: It’s a Win
But it’s a victory for UM, and 3-0 is 3-0. Just ask MSU, whose offense finally eclipsed the defense is scoring 3 games into the season. Teams have bad games, and for all of the hell the players are likely to have rain down on them by the coaching staff this week, it would be immensely worse if Saturday’s game had ended with an “L” on the schedule. This game probably ratchets down the expectations a notch if you saw UM as a top-5 outfit, but otherwise it was a close shave for a team with top-15 talent. Given the number of massive upsets this year, it could have been far worse.
I know the Internet is the ultimate echo chamber for cynicism, and this blog’s particular composition only accentuates that property, but just like was a need to pump the brakes a bit after the ND game, this game doesn’t not necessarily mean you need to stock your panic room quite yet.
Best: I don’t want…your life!
One of the more underrated moments in Varsity Blues is the “hungover” game played by the West Canaan Coyotes after Mox, Tweeder, Billy Bob, Wendell, and Lance spent a night at the Landing Strip Gentleman’s Club*. Hungover and clearly off their game, they lose in embarrassing fashion and Bud Kilmer turns to threatening Mox about his scholarship to Brown if he doesn’t shape up and fall in line.
In no way am I insinuating that UM’s play against Akron was caused by every starter heading off to Deja Vu in Ypsi Thursday night, but it clearly looked like a team that was out of sorts from the outset. UM did force a 3-and-out on Akron’s first drive and followed it up with the long TD by Funchess, but for most of that first half the offense looked lost and the defense held tough but couldn’t generate much of a pass rush. And once the 2nd half began and Akron made some adjustments offensively, the defense struggled to keep them off the field. Plus, Gibbons missed his first kick since Purdue and Matt Wile shanked a couple of punts, resulting in an average of 33 yards per kick despite “booming” one 54 yards. As a couple of people noted (including Ace), if it was against any other team but Akron, UM probably would have been run off the field. But still, just a disorienting performance.
Of course, Notre Dame also had a pretty off performance against Purdue, so who knows where everyone was last night.
* I know this is saying a great deal in a movie where James Van Der Beek is a Texas QB, literally every play is either a bone-shattering tackle or a 50-yard TD (seriously, watch the clip and you’ll see 4-5 NFL Blitz-style flying tackles), and a HS team is allowed to basically coach itself once Jon Voight leaves at halftime – you’ll notice no assistant coaches take over or are even on the screen, but the most unbelievable part of that movie is a HS health teacher moonlighting as a stripper in a city of, oh, 10,000 people in Texas and NOBODY notices until some HS kids see her act. I mean, that club looked packed on (I’m guessing) a weekday night, and early on the movie establishes that Miss Davis must be making decent money from her dancing in order to afford a Mustang convertible, so it is clearly a popular place. Yet her double life remains a mystery both before and after this night. Simply unbelievable.
UM averaged 5.5 ypc* and 8.3 ypa** while holding the Zips to 3.6 ypc*** and 6.3 ypa**** which look good on paper, but as the astute reader might have picked up, those little *’s aren’t just looking for a party to crash; they are massive caveats. First the rushing: Gardner averaged 10.3 ypc on his 103 yards, showcasing the game-breaking speed that can turn a collapsing pocket into a 36 yard TD. Fitz recorded 71 more yards on 19 carries, but didn’t crack 4 ypc against the #80 rushing defense in the country. And while I initially thought he was the recipient of some bad luck out there due to penalties on runs, the only one apparently was a holding penalty by Gallon on a 3-yarder. Of his 19 carries, 7 were for losses and 8 were for minimal gain (though one was the TD). He recorded 65 yards on 4 other carries, and added a nice 27 yard reception to goose the numbers up a bit. On most runs he was engulfed in the backfield or had trouble locating holes either because they weren’t there or a momentary hesitation closed them too quickly. I’ll get into my feelings about the line play later, but this was not a banner day for a guy who has played reasonably well this year given the obvious issues in front of him.
As for that 8.3 ypa, that is .7 ypa below Akron’s 114th-ranked pass defense, and came with a 53% completion perctange and 3 INTs, including a horrible screen-ish pass that was returned for a TD. Nobody other than Gallon caught more than 2 passes, and while Funchess had a nice day on paper with a TD and 65 yards on his two catches, one was a 48-yard TD run that was aided by some poor angles and tackling by Akron, a theme they continued on Chesson’s only catch (and first of his career) on the day, a 33-yard TD where he was pinballed toward the endzone by an Akron defender. Criminally underused Drew Dileo was held without a catch, so hopefully this week Brian will be able to release that particular Kraken.
The defense did marginally better, holding Akron to about their season average rushing and about a yard less passing, but those numbers were put up against UCF and the zombified remains of the 4th President of the United States, er, eponymously-named FCS James Madison University. And Akron had 4 drives longer than 45 yards, including two 11-play drives that ended with a TD and the final drive, as well as a 5-play drive that ended with Wilson’s INT in the endzone. UM could not get Akron off the field in the 4th, including giving up a number of long completions and “they only need 5 yards for the first down, let’s give the slot receiver a 10-yard cushion” plays.
So yeah, statistics should be trusted only as far as they can be thrown, which against UM’s defense today is apparently both quite far and with minimal coverage.
Okay, okay, that’s a little mean. But it was pretty bad out there.
Worst: Push it!
So you know how earlier I mentioned that statistics sometimes lie? Well, a big reason why UM’s running game struggled was the continued inability of the offensive line to consistently block for anyone. Against Akron, Fitz had 15 carries that resulted in either lost yardage or minimal gains, and a significant number of them were because one or more Akron defenders were in the backfield rather quickly. It remains a team that is strong on the edges (though both Lewan and Schofield missed a couple of blocks) and “maturing” or “weak” (depending on your viewpoint) in the middle. Akron didn’t seem like it was doing anything special defensively, yet they always seemed to have the number’s advantage at the point of attack. And while they only recorded a single sack, Gardner was harassed most of the day by the line without excessive use of blitzes or disguised coverages. I’m not expecting major changes on the line next week, but this is a team that can’t consistently get 4-5 yards a pop on the ground without the QB getting involved, and that is not a sustainable situation during the conference season unless Devin remains healthy throughout, which would be a minor miracle.
As for the defensive line, to say the “Right to Rush 4” mantra needs to be redefined would be an understatement. A unit with a decent amount of hype heading into the season failed to register a sack on 49 attempts, though the defense was credited with 8 QB hits. Still, it took an all-out blitz to get pressure on the QB to end the game (reminiscent of the Points-a-Palooza some years back), and when your undersized tackle (Black) is your most consistent pass rusher against a MAC team, that isn’t good news. I guess the jury is still out on Frank Clark, but at this point the judge expects to hear a verdict by the end of lunch. It certainly didn’t help that Mattison seemed reticent about using more than 4 linemen to get pressure, and as a couple of people noted in the Liveblog the stunting was glaringly obvious, but again you shouldn’t have to overly gameplan for a team coming off a 1-11 season.
Best: Times are Changing
Now, I know I just spent a couple of sections dumping on Akron and minimizing their influence on today, but they deserve quite a bit of credit for playing UM to a standstill. Maybe 25-30 years teams like Akron are just happy to be playing in the Big House and are overwhelmed by the moment, but in today’s college football ecosystem everybody believes his team can beat anyone else. For even with Akron’s fallow history, it is still an FBS team with D1 players on it, and given the exposure and resources available to virtually all such programs nobody should be surprised they didn’t just wilt as soon as The Victors played. Terry Bowden may have looked like he ate his daddy Bobby before the game, but he’s still got a career record of 142-75-2 (including 47-17-1 while at Auburn), and certainly knows how to beat teams like UM. They played solid, largely mistake-free football and took advantage of UM’s miscues. They played like a major college football team, and this game should be yet another reminder that “MACrifices” isn’t a reality in today’s football landscape.
Best: Tackling, and the Lack Thereof (part deux)
Last week I mentioned how refreshing it was seeing the other team (in that case, ND) miss some crucial tackles while UM largely wrapped up quickly. Well, count both Funchess’s and Chesson’s TDs as beneficiaries of some dodgy tackling by the Zips. By comparison, UM typically tackled guys at contact, though Jourdan Lewis had a pretty bad “tackle” of Pohl as he rushed for a first down late in the game. There were also the coverage issues with the corners and linebackers, especially in the middle of the field where D’Orazio was seemingly open all day. This definitely felt like a gameplan limitation, at least initially, but it was troubling that late in the game receivers were able to get open in the secondary with players trailing them by 2-3 yards.
Worst: Hitting Reset
Last week I waxed poetically about Gardner being a modern-day unstoppable video game QB, UM’s answer to Michael Vick circa Madden 2004. He was like UTG Trevor Siemian crossed with a mongoose, and it was glorious. Like Vick in the game, it just felt unfair to have him on your team, and to talk about him in front of your vanquished opponent is to welcome scorn and possibly some shoving.
Well, against Akron people saw the other side of the videogame analogy: when the computer “cheats” and everything that could possibly go wrong does. Suddenly, your all-world QB can’t complete a pass except to the other team, your RB can’t get a yard beyond the line of scrimmage, you are getting called for penalties on any positive play, and even digital Texas’s GERG thinks you are playing too soft defensively. By the time a defensive end houses an interception off a screen pass, you’re diving for the reset button while cursing Alan Turing and his stupid face.
Of course, in real life that’s just the third quarter of the game, and you still have to watch and hope that somehow, someway your team figures it all out enough to pull out a victory. Against Akron, Gardner and the offense did just enough in the end for the win, and on a seemingly snakebitten game they can lick their wounds and give it another shot.
Best: Even YMRMFSPA had Bad Games
So the Vince Young analogies have been trotted out for Devin since his game against Northwestern, and with his improvisational skills, strong arm, and galloping strides it is hard not to see a bit of the college star in him. Unfortunately, Gardner also showed the same characteristics that drove Texas fans crazy early on in Young’s career, with 4 turnovers, including a TaINT, and some happy feet that resulted in missed receptions and poor throws. If you check out Young’s gamelog from his first full season, you’ll see the same tantalizing mix of promise and growing pains: 5 TDs against no turnovers against Texas Tech following 8/23 for 86 yards against Oklahoma and 3/9 with 2INTs against Missouri. After those games, people we calling for Chance Mock to play at QB, and if that name doesn’t ring a bell it’s because he didn’t do anything to make people forget about Young. People in A2 forget this because of the game Young had against the Wolverines in the Rose Bowl, but Young finished with a 12:11 ratio on the season and had some tough performances even in wins. The next year he emerged as a breakthrough player and led Texas to the title.
I’m not saying Gardner is going to do that, but this game was a reminder of how fickle and infuriating the maturation process can be at times, and that the same player can have a stinker like today AND a performance against ND without there being anything wrong with him. I suspect he’ll play better next week, but regardless of his performance it won’t change this past game or how the future plays out. Every game is another data point, and sometimes you don’t realize there are outliers until time and distance it provides have given you some perception. Gardner wasn’t a Heisman winner after last week and he’s not a bum after this one, but instead a work in progress like the rest of the team.
I’m wheeling out my extra-tall soapbox now, so if you don’t want to hear my complain about fandom in general and UM followers in particular, feel free to skip to the next section.
What has always driven me crazy about the fandom in sports is the moralizing and dime-store psychoanalysis people place on players’ motivations. A team plays well and people lionize the “heart” shown by the winners while questioning that of the loser. Every down and distance becomes a Greek tragedy played out with a pigskin, and we want to equate higher meaning with 3rd-down conversions and missed blocks. But that’s the thing – it’s just a game, and teams win and lose, players play well or poorly, for reasons that have nothing to do with their moral fiber or ability to “lead” men.
Both during and after the game, there was a contingent of fans who tried to make the game a referendum on these players. They questioned the leadership displayed by Taylor Lewan apparently not getting the line “up” to block, as if Kalis, Miller, and Glasgow would have held their blocks if only they had cared more. Gardner threw INTs not because he made a bad read or had a bit of bad luck, but because he wasn’t a leader out there and his receivers didn’t have confidence in him. And in the postgame, when both Lewan and Gardner said they promised a better effort next week, people on the blog questioned their motives and suggested they had “heard this before” and UM still lost, proving that fans shouldn’t operate heavy machinery following a game because their blindness will undoubtedly cause accidents.
Sports were oftentimes used as stand-ins for battle both in real life as well as in narrative devices; we speak of “warriors of the gridiron” and its bond with iconography of good vs. evil and right vs. wrong is hard to ignore. But in the end, sport is just a game, with winners and losers according to the rules of the contest. To try to derive some greater meaning from it, to look deep into a man’s soul on a 3-yard run at the end of the game and hope to identify his humanity, is a foolish exercise. I know people will continue to act this way long after I’m cold and in the ground, but I still hope that one day sports will be treated as the athletic contests they are, not the day of reckoning some yearn for them to embody.
Best: Quick Hits
A couple of points that aren’t really worth their own sections:
- I thought the secondary played okay, though the middle of the field was open seemingly for days at a time. They also seemed to line up yards off receivers that didn’t seem able to really beat them in a race. And to Akron’s credit, a couple of long receptions were the result of good throws; the one where I believe Taylor was beaten down the sideline in the 4th quarter by Smith was a great throw as much as any failure by the coverage. That said, surprised Lewis got the nod over Stribling out there, especially given the size differences.
- Al Borges called a decent enough game in my opinion, though he seemed afraid of running the veer too much early on even though Akron had no answer. The inability of the line to run block certainly didn’t help; when UM needed yards late in the game they ran directly behind Lewan, which was obviously a positive but not great news for your inside running game.
- I remain puzzled that Hoke did not go for it at 4-and-1 on UM’s 45 early on in the 4th quarter. The numbers say putning is the right call, but one yard with Gardner in the gun seems quite doable. I’m not a big fan of “momentum”, but getting a yard there gives UM a fresh set of downs and doesn’t put the ball on the foot of your admittedly-skittish punter who proceeded to shank the ball anyway. Plus, I believe this was right after Akron nearly blocked the last punt.
- Norfleet appears to have lost return privileges at least on punts, with Dileo back there in the second half. That feels about right; I know Norfleet has shown great potential, but he continues to make the routine catches scary and still doesn’t seem to have a great sense of how to handle returns. And with Dileo back there, it allowed the BTN announcers to talk about how he can run in space. Because if there is one element of Dileo’s game we can ALL agree on, it is his blazing speed in space.
Best: Release the Hounds
The good news is that the UConn Huskies are an absolute tire-fire and UM should be rather motivated heading into the Cabella’s parking lot er Husky Stadium next week. I hope for everyone’s sake it is a short game and next week’s recap is “Best: Everything.”
The Michigan Daily article linked below talks about how Frank Clark and Taylor Lewan are going head-to-head in practice with Lewan dominating in the Spring but things looking much more even now. Brian alluded to this in his d-line preview, but if the competition during practice between Frank Clark and Lewan is really getting anywhere close to equal than I have high hopes for him this season. Going against a future first rounder would either be really discouraging, or make you a much better player. It seems like the latter is the case for Clark. Here's the link:
This may not be news, but the article also says Johnson is backing up Toussaint.
He is such a polished speaker and brillian representative of the school, but there's gotta be a point where he's like, "really?"
"Big Ten Championship."