"It's a lot easier being a drug dealer than an AAU coach" - this guy. Tell me something I don't know. I mean, don't think but have never tried either.
Author Note: Jump to Ecclesiastes 1:5 to roll right into more analytical thinking. No, no preaching here…well maybe a little.
Author Note 2: Additional data for historical context of Michigan achievement patterns added in Back to the Future section before the Penn State recovery discussion.
In 9th grade, I had just arrived in Ann Arbor after spending two years abroad. It was January, right before mid-term exams or some other teapot tempest of youth, and I sat there in 9th grade English class watching a lesson plan, ahem, about a story the class had apparently read and discussed a few days before. Skeletor, as the other kids called her due to her impossibly gaunt physique as well as the fact that her face had no skin or muscle on it, was at her desk doing whatever, looking up only when the conversations got loud enough to distract her.
I think I was the only one watching the movie, maybe that mousy girl was too, because I had no friends to talk to since I had just arrived in Ann Arbor ad I had to pass the time somehow. Either that or I was a hopeless social outcast, which, absurd. Anyway, besides being bored out of my effing mind, all that I remember was thinking, "Damn, that kid's pretty tough."
The movie was a film adaptation of Ernest J. Gaines's short story "The Sky is Gray". The story is set deep in the segregated south of the '30s or '40s and was first published in 1963 and so it is dense with racial and social themes, but the reason the story stuck with me had nothing to do with any of that. I remember it because of the dignity and poise Gaines's characters displayed in that story. Especially Octavia the mother of the 8 year old protagonist, James.
There are many episodes from which to draw but the most vivid for me comes towards the end of the story as Octavia and James are headed home. They're standing outside and a cold gust of wind causes James to flip his collar in an vain attempt to keep the wind's bite off his neck. I still have never been able to reconcile the fact the story was set in a cold winter in Louisiana, but whatever, poetic license, suspended disbelief, and all that. Anyway, Octavia tells him to put his collar down by saying something like "...only bums do that. And you're not a bum. You're a man." Then she stands there stoic, eyes up, shoulders back pinching the brim of her hat so it wouldn’t blow off.
From time to time, I'll see or hear something that reminds of that story and this time it was a Ohio State v. Michigan hype video of all things. In the video, chunkums opens with Rudyard Kipling's poem “If” set to music and images. The whole poem is dead on point for Michigan's situation right now, both the fan base and Rich Rodriguez. Frankly I can’t help but relate that poem to other things around me: the Big Three, the World Economy, Detroit. These lines are particularly compelling:
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: "Hold on";
Tales from the Dorkside: Guernica in Maize
[Editor's note: bumped. At this rate I'm going to be a spectator around these parts soon.]
Herein lies data. For those readers who prefer to skip my right brained musings in a tenacious fit to resist all culture and proceed directly to the left-brained portion of the show proceed to the So, How Goes It? section. Ahem…
The fallout from Michigan’s catastrophic failure against Illinois has left in its wake a fan base wretched in suffering. And anger. And chaos. And despair. A veritable Guernica in Maize. Pablo Picasso’s renowned painting might as well have been painted in the aftermath of last Saturday’s loss. The centerpiece of the painting features Michigan’s Defense (the horse) in the throes of death complete with Juice Williams as javelin gashing it right up the middle, exposing the gaping wound that is Michigan’s defensive barracks.
All of the major players are shown:
- Terrorized souls engulfed in the inferno of buyer’s remorse (far right).
- Horrified and confused onlookers (center right).
- Dismembered soldiers , also known as The Legend of Tate Forcier: Heisman Freshman ;complete with shattered sword (bottom).
- Grieving mother clutching the lifeless corpse of her child (read.: hope; far left).
Even the Eye of Mordor (read: FreeP) is represented (top). Not to mention that weird looking bull thing with fire coming out of it’s butt (left). I guess that’s Brian?
Anyway, Such a scene makes the reasonable observer wonder—what is up the suck? Misopogon has thoroughly sifted through the immediately obvious symptoms of poor defensive play and walk-on starters to provide tremendous insight into the plight of the defense. He has emphatically demonstrated the task Rich Rodriguez and his man Greg Robinson have in front of them if they are to their save their jobs and save Ann Arbor from burning: fix the defense. Accomplishing this will not be easy and it will test Rodriguez’s mettle as a head coach. And it will take time.
So how goes it?
I think reasonable people would agree that it’s not yet time to render a final verdict…at least as far as the defense is concerned. So let’s focus on what is reasonable to evaluate Rodriguez on at this point in time: offensive production. He’s had ample time to demonstrate core competencies in his area of expertise. He’s recruited his guys, has a reasonable amount of talent depth (inexperienced or not), and has had a reasonable amount of time to install his system.
The prototype I’m using as the model of what the performance of what a good offense should be will be the unit RR replaced, 2007 Michigan. That team had the requisite talent and experience at every single position: an offensive line that featured two three time lettermen (Jake Long- RS Sr. and Adam Kraus-RS Sr.), a three time letterman at QB (Chad Henne, Sr), a three time letterman at RB (Mike Hart, Sr), and three 2-time letterman at WR (Mario Manningham, Jr; Adrian Arrington, Sr; Greg Mathews, So). That’s as good a squad that a coach can ask for.
While the schemes employed by that offense are drastically different from what is currently being used at Michigan, the differences are irrelevant. Either is suitable for executing the mission: move the ball down the field and score points.
For the sake of thoroughness, I’ll stack them up against 2006 Michigan as well. Largely the same cast of characters but with fewer injuries. Reasonable or not, this level of production is what all Michigan fans desire or expect.
To evaluate the units I’m turning to very basic and universal categories.
Plays per Drive
This is a tempo-neutral possession metric. Evaluating Rich Rodriguez’s offense by time of possession is misleading since his philosophy is explicitly unconcerned with that metric. However, all offensive schemes seek to run as many plays as they can until they score. So, this metric also allows us to evaluate execution at a base level as well. Plays-per-drive allows us to compare different schemes to each other.
The calculation of average and standard deviation for this metric omits the highest (yellow) and lowest (red) game averages since yards per drive are highly correlated with the strength of the opposing defense. The presumption here is that one good or bad game is a fluke. Games against markedly inferior competition (blue) have been omitted regardless of game outcome. Ahem.
What we see here is that Michigan 2009 has in fact improved over 2008 in this particular metric both in average plays per drive as well as in the standard deviation of this metric. However, 2009 lags 2006 and 2007 a little in regards to average but matches the 2006 campaign in terms of consistency. The average part is not very surprising.
The benchmarks have significant advantages over 2009 in terms of personnel and experience. However, the consistency part is a bit of a surprise. This year’s team, freshmen QBs, botched snaps, and miscellaneous turnovers included is as consistent as the 2006 unit and more consistent than the 2007 unit. Anyone who has had to improve a process knows that you get rid of deviation first, and then you shift the mean. In this case, there is the good fortune of the mean shifting on its own via player maturity.
Yards per PlayThis is a category of raw production. This is more in line with offensive strategic objectives such as controlling field position, getting into scoring position, and so on. Again, the high, low, and inapplicable data points have been omitted from the calculations of average and standard deviation.
Through the games played so far, the 2009 offense has improved significantly over the 2008 team and matches the production of the 2007 team. It is also the most consistent offense captured.
Points per Drive
The bottom line. Is the offense pulling its weight in the “outscore your opponent” equation? Again, the high, low, and inapplicable data points have been omitted from the calculations of average and standard deviation.
Once again, through the games played so far, the 2009 offense has improved significantly over the 2008 team, which was consistently bad, and beats the production of the 2007 team in terms of drive average and consistency. 2009 lags 2006 in terms of average but again, 2006 is a stout benchmark.
The TakeawayDespite its glaring and soul dong punching deficiencies, the 2009 offense stacks up surprisingly well to arguably the best offensive unit Michigan has seen in approximately two decades, probably more like four, and maybe even six. DECADES(!). And significant low hanging fruit remains (turnovers).
Regardless, after games like last Saturday’s we are right to break out the compasses and maps and graphing calculators to reevaluate just where the heck are we, exactly?
Here's where we are:
- Tate Forcier is a FRESHMAN who has played in EIGHT games.
- The rest of the offense are de facto true sophomores who have only shown signs of effectiveness in about 14 games.
- The defense does not have the breadth or depth of personnel necessary to meet the Michigan standard.
Recognizing that we have a major vulnerability in defensive personnel is in no way a slight against the Lloyd Carr stewardship. It is simple root cause diagnosis. And, maybe RichRod can tweak a thing or two or three, here and there and over there. But, to suggest that the team has made no progress is simple ignorance at best and dubious ignorance at worst.
There is a big difference between excusing and explaining…that difference is responsibility. RichRod is responsible for his record, but its only fair to give him more time to hold him accountable as well. Forging the program into a consistent winner requires Rodriguez to demonstrate the full gamut of the requisite core competencies needed to be a successful chief executive in an elite college football program: excellent recruiting, excellent motivating, and excellent personnel evaluation(coaches and players), and excellent focus. If he succeeds, he will have vindicated Bill Martin decision and earned the respect of many. If he wins it all, he will be the next Bo Schembechler.
Godspeed, RichRod. Godspeed.
[Editorial take: I don't think things are quite as sunny as the numbers suggest; in the comments it's noted that adjustments were not made for outliers like turnovers and special teams items. Michigan's gotten great production out of Olesnavage and Stonum this year. Also, Michigan has yet to face the #65, #21, and #6 defenses so far this year and will likely see their to-date respectable metrics continue to dip below the okay production of the 2006 and 2007 teams. The 2006 team was pretty good but only 38th in total offense and 26th in scoring. It may have been arguably the best collection of talent at Michigan, but it wasn't exactly set free to roam the plains, its majestic rippling muscles trampling over mascots that dare oppose it. Michigan is approaching the mediocre numbers put up by Mike DeBord.
Even considering that the progress made from year one to year two is obvious.]
Tales from the Dorkside: Rochambeaued Yourself
[EDIT: Updated to include sacks as failed pass attempts. Also corrected calculation error in success tallies. Text edited accordingly]
A basic premise of offensive football is that the single most important objective is to get to the next first down. A good offensive coach will Rochambeau his way to meeting this objective over and over again until either the scoreboard explodes or time expires. Coach Rodriguez has devised an offensive scheme that allows his teams to do just that and we have witnessed its power despite what we all witnessed last Saturday. But, was last Saturday’s performance due to poor execution, poor play selection, or was Penn State’s defense impenetrable?
First Things First
We need some definition for what a successful play is. Like others before me, I think it makes sense to characterize a play’s success based on the requirements at hand. A reasonable proposal is to use a Rolling Stones approach—get what you need. In essence, select plays that have a high probability to help you reach your next first down. Holding another basic premise that fourth down should be avoided the goal schedule by down is 33% on 1st down, 50% on 2nd down, and 100% on 3rd and 4th down; Regardless of the distance to go before the play starts. So, 1st and 10 requires 3 yards, 3rd and 1 requires 1 yard, 2 and 15 requires 8 yards, and so on. There are other ways to do this but, this is simple and fair. Sacks have been counted as failed pass attempts.
Turnovers are counted as a double fault, -1 for the unsuccessful play itself and -1 for the opportunity cost of losing the next play. I thought about an escalator here since presumably a turnover on 1st down is more costly than a turnover on third down, but there’s nothing to say that you won’t turn the ball on the next play, so a successful play only guarantees you the opportunity for one more play. A fumble is faulted regardless of who recovers since recovery is random and the mere opportunity to lose possession is not sexy at all.
Here’s what the breakdown going back to the beginning of the season looks like. Go Go Gadget Chart!
The Cartman column is the Rochambeau Verdict. Thumbs up means I think the play mix made sense as reconciled against the given success rates and thumbs down means I disagree with the play mix. I know, I know…I’m not a coach, but the data speaks for itself. I won’t spend a ton of space explaining everything else as hopefully the chart is fairly easy to understand. So for the reading impatient, I’ll roll straight into bullets.
- The running game is fine; even without David Molk.
- Between a talented freshman QB, a raw and athletic QB, and receivers who have lapses in concentration, the passing game is not ripe.
- A 50 % success ratio as described above seems to be adequate for offensive efficacy. When one phase of the offense dips too far below that Michigan needs to have the other step up or we look like the offense that we’re all trying to forget (2008).
- Going into the season, everyone “knew”* that we should expect Tate to play like a freshman a lot if not most of the time. He’s basically done that for four straight games. I’ll give him a pass on EMU because the running game was so damn dominant that it didn’t matter and he only passed 13 times (the fewest of the season).
- A 2-to-1 run to pass ratio is where it’s at. Again we “knew”* that we should depend on the running game going into the season, you know, because we were going to start a freshman QB and all.
- WMU/ND. Team came out on FIRE. All cylinders firing and no film for opponents to study. The low R/P ratio during ND was ok since both phases were getting it done. ND was a glimpse into the future.
- EMU. We were just better than them. Beat ‘em with one arm tied behind our back.
- INDIANA. First signs that Tate is indeed a true freshman. Passing success rate of 33%. Obviously, he pulled a rabbit out at the end but, uhh…a little close for comfort. Hence green meh-ey face.
- MICHIGAN STATE. They came in with a good game plan…at the expense of a bad game plan;*cough* WISCONSIN *cough*…Whew! ’Scuse me! The slowed down the run significantly and forced the pass offense to execute which they didn't do for most of the game.
- IOWA.Despite Tate’s struggles, the offense was effective and Michigan earned an opportunity to win. The running game was on point and the play mix was run heavy, which made sense. The game came down to a coaching catch 22 where only a victory bails you out but a loss leaves you with some ‘splaining to do. Hard to feel too pissed about losing that game…so long as you’ve finally gotten over the turnovers. I have. Hence, red meh-ey face.
- PENN STATE. Wuh-woah, Cartman wants to kick RichRod in the nuts. The passing game was not sharp, at all, but the R/P ratio was still pass heavy. At least for an instance where the pass game was not sharp and the running game was highly effective.
*scare quotes used because many of us seem to have forgotten that Forcier is a true freshman.
The problem last Saturday was that the scissors weren’t sharp, the paper was soggy, and the rock was…uh…not used enough. Zooming in a layer to the quarter by quarter break down of the Penn State game gives us this chart.
The play calling in the 3rd quarter was, unfortunately, too pass heavy. I suppose that was somewhat understandable being down 15 after the opening possession of the second half. But, there was a lot of time left to make up two scores and the running game was doing well and running is the scheme’s bread and butter and the passing game hadn’t been doing well and you have a true freshman QB. Does that mean Rich Rod sucks? Of course not. It just means that Rich Rod needs to hire a platoon of geeks to crunch data during TV time outs and half time.
In all seriousness though, it felt like we weren’t running the ball enough on Saturday and that’s what prompted me to dig into all this noise. I do have the benefit of hindsight, but even the data available at half time was enough to say that we should have come out running. Whatever, RichRod doesn’t need to explain himself to me and I don’t need or want him to. All coaches will have a lapse in judgment at one time or another and the players also need to be able to execute the plays that are called, regardless of play mix.
Critical and objective observers of last weekend’s game vs Michigan State undoubtedly realize something sucky for Michigan—State was able to put together lessons learned from the previous four games to completely shut down the offense; crappy secondary and all. State showed the rest of the schedule a good first draft blueprint on how to beat Michigan: play keep away (only 10 possessions all game) and stop our bread and butter (the run).These aren’t novel observations and its said before every game, but now it has been done. Opposing Coordinators now only have to implement/tailor a proven game plan. So the imminent question now is, can Iowa execute this plan, and more importantly, is there anything we can do about it?
This is a pretty straightforward proposition and right in Iowa’s wheelhouse: out execute and play ball control offense. The never-ending story of a drive in the first quarter vs. MSU was absolutely huge., soaking up about 2 drives that Michigan and MSU’s opponent normally have in the 1st qtr. A lot of that had to do with exploiting the weaknesses of our defense. At QB Cousins is better, but Stanzi is probably adequate. In the running game Iowa definitely gets the nod; especially when you factor out Cousin’s scrambles last game. Stanzi can at least match what Cousin’s did on the ground against us. MSU probably has better overall receivers, but against our secondary that doesn’t matter much. Boil it all down to: yes, Iowa can play keep away from our offense if we let them.
Iowa most definitely has the ability to shut down a running game. Our guys did not have their best game on Saturday and Iowa has routinely made opposing running backs under perform this year. I adopted a rating CollegeFootball13 came up with in a previous post (like a pass efficiency rating for RBs) then tabulated the relevant data for each of the FBS running backs Iowa has faced. Its basically a clumsier version of what the Mathlete has been doing in his By The Numbers series. I split out the data into two groups, vs. Iowa and vs. others.
Each of the four FBS running backs Iowa has faced this year have under performed against Iowa as compared to their games against other opponents. What’s more is when rated in this way, Carlos Brown and Brandon Minor aren't necessarily better than Reggie Arnold (Ark. St). Ouch.
As for our most recent performance, the most obvious culprit was overall offensive execution through three and a half quarters. MSU’s defense definitely played well against us but our guys did plenty to make them look better than they are. The O-line was out played for sure and State was able to take away the running game. But, when we switched to the passing game our guys were dropping balls left and right, thus preventing any kind of momentum from getting started. Once we started catching balls and built up a head of steam at the end of the game, State had no answers. Again, I’m not saying State didn’t play well just that we didn’t. I’m taking it for granted that the offensive execution and concentration errors that killed us last game will be improved or eliminated for this week’s game.
As for Iowa most impressive victory, I think they benefited from things that are unreliable such as the blocked punt for TD and TERRIBLE QB play (Darryl Clark: 38% completion, 3 INTS). Penn State had four turnovers in the game. This is not to say that we can not possibly turn the ball over; just that turnovers are useful for the opposing defense.
So can we do anything about it? I think there are several things we can do. First, we can play defense like we did against MSU, but with better tackling. The second half specifically look more inspired to me. The play Graham made to force the field goal after the Ruby Punt Fiasco comes to mind. Also Kovacks‘s late game run stopping. If the D plays like that again, we’ll be in good shape.
The second thing we can do is short circuit the keep away strategy by coming out of the gate ridiculously aggressively. If we win the coin flip, we should take the ball then go for the jugular on the first play like Penn St. did vs. Iowa in week 4. How ‘bout opening up 5-wide shotty with Stonum, Hemmingway, Roundtree, Mathews, and Brown in the slot? Boom, Forciered. Then dial up a squib on side kick like MSU did vs. Notre Dame in week 3 on the ensuing kickoff. A failed recovery puts pressure on our D to come up with a stop from mid field, but I think they can handle that pressure especially if they know it’s coming early in the game. If we lose the coin flip, sell out for a quick 3 and out then execute the plan as previously stated. The overriding objective is to force Iowa into a shoot out and take the air out of Kinnick before anyone knows what hit ‘em. Getting Stanzi into a shootout would be a great start to the game.
The last thing, better execution on offense. No eff ups on snaps. Minimize ineffective blocks (see Huyge v.Jones @5:17 in the 2nd Qtr vs MSU). No dropped passes. None if this is magic and its all stuff we're perfectly capable of and have done before.
I think we have what it takes to beat the Hawkeyes, and we've done it before against reasonably comparable competition (Defense v MSU; Offense v Notre Dame). We just have to put it all together in a cohesive package of win.
After putting together the data for the Point per Field Position post I put up earlier, I realized that I could Frankenstein the data into a projection for the game score. What follows is method and result. I'll skip the gory details because they're boring.
Nothing spectacular, going with equal parts offense and defense. So if Michigan’s Offense scores an average of 2 points per possession from a certain sector and State’s Defense gives up 3 points per possession, the expected value used would be 2.5 points per possession. The result of this operation is Michigan scoring at an aggregated 2.7 points per possession and State at 2.2 ppp. Expected Number of possessions
Michigan has been averaging 14 possessions per game where as State has been averaging 12 possessions per game. Same idea as the method to generate performance expectations; using 13 possessions in a 4 quarter game.
Giving State a home field advantage of 3 points we end up with this: Michigan 35, Michigan State 31. This lines up pretty closely with Brian's and The Mathlete's projections so it'll be interesting to see how it turns out.Hmmm
There is another way of assembling the numbers that has beating State by 10 (38 -28)based on performance during drives not starting via a special teams play such as fumbles, interceptions, missed field goal attempts, and turnover on downs. But, I dont know if doing what I did was fair so I'm just tossing it out there for fun. WEE!
For obvious reasons, field position is critically important to the success of a football team. This is a timeless fact. Teams starting with poor field position have a tougher time scoring because they must move the ball further to get into scoring position. Football geeks wearing green eyeshades and helicopter caps such as myself talk about an obscure stat related to this; I’m not sure it even has a name. I’ll refer to it as points per field position, meaning the average number of points a team has scored (or allowed) from a given starting field position. I thought it’d be interesting to look at this week’s matchup through this prism. For this analysis I’ve split the field into 25 yard chunks for simplicity’s sake and also to boost statistical significance. I’ve excluded Montana St. from MSU’s dataset since they are an FCS opponent and therefore not worthy of analytical scrutiny. I keed…not really. Onward
Advantage: Push with a nod to Michigan. The reason I say push is that the overall averages of both teams are within 0.1 points of each other. I don’t pretend that this analysis is able to reliably detect this level of separation. However, closer scrutiny of the data reveals an apparent advantage for Michigan. That is, in addition to being awesomer.
Starting in their own territory, both offenses perform about the same. The separation comes when the offenses start drives in enemy territory. There are only 2 drives available for MSU, which I take as evidence that their offensive special teams (the return teams) are not sweet, but there’s nothing to say that more data will necessarily improve their average rather than hurt it. So, for now, I’ll believe my flimsy 2 drive average of 3 pts per possession. For equal filed position, Michigan scores an average of 4 points per possession. Hence they get the nod for having demonstrated proficiency in enemy territory. Also from what I’ve seen on the field I think Michigan does show more offensive prowess and schematic advantage than does MSU. Also I’m a homer. Plus we have the Force. And I have a chart…go go gadget CHART!
Advantage: Michigan. This is probably better characterized as Michigan having a lower disadvantage than Sparty because I think it is safe to say that both defenses are pretty damned bad. Think of it as having a lower handicap. I’m actually surprised at Michigan’s overall average of 1.8 points per possession…it felt like it’d be higher. Sparty on the other hand is basically allowing as many points as its scoring, 2.8 points per possession. Again, see the chart.
Advantage: Michigan. Here I’ve split special teams play into coverage and return units with each establishing defensive and offensive field position respectively. The numbers here reconcile nicely. Michigan’s coverage units and State’s return units have both ended up at about the same field position to date; at about the 26 yard line. On the flip side, Michigan’s return units and State’s coverage units have also ended up at about the same field position; at about the 31 yard line. These are just averages so, presumably, Michigan will have a few more drives starting in sector 2 and State will have a few more drives starting in sector 1. No chart here, just a table.
Obviously Zoltan is a huge asset for establishing defensive field position and Darryl Stonum is doing a kick ass job at establishing good field position for the Offense. What’s kind of aggravating is that the woes of last year seem to have the coaching staff content with simply holding onto the ball, which, yeah duh. But damn, we should be able to improve our average field position on punts if Mathews or some satisfactory replacement would be allowed to attempt a return. If the staff insists on not attempting a return then, why not skip even putting a guy back there altogether and sending 11 every time for a block? I know catching the ball stops the roll but, I wonder how much of a difference it makes overall. I dunno, it’s just annoying that we forfeit better field position simply because we’re scared of dropping the ball.
This work is based on past performance and doesn’t account for key injuries, personnel changes, and what not. Another issue is that of unequal opposition. Obviously playing weaker opposition (such as FCS caliber Montana St.) would inflate a team’s numbers so strength of schedule has something to do with the numbers. However, Sparty’s opponent record to date is 5-2 where as Michigan’s opponents are 6-3, and I've already thrown out MSU's game against Montana State so I think the relative strength of schedules are pretty even.
This analysis indicates that Michigan has performed better in all three phases than Michigan State has so far this year (as if the respective win-loss records didn't already say this). What’s not shown here is that both defenses have given up about 100 points so far this year but Michigan State has done it in about 30% fewer possessions; Yowza. Our offense has been more efficient at hitting pay dirt and our special teams have done a good job at setting up field position. These three things should at least neutralize Sparty’s home field advantage. All of this data includes possessions ending in turnovers so, barring another Notre Dame 2008 type scenario, that shouldn’t be a concern.
While analyzing the past is neat, synthesizing the future is what everybody is really interested in. I’ve got a little sumpin sumpin cooking on that but that’ll have to wait until later tonight because I’m tired of writing and you all are probably tired of reading.