...talks about how UConn hasn't been in contact and how they're out. (HT: UMHoops)
The Difference: A statistical and eyeball comparison of the '11 and '12 seasons
After a disappointing end to a disappointing season I found myself looking for answers beyond "Al Borges just doesn't know how to use Denard!" and "ESSSSSEEEEEECEEEEEE!" I was curious what, if anything, tangibly separated the two-loss BCS Bowl winning season of yesteryear from the five-loss fumble that saw us fall to (almost) everyone that had a legitimate chance to beat us. Of course, obvious is obvious, and the schedule was unkind, but what else happened? And what does it mean for 2013?
|1st Downs (Rush - Pass - Penalty)||112 - 113 - 24||116 - 101 - 20|
|Rushing (Att - Yds - Avg - TD)||502 - 2389 - 4.76 - 27||514 - 1957 - 3.81 - 9|
|Pass (Att - Comp - % - INT - TD)||318 - 169 - 53.1% - 19 - 20||330 - 198 - 60.0% - 7 - 16|
|Total Offense (Att - Avg - Yds)||820 - 6.07 - 4980||844 -4.93 - 4160|
|Punt Returns (Att - Avg - TD)||16 - 8.81 - 0||20 - 10.15 - 1|
|Kick Returns (Att - Avg - TD)||42 - 22.05 - 0||48 - 23.25 - 0|
|Punting (Att - Avg)||44 - 42.59||58 - 42.36|
|INT (# - Yds - TD)||7 - 127 - 1||19 - 225 - 2|
|Fumbles (# - Lost)||17 - 8||22 - 11|
|Penalties (# - Yds)||62 - 641||84 - 719|
|Time of Possession||30:10.38||29:49.62|
|3rd Down (Att - %)||173 - 50.29%||178 - 35.96%|
|4thd Down (Att - %)||13 - 69.23%||21 - 42.86%|
|Red Zone (Att - %)||46 - 93.48%||42 - 80.95%|
|FG (Att - Conv - %)||21 - 18 - 85.7%||30 - 21 - 70%|
|PATS (Att - %)||46 - 100%||25 - 100%|
|2 Pt (Att - Conv - %)||2 - 0 - 0%||3 - 1 - 33%|
|Record (Home / Away)||6-0 / 2-5||0-6 / 5-2|
|1st Downs (Rush - Pass - Penalty)||148 - 97 -25||94 - 115 - 15|
|Rushing (Att - Yds - Avg - TD)||560 - 2884 - 5.15 - 31||429 - 1712 - 3.99 - 14|
|Pass (Att - Comp - % - INT - TD)||284 - 155 - 54.6% - 16 - 22||374 - 221 - 59.1% - 9 - 12|
|Total Offense (Att - Avg - Yds)||844 - 6.23 - 5261||803 - 5.22 - 4188|
|Punt Returns (Att - Avg - TD)||22 - 9.00 - 0||21 - 9.19 - 0|
|Kick Returns (Att - Avg - TD)||35 - 18.43 - 0||57 - 21.44 - 0|
|Punting (Att - Avg)||46 - 38.04||66 - 39.70|
|INT (# - Yds - TD)||9 - 163 - 1||16 - 121 - 1|
|Fumbles (# - Lost)||19 - 6||25 - 20|
|Penalties (# - Yds)||53 - 458||92 - 802|
|Time of Possession||31:15.15||27:28.31|
|3rd Down (Att - %)||168 - 47.02%||173 - 36.42%|
|4thd Down (Att - %)||17 - 58.82%||21 - 38.1%|
|Red Zone (Att - %)||58 - 84.48%||41 - 68.29%|
|FG (Att - Conv - %)||17 - 13 - 76.5%||15 - 12 - 80%|
|PATS (Att - %)||55 - 98.2%||26 - 100%|
|2 Pt (Att - Conv - %)||1 - 0%||1 - 100%|
|Record (Home / Away)||8-0 / 3-2||0-8 / 2-3|
A lot of this is just useless numbers; much of the difference can be attributed to quality of opponent and the number of road games. A quick look at the non-conference schedule basically has Alabama replacing Western Michigan and Air Force replacing San Diego State--both significant--with UMass roughly equivalent to EMU and ND = ND. That said, ND and 'Bama are #1 and #2, and both of those games were away from the Big House. Ohio is now coached by one of the top 3 coaches in the game (like him or not) instead Finkel and Einhorn. Taylor Martinez learned how to throw. Denard got hurt. Blah, blah, blah.
But I do believe there are some golden nuggets (or perhaps corn nuggets, depending on your half-full/half-empty attitude on Monday Morning) that help explain what went wronger (to quote Kanye) this year. Here are the highlights:
- Turnovers. It's more more than a little disturbing that our turnover margin went from +7 to -9. I did not realize the difference was so vast. This is a -16 swing in the margin category, and could explain the difference in our success all by itself. One of the huge factors here was our mythical fumble recovery rate in 2011; we scooped-up 80% of our opponents dropsies last year and returned to a normal 50% this year. If you replace last year's fumble recovery rate with this year's, however, the difference between the two margins is still is -8.5. We forced more fumbles last year, had two more INTs, and threw three fewer INTs. Not having Countess certainly factored-in here, and I have a conspiracy theory that I will reveal later about the INTs.
- Rushing. It is inconceivable that Borges got dumberer between this season and last. With a year under his belt and an off-season to think about ways to use Denard more effectively, I was hoping for better. That said, the O-line performance was dramatically different. RR is quoted as saying that Molk was worth two wins; I'm sure I did not believe that when I read it, and I'm sure I do believe it now. The Barnum & Mealer circus on the interior O-line did us no favors here, and my conspiracy theory factors in as well.
- Passing. This, to me, is one of the pivot points. I was shocked to see that our 2012 passer rating was actually lower than 2011. Where is the DG effect? Well, it's there. DG posted an astounding 161.66 rating in 2012, with 9.7 yds/att. That puts him in elite company. Only five teams posted better passer ratings than DG this season -- Georgia, 'Bama, San Jose State, Clemson, and West Virginia, and only Georgia had a higher yds/att. Denard's rating, on the other hand, dropped from 139.73 to 126.63. This is a sizeable decrease in rating, and makes no sense when you consider Borges' history of improving passers. Some of this can be attributed to a weaker O-line, but I believe the lion's share is more about...
- CONSPIRACY THEORY. During the off-season and before the 'Bama game, I often said that I believed our success in 2012 would hinge on Denard's progress as a passer. With a year of Big Al's grooming, I was sure Denard would take at least a large step forward, if not a leap. There was no doubt in my mind that using slants, curls, and other quick routes to some effect would open-up some much needed space for Denard to be Denard without 8-9 defenders keying on him. This, of course, didn't happen. Why not? Here is my theory: Denard's nerve injury was affecting him all season long. My evidence is certainly not conclusive, but we do know that Denard had dealt with numbness in his throwing hand in previous seasons, and we are certain that the play on which the nerve finally said "UNCLE!" against Nebraska looked super-ultra-mega-hyper-tetra-uber-harmless. Further evidence showed-up in Denard's passing, even early on. Against 'Bama he missed some easy slants in the first quarter that had been his bread-and-butter in previous years, and his downfield passing was bad this year even if you count Taco Pants as an eligible receiver. I do not believe that Junior Hemingway would have helped Denard much this year; his passing was just bad. And I do not believe that our WRs were that much worse this year. My theory is that Denard's ulnar nerve degraded during camp, and even more so during the season, and that what happened at Nebraska was simply the final straw. Don't get me wrong--I don't think they were giving him cortizone shots just so he could play, but I do believe the injury may have been affecting him all season and the subtle difference it made significantly impacted Denard's already shaky passing ability. The silver lining here is that Denard was never going to be an NFL QB, and now that is not even an option. He's also had almost half of a season to learn how to play not QB (not sure what position he did learn, though) and I look forward to watching him on Sundays.
- Defense. Both the stats and the eyeballs tell you that the defense was not significantly different year-over-year. That said, eight fewer sacks and 11 fewer turnovers are game-changing differences, and while quality of opponent is a factor here, so is luck (fumble recoveries), injuries (Countess), and pass rush (RVB, Martin). It simply is not fair to lay all of the blame for this year's record at the feet of the offense--the defense did not create enough turnovers. The defense MUST make more game-changing plays in 2013 if we are going to have a successful (B1G Championship) season.
- Schedule. Obvious is obvious, but it's worth mentioning that while Hoke hasn't yet lost at the Big House, he's 5-7 on the road. Yuck.
Outlook and mandatory 2013 predictions:
Extrapolating the data points and eyeball examinations leads to lots of different conclusions: some pretty obvious, some hopeful, and some "I have no freakin' idea where that came from." Of course, since this is an internet blog, I'll give you all of them, even though they are entirely amateur. But as a sort of CYA disclaimer, I'll add a DGuarantee 1-5 scale: 5 meaning you can bet the farm it will happen, and 1 being more like a Mayan calendar-type prediction.
- Offense: 3. This one lands squarely in the middle on the DGuarantee scale, which is about as courageous Lloyd Carr on 4th down, but my reasoning (excuse) is solid. I believe you can bet all of your possessions and everything in East Lansing that our passing game will be vastly improved next season. Give that a 5. DG will have a full year to play QB, and he will be the man for the whole year. He was playing at a high level this season, and loses only Roy Roundtree as a WR. While I do love Roy, I believe the incoming Darboh/Chesson effect will more than replace his production. Gallon, who ended the year on a tear, will be a year better and will be dominant. Dileo is The Threat. The O-line is a little bit questionable, but Schofield will hold his own at LT in the passing the game, and given the talent we have replacing the other four spots, I just don't see a dramatic drop-off in pass-blocking performance. There will be some head-scratching sacks as freshmen act like freshmen and do some matador-style blocking on missed assignments, but we had plenty of that this year too, and DG is good on the run. The running game is a 1. I don't have a freakin' clue. It's not going to have Denard anymore, and that's obviously a blow. But it will also be rid of the interior O-line, and will filled with huge, strong, talented players. My prediction here based on flimsy evidence is that our YPC stays in the same 4.75 neighborhood (putting us around 40th nationally) but includes fewer big plays (Denard, duh) and far fewer negative plays. The RB situation is as big a question mark as the O-line--Rawls showed promise but never more than that, Hayes really hasn't had a chance yet, and Toussaint was pretty lousy before his Tarantino-esque injury. Is Drake Johnson going to prove the rating services wrong (I doubt it)? Is Norfleet a DB for good (probably)? There is a very good chance that Derrick Green and Deveon Smith are both on the depth chart next year, and freshmen are always a question mark. All-in-all I expect our total production to look similar to this year in yards, points, and 3rd down conversions. RANDOM SIDE NOTE: Say what you will about Al Borges, the guy converts 3rd downs. Michigan was 6th(!!!) nationally this year, and two teams ahead of us were MWC and CUSA flukes. Only Texas A&M, Oklahoma, and Clemson were better in the real world.
- Defense: 4. Yum Yum. Even setting aside the fact that our schedule is much more favorable in 2013, I believe our defense is poised to take a big step forward. Only 5 players are coming off of the entire depth chart, and, while all five were starters, only Kovacs was irreplaceable. Campbell's back-up at DT (Black) might be an upgrade, and the depth with the 2012 and 2013 recruting classes is solid. Craig Roh has a veritable platoon of capable back-ups, headlined by Keith Heitzman, with Wormley and Strobel right behind, to say nothing of the 2013 class. Demens' experience gives way to Bolden's athleticism and instincts (and plenty of snaps) with Ross and RJS available as well. JT Floyd + Raymon Taylor < Blake Countess + Raymon Taylor, and the depth should be FAR better in 2013, with another year of experience for everyone else and an absurdly good recruiting class. Kovacs is the guy that we'll miss the most; his leadership, intelligence, and fearlessness were invaluable. But his replacement will be bigger, faster, and stronger, and Jarrod Wilson got some snaps this year and Furman and M-Rob are waiting in the wings. This is, without a doubt, the most concerning position, as inexperience at safety often equals big plays for the opposition. That said, Beyer, Clark, and Ojemudia are all back at WDE and I believe they'll actually produce a pass rush next year. Black was on a hotstreak at the end of the season can really get after the passer. QWash is a beast and has Pee Wee behind him; Jake Ryan is, well, JMFR. Morgan has turned into a very good player whom I believe is NFL-bound, and T. Gordon returns at safety to hopefully create turnovers ala 2011. I expect both the run defense and the pass defense to improve, the latter more than the former. I think point and yardage averages similar to 2011 will return, with more takeaways than in 2012, and double-digit INTs for the first time under Hoke/Mattison. The only thing keeping this from a 5 is the youth and Kovacs effect.
- Special Teams: 4. What's sad about our 2012 special teams is that they were almost universally better than our 2011 effort and still weren't very good. Our punt return average would be about 40th, but we don't return very many punts (damn you spread punt!). Norfleet was 47th in kick returns. I have to say that of all of Hoke's units, this is the least impressive. But The (other) Threat returns in Brendan Gibbons, and Matt Wile is a more than capable back-up at both K and P, and could start if Hagerup gets kicked-off the team (and I believe he will). Our kick and punt coverage is okay; the guys playing there were mostly young, so I expect improvement.
- Overall: 4. Depending on how you define success, this is either a 5 or a 3. I took the average. If success is more than wins than 2012, it's a 5. The schedule alone should get us two more wins. If success is winning the B1G, it's a 3. The uncertainty at O-line and RB is too much to overcome what should be a much improved passing game and a better defense. Even though the schedule is easier, we still have to beat Ohio and Nebraska at home and Penn State and MSU at on the road. And don't sleep on Northwestern. That said, the non-conference schedule is marshmellow soft and should give the younger players some time to find their rhythm, and opening conference play with Minnesota at home is generous. I believe the biggest hurdles are Nebraska and Ohio, and Nebraska doesn't have to play Ohio (stupid divisions!) but does have Penn State on the road (as do we). The good news on the Corn Huskers side is that they will have faced no one that is good at football before they come to our place; Northwestern the previous week will be the closest thing.
The final verdict is that I believe we finish 9-3, with our youth showing-up just enough to keep us out of the B1G Championship game as Ohio looks poised to win the conference. I think we'll lose to Ohio, and 2 more losses coming from possibly ND, Nebraska, MSU, Penn State, or Northwestern. All that said, a 10-2 finish with losses only to ND and Ohio is very possible, and 11-1 is not out of the question. Beating Ohio is certainly not an impossibility, but I'm not confident a team as young as ours will be next year can go undefeated, and beating them twice seems pretty daunting (a re-match with Ohio in the Championship game seems like a lock if we're able to get there). Our bowl game is anywhere from the Rose to the Outback; with a BCS NCG (at the Rose) an unlikely outlier. 2014 has road games at Nebraska, Ohio, and Notre Dame, but the team should be in full gear by then, and that is when I expect Hoke to raise another banner and challenge for the NCG.