Mike Lantry, 1972
Yesterday rumors of Gabe Watson being "suspended" for "being the size of an aircraft carrier" popped up on Michigan message boards. This, of course, set off an absolutely tremendous wave of bitching about everything from Watson's girth to Carr being a pansy to that damn jug Yost insists on winning back next year and how the sun is weak and cold, not like the sun you got in the old days, now that was a sun, and when we had a quagmire we had a proper quagmire, not this running around in the desert going yip business, where's my cane yer bastard.
Lost in the wash is this: Watson and company were astoundingly good last year at shutting off the run. Tremendous. Outstanding. Tremendously outstanding. How can I say that given Stanton, Young, Smith, Cobb, Maroney, etc? Follow me on a magical journey of discovery.
It is my contention that Michigan's defensive line, led by Watson, was one of the best in the country at stopping the run. The problem was everyone else.
Axiom 1: Watson was not at fault against the mobile quarterbacks of OSU, MSU, or Texas. The USS Watson cannot be counted on to track down quarterbacks. He is a defensive tackle charged with clogging the middle of the field and consuming anyone who he happens across. Quarterback runs that go up the middle are essentially always draws, and there will be a hole. Someone must fill it.
Axiom 2: Watson was not at fault for the multiple long runs Michigan gave up. Three long touchdowns came from the DeAndra Cobb counter draw, which was used successfully in three consecutive games. Again, this is an outside run that Watson has no responsibility on. Its consistent ability to burn the Michigan defense is entirely on the linebackers and safeties. mgoblog remembers the draw being run against Michigan six to eight times. Three of those runs: 72 yard Cobb touchdown, 64 yard Cobb touchdown, 68 yard Noah Herron touchdown. Michigan stopped it once or twice, the other few times it went for 15 or 20 yards. Likewise, Laurence Maroney's 80 yard touchdown run in the Minnesota game isn't Watson's fault past the ten or so yards Maroney got before blowing by an out-of-position safety.
It's mgoblog's contention that only the first five to ten yards a running back gains can be attributed to the defensive line, if that. In the case of the counter draw, the first person with an opportunity to make a tackle on that play is almost invariably going to be a linebacker or safety, if any ever felt like showing up. Football Outsiders encapsulates this thinking nicely in something they call "line yards," which is essentially the previous paragraph in number form: all long rushes are hacked down to ten yards and averaged. FO also has an "adjusted line yards" stat which adjusts for down, distance, score, and opponent quality. Sorry, but mgoblog ain't crazy enough to do that by hand.
But he is crazy enough to take a whack at the unadjusted variety. FO's line yards stat also excludes all quarterback runs under the assumption that if you aren't named "Vick"... well, let them say it:
"Under the assumption that there are very few runs called for quarterbacks not named "Vick," the directional rushing statistics do not include QB runs. They also don't include runs by wide receivers, since these are mostly trick plays and reverses that don't depend on conventional offensive line blocking."
This assumption is much more problematic for the college game, but we're going to go with it anyway, because what we're trying to measure here is the ability of a defensive line to combat an offensive line on a conventional running play. In my opinion, very few quarterback runs test this battleground. Many are scrambles and still more are run/pass option bootlegs. mgoblog firmly believes that if you're getting overrun by quarterbacks, that's on the linebackers and safeties.
Mr. Number The Indisputable says this: if you wade through Michigan's schedule from last year, excise all runs from quarterbacks (note that this include sacks) and normalize all long runs to ten yards, this is what you get:
For comparison's sake, the NFL average is 3.5, and the best team in said league last year, Washington, averaged 2.82 unadjusted line yards per carry. Michigan probably played a relatively weak schedule compared to NFL teams since college is generally less balanced a playing field, but mgoblog is willing to bet that Michigan's adjusted line yards would still be amazing and amongst the top five in the country.
Two years ago Minnesota detonated for over 400 rushing yards against Michigan; last year they had one big Maroney run and 109 yards on 38 carries. The difference? Gabe Watson instead of Grant Bowman. Don't believe the hype about not believing the hype: Watson did exactly what he was supposed to. A run on first and ten was usually second and nine. If he improves not one iota this year, he should be an All-American. He is unmovable.