Defense at the Midpoint: A Closer Look

Defense at the Midpoint: A Closer Look Comment Count

Adam Schnepp December 24th, 2015 at 3:00 PM



If you’ve been reading the site for a long time you’ll remember Seth’s “Decimated Defense” series, an excellent set of posts that painstakingly detailed why Michigan’s defense was so awful circa 2009. If you’ve been watching hockey the past few seasons, something similar may have crossed your mind.

David Nasternak is our jack-of-all-trades behind the scenes, and he’s also a huge hockey fan. He asked if I’d be interested in some data he was pulling together on power play goals against, odd-man rushes, and turnovers that led directly to goals. Naturally I was; Michigan’s defense isn’t quite Decimated Defense-level bad, but I could probably write a series of posts about the past four years and no one would bat an eye if I titled them “Disappointing Defense.”

The eye test, beloved by scouts for generations, tells us that Michigan’s defense has again been lacking in 2015-16. Thanks to the data David has compiled and some additional team-level stats from College Hockey Inc. we can try and see where the breakdowns are coming from on an otherwise solid team.

[After THE JUMP: it wouldn’t be MGoBlog without charts]


Hokepoints on the Day of Atonement

Hokepoints on the Day of Atonement Comment Count

Seth September 25th, 2012 at 8:07 AM


Of the totally surreal and unnecessary things that could ever happen, Denard Robinson issuing an apology for his play against Notre Dame ranks right up there with Ryan Van Bergen claiming fault for the 2010 defense. Not so much that he took responsibility—I wrote in my HTTV article that personal culpability is one the hallmarks of this team—but that watching from above I felt like he wasn't entirely at fault.

Part of that was the drunk dude in my section yelling "awwww c'mon!" at Denard, to which I felt responsibility to point out things like "play-action out of the I-form" or "Schofield just got beat bad." Part of it to was my own culpability for last week's article being all "hey Denard can pass and Borges is doing an incredible job!" So in the mea culpa spirit of the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur (pretty much our Christmas) which begins tonight, I admit I have sinned, and that I'm not quite sure who sinned on all of our six turnovers this week. Let's find out where responsibility lies in this six-play al chet, using a combination of Seth's pathetic attempts at UFR-ing, with a bonus chart of culpability.

1. For the sin we have committed against you by trying to get too cute with Vincent Smith, who is not Tom Brady

Ln Dn Ds O Form RB TE WR D Form Type Play Player Yards
O10 1 G Ace TE Trips 1 1 3 4-4 under Pass RB Pass Dileo INT
Dileo and Roundtree lined up as H-backs on same side. Since it's a pass Dileo doesn't block Te'o, who shot into the gap the millisecond he read pitch and pressures Smith. Funchess blocked down an irrelevant crashing DE instead but that's the play. The CB bites hard so Dileo can leaks out into the end zone, where he has the safety beat to the corner, but Smith is 5'6 with the world's best college LB in his face. He jump-balls it way inside of his receiver, so when the safety looks back he is all "ooh, football--take." (INX, 0, Protection N/A, RPS –2)

When Michigan tried this against Minnesota it was from 30 yards out, and against Minnesota. It did get a guy open in the end zone, and was set up a little bit I believe by some pitch plays earlier. However leaving Te'o unblocked versus a tiny RB is a risk, but Smith has shown in games (and presumably many more times in practice) that he 8013857982_cf5e4abbb5_ocan throw the ball accurately enough.

What I really hated about this play call is there was no reason to get cute. This was meant to be a dagger play, just like the fake dive on 4th and 1 vs. Michigan State was meant to be the dagger in the trash storm game.

Borges likes his daggers. When Brian queried my UFR database on Michigan passing from Ace 3TE sets, I found the Funchess 30-yard (PA TE corner) and Gardner (Waggle) TDs, plus a PA dumpoff for good yards (until it was fumbled) against SD State last year. Daggers. Thing is about the grab-bag and dagger offense is that it doesn't adjust for things that are working, and until that point the offense was working. When Pompey backed out of Rome because he didn't have the troops to defend it, Caesar didn't say "oh waitaminute, this is a trap, I'm gonna go attack the Barbary Coast—ha ha they'll never suspect!" He walked into damn Rome.

Chart of culpability: Borges x2, ND Te'o is that good, Smith isn't Joe Montana

Mitigating Mitzvah: Jake Ryan sticks a receiver after he gains just 1 yard on 3rd and 4 from the ND37 to force a punt. ND shanks the punt.


After the jump, five plays more depressing than using a day off of work to fast and contemplate what a terrible person you've been all year.


Heuristics And Stupid Prediction

Heuristics And Stupid Prediction Comment Count

Brian August 31st, 2012 at 2:54 PM

Previously: Podcast 4.0, the story, quarterback, running back, wide receivers, offensive line, defensive line, linebackers, secondary, Qs on D, Qs on O.


Turnover Margin


The theory of turnover margin: it is pretty random. Teams that find themselves at one end or the other at the end of the year are likely to rebound towards the average. So teams towards the top will tend to be overrated and vice versa. Nonrandom factors to evaluate: quarterback experience, quarterback pressure applied and received, and odd running backs like Mike Hart who just don't fumble.

Year Margin Int + Fumb + Sacks + Int - Fumb - Sacks -
2007 0.15 (41st) 14 15 2.46(33rd) 14 13 2.17 (67th)
2008 -.83 (104th) 9 11 2.42(33rd) 12 18 1.83 (57th)
2009 -1.00 (115th) 11 5 1.83(68th) 15 13 2.33 (83rd)
2010 -0.77(109th) 12 7 1.38(98th) 15 14 0.85(10th)
2011 +0.54 (25th) 9 20 2.31 (29th) 16 6 1.38 (33rd)

I know you've heard it, so briefly: Michigan's recovered fumbles at a 75% rate and this is unsustainable. Move that to 50% and Michigan drops quite a bit, but does stay at or around zero for the year, which is a massive positive. How Michigan got there for reasons other than fumble recovery rate:

  • dumping a bunch of carries on a to-date fumble-free Fitz Toussaint,
  • coaching Denard to be more responsible with the ball when he's running, and
  • getting a lot more pressure on opposing QBs.

None of those things should change. Michigan may not have much four-on-four pass rush but that didn't prevent Mattison from blitzing up a top-30 sack rate last year. Denard should also throw many fewer interceptions. He's a senior, he's in a second year in the offense, and Borges will have a better grasp on what leads to trouble. That should offset the fumble recovery rate regression and keep Michigan in a comfortable range near or slightly above  zero.

Or, of course, it may do the exact opposite of all these things.

Position Switch Starters

Jibreel Black Ohio State v Michigan 8THB4vo8SwAl[1]

Theory of position switches: if you are starting or considering starting a guy who was playing somewhere else a year ago, that position is in trouble. There are degrees of this. When Notre Dame moved Travis Thomas, a useful backup at tailback, to linebacker and then declared him a starter, there was no way that could end well. Wisconsin's flip of LB Travis Beckum to tight end was less ominous because Wisconsin had a solid linebacking corps and Beckum hadn't established himself on that side of the ball. Michigan flipping Prescott Burgess from SLB to WLB or PSU moving Dan Connor inside don't register here: we're talking major moves that indicate a serious lack somewhere.

There are a number of varying severity.

Here's a dossier:

  • LG Michael Schofield moves to RT, which is actually undoing a position switch from last year. Fret level: none.
  • LG Ricky Barnum moves to center, where he's reportedly doing well. Snapping is another burden, I guess, but fret level: minimal.
  • QB Devin Gardner moves to WR, is still sort of a QB, and may be a QB again next year. Fret level: high. It could be that Gardner is undeniable at WR. It could be that Michigan is flailing for options.
  • WDE Craig Roh moves to SDE. Fret level: minimal. Given last year, Roh's probably a better fit at the 5 anyway.
  • WDE Jibreel Black moves to three-tech, moves back, may move back inside at points. Fret level: severe.
  • SAM Brennen Beyer moves to WDE. Fret level: none. Beyer was supposed to be a WDE from the start, is now 252.

Concerns at WR and DL. Surprise!

An Embarrassing Prediction, No Doubt

Worst Case

Again, there's no bottom if certain critical contributors implode. Assuming disastrous injuries do not occur at QB and OT…

Denard chews up low-level defenses; combine that with a back seven not giving up cheap points and it's hard to see a threat from Air Force, UMass, Purdue, Northwestern, or Minnesota. None of those teams have defenses that will be able to slow down Denard enough, if at all.

The second tier of should-win games is small, though: Illinois and Iowa are the only other games it seems like they absolutely should win, and Iowa was a loss last year. Even in a dark world where things go all wrong, they'd take one of those two and probably swing another game from the Bama/ND/Nebraska/OSU group to get to 7-5.

Best Case

Michigan's going to implode in one game this year for reasons yet undetermined and must prove that it can teach its center to put his head up before he snaps the ball against MSU, but there isn't a game on the schedule other than the first one that seems like a true longshot. It's asking a but much of them to go to ND, Nebraska, and OSU and win 'em all, though. 10-2 is the reasonable ceiling.

Final Verdict

The defense will be fine, even if turnovers decrease. The line will be a surprise to the positive. By the end of the year we are all convinced that Michigan's DL coaching can turn virtually anyone into a serviceable player.

There's a lot of bend-don't-break on D as Mattison struggles to find a pass rush against teams with veteran lines that can pick up his blitzes and Kovacs and Gordon hew down dudes at the first down marker. This is generally effective. The defense is far from dominant but steady and not prone to doing stupid things to itself. Morgan and Demens both improve noticeably, Washington and Campbell hold up okay, and a lot of tackles shift from the DL to the LBs.

On offense, Borges + Denard will still be a problem as those two jigsaw puzzles aren't ever going to mesh smoothly, but there isn't much dropoff at the skill positions if Devin Gardner lives up to even half the hype—for all our hand-wringing, Hemingway had 34 catches last year. Having Toussaint firmly in the driver's seat will help RB productivity, and as a whole the line should be better than it was a year ago now that the guards know how to pull and the right tackle is a high-level performer.

TE remains an issue. Denard getting year two in the new system should easily overwhelm that. His numbers will improve, most obviously in the INT category, and there won't be more than one clunker this time around.

We're gonna die tomorrow, but whatever.

9/1 @ Alabama Loss
9/8 Air Force Must win
9/15 UMass Must win
9/22 @ ND Lean to win
10/6 @ Purdue Must win
10/13 Illinois Lean to win
10/20 MSU Lean to loss
10/27 @ Nebraska Lean to win
11/3 @ Minnesota Must win
11/10 Northwestern Must win
11/17 Iowa Lean to win
11/24 @ Akron State Lean to loss

Wisconsin, Penn State, Indiana

Add it up and you get 9-3. Not a bold prediction this time around, I know.


Sometimes You Eat The Turnover Bar

Sometimes You Eat The Turnover Bar Comment Count

Brian March 28th, 2012 at 1:24 PM

Turnover margin is a notoriously jittery stat that does not often repeat year to year. Turnovers are infrequent and hugely impactful, so they tend to wander all over the place without much rhyme or reason, slaying or rescuing seasons. Yes, there are obvious repeatable factors that correlate with good or bad turnover margin on a macro level. Get to the quarterback and he will explode in a confetti of bad decisions; allow the opponent to get to yours and watch the same thing occur.

On a micro level, sometimes you eat the bear… sometimes the bear eats you.

Michigan ate the bear last year, recovering around 75% of available fumbles. I know people want to believe there is a narrative that supports this model of football. When I returned from the Mattison coaching clinic presentation, one of the items I mentioned was that Michigan treats all incompletions as live balls in practice. I didn't think that was much of an explanation but a lot of commenters seized on it.

There does not have to be a reason that events transpire. It's not an Eastern thing. Sometimes you eat the bear. Sometimes the bear eats you.

Michigan ate the bear last year, and how. SBN's Bill Connolly put together a stat called "adjusted turnover margin" that assumes an NCAA-average fumble recovery rate (50.3% for the D) and NCAA-average PBU-to-INT ratio (21.9%), compares it to your actual turnovers gained, and calculates a points per game figure Connolly figures is just the bounce of the ball. Drum roll…

Five Teams Who Benefited Most From Turnovers Luck
1. Michigan (+3.97 points/game)
2. Maryland (+3.97)
3. N.C. State (+3.61)
4. South Carolina (+3.61)
5. Oklahoma State (+3.40)

I am Jack's utter lack of surprise. Michigan's overall fumble recovery rate of 75% was first in the nation by a whopping eight percent! (Maryland was #2 at 67%.) They were three standard deviations above the mean! They were a full standard deviation above the #2 team in the country! This aggression against regression to the mean will not stand!


This is the point where I talk about how lucky Michigan got last year and a lot of people say "nuh-uh." This gets a little frustrating on both ends. I get frustrated that something like that Sugar Bowl doesn't bring the point home; people who disagree with me get frustrated that I'm downplaying Michigan's success or being grim about next year.

They're not entirely wrong. I do think that if you replayed the 2011 season 1,000 times Michigan ends up 11-2 in relatively few of them. They were only sort of close in one of their losses*, won two-and-a-half nailbiters** and acquired 10 more turnovers than Connolly's model expects. Michigan also had the benefit of a soft schedule (no Wisconsin or Penn State) in a down Big Ten and an Ohio State team in shambles after tatgate. It was pretty uninspiring in terms of 11-2 years featuring wins over ND, OSU, and a BCS opponent despite undergoing massive transition costs and operating with a slap-dash, attrition-ravaged roster.

Which is to say: WOOOOOOOOOOO. Yes. Score.

But once we get past the woo and start talking about setting expectations for year two we should not base it off what Michigan did last year but what they should have done, what they lost to graduation and attrition, who they return and add, and who they play. We should start with the premise that Michigan was super lucky last year and probably won't be this year.

This doesn't mean their turnover margin is doomed. It just means their turnover margin is doomed unless Denard Robinson becomes a lot more responsible with the ball. Michigan got away with being –7 in interceptions because of the fumble surplus. That covered up a lot of blemishes last year.

What should we expect Michigan's turnover margin to be next year?


Happy Arguments

I am arguing it will be worse. I made similar arguments for much of the Rich Rodriguez era when Michigan was hugely negative every year and dammit it never changed. 

Experience at quarterback. This is a double whammy to the good for Michigan: they've got a senior starter entering his third year and—even more important—his second year in Al Borges's system. A number of Michigan's turrible interceptions a year ago came paired with hand-wavingly-open receivers Michigan's quarterbacks just missed, like this one Gardner chucked against Purdue:


The ball is in the air here, but it's going to the double-covered Gallon instead of the hand-wavingly open Junior Hemingway. This wasn't pressure—Gardner had all day—it was a huge coverage misread. In year two these things should significantly diminish.

Fitzgerald Toussaint could be Mike Hart-like. IIRC Toussaint has not fumbled as a Michigan ballcarrier. As carries move to him from other sources—largely the fumble-prone Denard—Michigan should reduce the number of fumbles that can go against them. Fumble prevention/extraction is a skill.

The defense should be sack happy. Michigan finished 29th last year without getting great production out of its three-tech or weakside defensive end. Will Heininger had one sack last year; Craig Roh and Jibreel Black combined for 5.5. If the moves of Roh and Black inside upgrade the pass rush at three positions, the blitz-mad Mattison D will be in QBs' faces even more than they were last year.

Complicating factor: Mike Martin only had 3.5 sacks last year but his disruption opened things up for other people.

Protection should be good if the line is healthy. Lewan is an all Big Ten left tackle (at least) and Schofield is a touted recruit with a year of quality playing time under his belt with all the tools to pass protect on the edge. Wicked blind-side hits on Denard should be rare.

Sad Arguments

Denard is just turnover-prone. This has been a fact by air and ground ever since he hit the field. While he's going to improve with experience, sometimes players never have that light bulb pop on. Toussaint will shift some carries to his five points of contact but Denard will still get a bunch of carries, and he'll cough the ball up some.

Chucking sure interceptions up to Hemingway will result in interceptions because Hemingway is gone. Unless these are going to Gardner.

Hello massive reversion to the mean on fumble recoveries. If Michigan recovers over 70% of available fumbles this year I'll eat a lemon. Probably at the Rose Bowl.

If a tackle goes down, yeesh. Everyone's assumption is that this would see Kyle Kalis step in at right tackle. Mega-hyped recruit… and a true freshman.

Seriously, Denard is walking variance. I think Michigan will preserve its fairly positive TO margin. If they don't, we will all be sad about Denard's inability to shake the turnover bug. I can't predict he'll be better or worse until we see him play.

There's a reason a couple departing seniors picked Robinson—who was an All-American as a sophomore, remember—as a "breakout player" in that Rothstein article from yesterday($). He could break out. He could run in place, and not know which it will be makes predictions here even more useless than they have been in the past.

You may now return to thinking about Taylor Lewan on a tandem bike.

*[Even if Michigan does score against Iowa they have to get a two-point conversion and then win in OT, which is like a 20% shot.]

**[OSU should not have been since there was no reason to overturn the Toussaint TD that would have ended it.]


Preview 2011: Heuristics and Stupid Prediction

Preview 2011: Heuristics and Stupid Prediction Comment Count

Brian September 2nd, 2011 at 3:15 PM

Previously: The story, the secondary, the linebackers, the defensive line, the offensive line, the receivers, the running backs, the quarterbacks, special teams, defensive questions, offensive questions.


Turnover Margin


The theory of turnover margin: it is nearly random. Teams that find themselves at one end or the other at the end of the year are highly likely to rebound towards the average. So teams towards the top will tend to be overrated and vice versa. Nonrandom factors to evaluate: quarterback experience, quarterback pressure applied and received, and odd running backs like Mike Hart who just don't fumble.

Year Margin Int + Fumb + Sacks + Int - Fumb - Sacks -
2007 0.15 (41st) 14 15 2.46(33rd) 14 13 2.17 (67th)
2008 -.83 (104th) 9 11 2.42(33rd) 12 18 1.83 (57th)
2009 -1.00 (115th) 11 5 1.83(68th) 15 13 2.33 (83rd)
2010 -0.77(109th) 12 7 1.38(98th) 15 14 0.85(10th)

WELCOME TO YET ANOTHER YEAR where I predict Michigan's turnover rate plunges towards zero. I'm seriously this time though.

For the first time on this chart Michigan should have a non-insane person running things. In 2007, it was either injured Henne or Mallet; 2008 was death, 2009 was freshmen QBs, and last year was essentially a redshirt freshman. With Denard's return this is the first time since 2006 Michigan can expect their QB to be less turnover prone than the year before. (This obviously goes out the window in the event of a major injury to Denard. Also out the window: life, hope, puppies.)

But… I'm seriously this time. Even if Rodriguez had some weird evil turnover juju when he was around he's gone. Turnovers regress like a mofo. People have argued with me about this plenty and I do believe them somewhat:

  • NFL turnover margins regress like a mofo and always will.
  • College TO margins might have extra regression because low turnover teams tend to have senior quarterbacks and then break in new ones, and high turnover teams tend to have young quarterbacks who return. What looks like randomness is potentially roster turnover.
  • Sucky defenses case fewer turnovers because things are easy.

So Rodriguez-era stuff was negative because the defenses were turrible and the quarterbacks were young. The defense does trace a largely negative track as it declines from 29 turnovers in the last Carr year to 20 in RR year 1, 16 in RR year 2, and 19 in RR year 3. Turnovers from the offense are about constant in the era of lots of freshmen, but in 2006 Michigan coughed it up just 12 times.

If Robinson remains healthy Michigan should improve significantly. The defense has to suck less and Robinson's responsibility should improve rapidly relative to players more than a year removed from being novelty freak shows. I'm afraid that Robinson is just a fumble-prone guy—Mike Hart didn't need experience to hold on to the damn ball—but the interception rate should dip considerably.

On the other side of the ball, a defense that rushes more than three players and has Martin, RVB, and Roh should get back to at least average in sacks. The center of the Gaussian distribution here is probably –3 turnovers on the year; even that would be massive improvement.

Position Switch Starters

Theory of position switches: if you are starting or considering starting a guy who was playing somewhere else a year ago, that position is in trouble. There are degrees of this. When Notre Dame moved Travis Thomas, a useful backup at tailback, to linebacker and then declared him a starter, there was no way that could end well. Wisconsin's flip of LB Travis Beckum to tight end was less ominous because Wisconsin had a solid linebacking corps and Beckum hadn't established himself on that side of the ball. Michigan flipping Prescott Burgess from SLB to WLB or PSU moving Dan Connor inside don't register here: we're talking major moves that indicate a serious lack somewhere.


Last year there were a half-dozen of varying severity. This year I'm not sure there are any, except insofar as people on the defense are all switching positions because of the scheme change. I'm not sure how much those count.

Here's a dossier:

  • RVB is now a full time three-tech instead of a 5-tech on a three-man line. He's already started as a three tech in his career.
  • Roh is now a WDE full time instead of a 3-3-5 OLB/DE.
  • Kenny Demens is now a MLB instead of a snack for a guard.
  • Thomas Gordon is a starting safety instead of a SLB/safety-type-object.
  • Some wide receivers are flipping outside from the slot.
  • Third string TE Steve Watson was on defense last year.

None of this comes anywhere close to Mark Moundros maybe starting at LB, Cam Gordon starting at FS, and Roh moving to LB. Anyone who's starting is moving to a spot they've played before or goddamn well should have (Roh).

The lone exception is Thomas Gordon, who is going to be playing at a new position after being a random DB his freshman year, then a spur. That's still not flipping sides of the ball.  It is a concern. At least this year there are no obvious panic moves. Sliding Gordon from a nickelback to safety is not starting John Ferrara or pushing Mark Moundros as the solution at MLB.

An Embarrassing Prediction, No Doubt

Worst Case

There's no bottom if Denard and a couple of other key defensive players are hurt. Leaving the worst-worst case out, a relatively healthy Michigan has no business losing to WMU, EMU, Minnesota, or Purdue at home.

San Diego State, Northwestern, Illinois are all losable but Denard should be able to snake at least one of those. 5-7 is the floor.

Best Case

The schedule is fairly soft, with no true road games until Michigan State (the game at Northwestern will be at least half M fans) and both Penn State and Wisconsin rotating off. If the offense maintains its current level of productivity and Mattison mediocres the defense real good, the only game that still seems entirely out of reach is Nebraska.

That's not to say Michigan can reasonably expect to win all games in reach. Taking more than two from Notre Dame, Michigan State, Iowa, and the Akron State Golden Bobcats seems to be irrational optimism. 9-3 is about all you can reasonably hope for.

Final Verdict

There are a lot of ugly predictions like 5-7, 6-6, and 7-5 from the newspaper folk after their fifty words on the running backs* and it's easy to see why if you're looking at the surface. If you look at the final scores of last year's games it's easy to find extra losses but not extra wins.

If you look at the yardage margins and turnovers it's an entirely different picture. Michigan is poised for a big bounce. Robinson should cut down on his enormous mistakes considerably and a defense that bothers to rush will increase those of opponents. Nineteen starters return; Brendan Gibbons will either be much better or quickly replaced. GERG is gone. The offense will change and that's a drag but the things that made Robinson so insane are not that hard to exploit and he is still rapidly developing. This looks like a team that had a combination of bad luck and youth last year that should improve by leaps and bounds.

The catch: depth. It is a huge issue on both sides of the ball, with a half-dozen players essentially irreplaceable. Injuries happen; with Michigan which injuries will be huge. Huyge or Heininger or Cam Gordon going down is no big deal. Losing Denard or Martin or Demens is massive. A fully healthy Michigan looks like a (fringe) contender for a division crown, but football teams are not fully healthy.

9/3 WMU Must win
9/10 Notre Dame Tossup
9/17 EMU Must win
9/24 SDSU Lean to win
10/1 Minnesota Must win
10/8 @ NU Lean to win
10/15 @ MSU Lean to loss
10/29 Purdue Must win
11/05 @ Iowa Tossup
11/12 @ Illinois Lean to win
11/19 Nebraska Probable loss
11/26 Akron State Lean to loss

Wisconsin, Penn State, Indiana

I add it up and I come up with eight wins and change. Assume one irreplaceable player is annihilated and that comes back down to an even 8-4. Unlike last year, when I predicted 7-5 but thought 6-6 was more likely than 8-4, I think Michigan is more likely to surprise to the positive until such time as we have another Woolfolk ankle explosion pity party.

Some commenters have suggested that the exactingly specific predictions in the previous posts today suggest I'd be predicting something better than 8-4, but I think turnovers, while getting much better, will still be in the red. Though the special teams issues can't be as bad they will still be a problem that could kill Michigan in a close game.

Also, 50th in advanced metrics is still bleh territory since they correct for schedule strength. For example, that's worse than Purdue and Penn State last year; the Nittany Lions gave up at least 21 points in every Big Ten game and Purdue got bombed for at least 34 five times in conference.


*["Michael Shaw is expected to start but power back Fitzgerald Toussaint will also see time. If he had any newshole anymore we would tell you about Vincent Smith, but oh well."

/end running back "scouting".]


Turnover Turnaround Take Three

Turnover Turnaround Take Three Comment Count

Brian May 17th, 2011 at 12:04 PM

The most persistently wrong thing I was wrong about amongst the many persistently wrong things I asserted about Rich Rodriguez and his bite-sized Era at Michigan was:  "that turnover margin is going to be a lot closer to zero this year." Or words to that effect.

I should have been right, or at least in the general ballpark of right. Rodriguez's West Virginia teams were consistently in the black. Turnover margin is so weakly correlated from year to year that Phil Steele annually puts out a "turnovers = turnaround" post highlighting teams with double-digit swings in either direction so that he can predict against the teams with big numbers and in favor of the teams with little tiny ones. Here's your favorite team:

Going Up TO

And here's how that worked out:


Amongst the many things that got Rodriguez fired, the persistently huge negative turnover margin is neck and neck with transferpalooza and program alum white blood cells for second place.

So these days, running across stats like these

running the correlation between one year's turnover margin and the next, I found that the correlation was a mere 12%. That's still something, but it's clear that for most teams, the turnover margin they enjoy one year has virtually zero predictive value for the turnover margin they will enjoy the next year. That means that on average, teams with substantially positive margins will see major decline in margin the next year, and teams with substantially negative margins will see major improvement the next year. A team with a -10 turnover margin in 2009, for example, would have an expected turnover margin of -1.2 in 2010, an improvement of nearly a full turnover per game!

…make me want to bang my head against the wall. Of course Michigan would be as large of a chunk of that correlation as possible, and of course they would be on the negative side of things. Thump. Thump. (The only thing worse than defying this correlation is defying the correlation between turnovers and wins: GTP points out Georgia went from –16 to +10 and still finished two games worse than they did last year. That would seriously harsh my buzz if I was a Georgia fan.)

I have tried to make the world make sense and this is what I've come up with:

  • The correlation is so low because quarterbacks are so important. The general path of a quarterback is: bench, horrible interception-laden youth, cool as a elderly cucumber, repeat. When you have a senior quarterback you are likely to have a good turnover margin and guaranteed to not have that guy back next year.
  • The same goes for everywhere else, albeit to a lesser extent. Good defenses tend to have seniors on them and tend to not have many returning starters.
  • Michigan eschewed the general path in favor of freshmen or equivalents. Rodriguez never started the same guy two years in a row, and while that turned out to be the right decision it meant three straight years of horrible interception-laden etc.
  • When your defense is so, so bad you escape TO margin gravity. AKA GERG. Also, what's the one thing that consistently generates turnovers? QB pressure. Michigan finished 98th in sacks and loved them some three-man rushes.

So while year-to-year correlation is low across college football, if you correct for experience—especially at QB—and maybe lack of prominent walk-ons/converted WRs in the secondary that 12% would be significantly larger. Michigan's program got so messed up that they stopped participating in the circle of turnovers*. Instead they laid at the bottom of the national rankings, a corpse dragged down by redzone interceptions.

Seriously, This Time It's Serious

Um… so… there's the above theory. And then there's Denard Robinson, Michigan's first returning starter at QB since Chad Henne. And then there's Greg Mattison and a defense that uses Craig Roh as a pass rusher instead of a clunky linebacker. There are a bunch of returning starters everywhere, including four guys on the offensive line.

I'm going to be the guy who puts his hat on a stick and pokes it out of a trench to see if there are any snipers around, again: Michigan's turnover margin should scream towards zero this year. They've got gravity on their side and many things besides. Also, Brady Hoke's miraculous digestive tract will move all that Tyler Sash wackiness to Ann Arbor.

This is the year Michigan has a mediocre turnover margin. Believe.




Mailbag! Comment Count

Brian November 3rd, 2009 at 12:33 PM


Not sure if you've addressed this, but what's your take on Brandon Graham vs. Lamar Woodley as seniors?  Graham has been putting up Tacopants-esque numbers in UFRs and has to deal with some blatant holding no-calls on a regular basis.  I know Woodley was similarly beast-like, but how do they compare?


I've been thinking about this myself: I think Graham is better. I haven't gone over the UFR numbers yet—slightly busy this time of year—but I know Graham set a record against Michigan State earlier this year and has been owning offensive tackles all year. Woodley set standards by being consistently around +8 or +9 with forays up to 12; Graham's baseline is around 12 and ranges up to 18. NFL backup: at this point he's probably going to be a higher pick than Woodley, who managed to fall to the second round, was.

Graham's numbers are going to end up better than those of Woodley, who finished his senior year with these stats:

Recorded 36 tackles (28 solos) and led the team for the second straight year with 12 sacks for minus 119 yards and 16.5 stops for losses totaling 131 yards…His 119 sack yards are the most ever by a Michigan player in a season…Also recovered four fumbles, returning one 54 yards for a touchdown…Tied the school season-record with four forced fumbles.

With three or four games left, Graham has 44 tackles, 17(!) TFLs, and 6.5 sacks. He'd have more sacks if the secondary ever covered anyone. He's spent large sections of the year battling double teams. He's not playing next to Alan Branch or in front of David Harris, Shawn Crable, and Prescott Burgess, so teams have far more leeway when it comes to blocking him, and he's still regularly crushing plays in the backfield. He makes a ton of plays that don't even show up in the stats, too.

If we're just going on senior-year production, I think it's Graham. At some point during the Penn State UFR I fired off an email to Dr. Saturday that was basically "Brandon Graham is an All-American; the rest of the defense makes me cry." Dr. Saturday might listen; no one else is going to pick out a player on a terrible defense for post-season awards, no matter how richly deserved they are.

Brian –

I think one of the reasons we all suspected a decent turnaround this season was that there was no way the team could repeat as having the worst TO margin in the country.  At this point in the season that has not happened, and it is stunning to me.  I wanted your thoughts on the subject.

Look at the infamous drive from Saturday.  Regardless of how that turned out, the play calling at the goal line, the inept OL play at the goal line, whether the refs got it correct on the reviews*, or how it turned out Michigan fumbled the ball THREE TIMES on that drive.  Forcier fumbled and Moosman recovered.  Roundtree fumbled and was ruled down.  Minor fumbled and was ruled down.  How can three different players fumble the ball on the same drive
???   That isn’t random luck, that’s a systemic problem, isn’t it

  • I can understand why our defense isn’t creating take-away opportunities, because they suck.
  • I can understand that freshmen QB’s are going to be turn-over prone and that Robinson is responsible for a ton of those.  (However, if you would have told me that the Forcier/Robinson pair would have been as inept as the Threet/Sheridan pair I would have slapped you in the face.)
  • I can understand to some extent that Brown and Minor would never be mistaken for Mike Hart. 

But something is broken here.  Is it talent?  Is it coaching?  Is it something else? 

I mentioned this in a bullet at the end of the game column yesterday, citing a diary post that put Rodriguez's pre-Michigan numbers in a nice table so you could see them:





Opp Int

Opp FL

Opp Tot


































































Here are the Michigan numbers:





Opp Int

Opp FL

Opp Tot










2009 (8 Games)
















So we've got three negative teams here: Rodriguez's 3-8 opening season in Morgantown and the last two at Michigan. You could argue that the turnovers caused the crappy records of those teams, but a quick glance at the yardage for and against—not so good—suggests that the relationship is the inverse: the crappy teams' crappiness is exacerbated by lots of turnover issues.

The defense sucking is apparent: 20 turnovers last year and on pace for maybe 17 this year, numbers lower than any Rodriguez had at West Virginia and approximately 60% of the WVU average. The offense is running at a 40% higher  turnover clip, too. It is a wholesale failure.

The emailer ran down three reasons, all of which I think apply to the situation, and left one out: poor pass protection. Turnovers are pretty random but not entirely so, and the one thing that consistently causes them is pressure on the quarterback. See: Kirk Cousins in the MSU game, who turned the ball over three times because he got hit as he threw or was stripped as he was sacked. Quarterbacks naturally turn the ball over more than anyone else, but only if they're getting pressure. Michigan's combination of freshman quarterbacks and a leaky offensive line is murder for TO margin, especially when those quarterbacks are as raw as Robinson or as moxified as Forcier.

Rodriguez does not have a history of lots of turnovers on offense so the assumption here is that the last two years of butterfingers are a talent issue, not a coaching one. Michigan's failure to acquire turnovers is obviously a talent issue, too, but could have some coaching components to it since Jeff Casteel stuck with WVU. It's too early to tell in Robinson's first year.

Hi Brian, long time reader and listener,

Seems to me the Oregon team looks a lot like Michigan is supposed to.  Chip Kelly, who studied under Rodriguez, isn't even in a full year and has a team that looks cohesive and fully engaged in the spread system.  I know they were a spread team before, but it still doesn't make sense that there is no comparison between the two teams. 
I guess my question is, hasn't Rodriguez had enough time to recruit those fast players, even if the team is not yet complete enough to win like Oregon?  Michigan has all these smaller guys but still seems as slow as it ever has. Why the glaring differences?

Chip Kelly is in his third year at Oregon. Mike Bellotti brought him in as offensive coordinator before the 2007 season after Kelly's spread 'n' shred at New Hampshire tore up I-AA defenses. Bellotti had also been an offensive coordinator elevated to head coach when Rich Brooks left Oregon in 1994. Oregon set up a smooth coach-in-waiting transition and avoided any unusual attrition in the changeover.

As far as the offense: in 2005, Oregon moved from a traditional passing attack with Joey Harrington under center to a spread 'n' shred when Bellotti hired Gary Crowton. Only redshirt seniors were recruited with a different offense in mind..Oregon is in year five of a transition period that had its ugly moments, like a 38-8 loss to BYU in the Las Vegas Bowl, and never had the sort of black hole at quarterback Michigan did. Jeremiah Masoli was a third-string sophomore JUCO transfer; Michigan's third string quarterback is Nick Sheridan.

So, yes, Chip Kelly is a first-year head coach but this was essentially an internal transition for a team already set up to run a spread 'n' shred.

Q: Has an RR offense ever featured running back screens? I know we do the bubble stuff and the RB wheel routes and flats, but what about a more traditional screen? It seems like Abundance of RB Talent Relative to WR Talent + Opposing Defenses Knowing They Can Overwhelm the OL With Blitzes should = Let’s At Least Try a Few Screens and Maybe One of Them Will Go to the House.


Willie Beavers

I don't think so. Michigan's used a flare screen several times this year—Carlos Brown scored a 60-yard touchdown against Indiana on it—but the traditional drop-back-and loft-it-over-a-zillion-guys screen is not a staple of the offense. I'm not sure why, but I get the impression that it wouldn't work very well because it would be easy to scout: oh the tailback is running in this direction, which is unlike any of the directions he usually runs because it's not a stretch play it's probably this thing we saw on film and is not very disguised.

Yep these are my readers, I steal from Simmons, go:

It's not the city of trees, but 17 trees and counting are missing branches of various length in New York City.


For those wondering what this means, I promised to rip a branch off every tree in Ann Arbor if we lost.


Aw, Hell: Basketball Liveblog

Aw, Hell: Basketball Liveblog Comment Count

Brian November 28th, 2006 at 12:23 AM

We join the action with Michigan up 7-2. Jerrett Smith finds Coleman for a backdoor hoop; Udoh comes in and hits a couple soft jumpers in the lane, picks up a block, and a foul. There's a Harris three in there somewhere. Michigan leads 16-6.

7:19 PM. Dang. Udoh faces up and knocks down a 12-footer. This McCauley guy is pulling Sims out and driving on him. TV timeout 18-10. Notes:

  • NC State's second leading scorer is out with a hamstring injury, leaving NC State with five, count 'em, five scholarship players. Yikes.
  • Also: Engin Atsur reminds me of a GSI I had named "Emre Enginarlar," who was a fave-rave of ours.
  • Epke Udoh... kind of a badass so far.
  • Yay Brad Nessler.
  • Brent Petway has his number shaved into his head. I don't know how to react to that. It's like he thinks it's 1992.
  • Sidney Lowe is NC State's coach. this is causing constant confusion.

Sims abandons his man to double, gets caught way far away, and his dude hits an open jumper. Smith almost tosses teh ball away. WOOOOOOOO PETWAY ALLEY OOP. Nice rebound from Udoh. Abram gets Coleman an open three; miss.

Harris travel bleah. Five TO already.

7:26 PM. WOOOO PETWAY BLOCK. WOOOOO PETWAY BLOCK. WOOOOOO. We can't hit shots on the other end to extend the lead, though. Udoh screws up a rebound, allowing a freshman who looks six to get an and one -- missed the continuation.

Nessler's a little obsessed with Petway... they're in a zone, we're befuddled. Harris jacks up a prayer that misses; Sims cleans it up. 22-14 at the eight minute break.

ESPN 2's bottom line has a countdown to Monday Night Football. I hate Monday Night Football. I hate the implication that I live for Monday Night Football. Tuesday is not six days away from Monday. It is four days away from Saturday, and Saturday does not "tide me over," you college-football-hating communists. In conclusion, please die.

7:33 PM. Lexus doesn't have a sale. They have a "sales event."

Hey, look, Danny Ainge.

Tough turnaround post basket by NC State. Abram miss... followed by crap offensive foul on Sims. Makeup call on the other end. 23 NBA teams have scouts in the building... this is what they call a working holiday. Smith lets his man get open for a three. They can't score, now only up three. Harris bricks a three. Grant goes right around Smith, and Amaker takes a TO.

I love how they're talking about NC State hanging in there like they're playing UConn or something. I know they're supposed to be terrible, but really... as soon as they went to the zone our offense collapsed. And turnover is followed by turnover. Smith AIRBALLS a jumper. Brutal.

Petway another huge block, but it sets up a lucky three. Turnover. Smith gets called for a blocking foul and we hit the break down by two. We haven't scored since the zone got put in. I think the reason I usually hate college basketball is that I spend most of it watching Michigan. Also, the kiddie-pool three point line is ridiculous. And the shot clock is way too long. And the refs are terrible. And the timeout problem is even worse in college. So never mind.

7:40 PM. They go back to man-to-man and Smith drives for a layup. Why go away from the zone? Petway gets a steal but get it poked way. Udoh block falls to NC State. Lucky basket.

Petway tips out a rebound, Ben Wallace Style, and gets a a feed from Smith for a basket... we get a three in our face nad miss one of our own. Smith almost turns it over. Smith is getting torched every time down. Airball from Coleman. This is infuriating. Five scholarship guys, missing their star player, picked last in the ACC, up five with the ball.

7:48 PM. Great. They come down, drive through the lane like we don't exist, and our final shot of the half comes after the whistle. NC State goes into the half up seven.

I don't want to overreact, but we're going winless in the Big Ten, missing the NIT, and Amaker should be fired at halftime. I hate basketball.

7:51 PM. "This team has the potential to make the Final Four." - Digger Phelps. Um.

8:04 PM. Second half starts with two bricked threes and a bricked Sims post move. Plus an open three knocked down on the other hend. NC State up twelve. Turnover. Brutal Petway foul on the other end.

Note: no Michigan free throws in the first half.

Sims bricks a turnaround. Finally something positive: transition opportunity leads to Harris free throws. Aaand that's a loose ball foul they didn't call, I hate you NCAA refs. Udoh in for Sims. More points for NC State, more bricked threes for Michgian. Udoh called for a foul on what looked like a clean block.

Petway knocks down a jumper... rubber rim. ANOTHER open three goes down for Nc State. If this gets to 20 I quit.

Now I'm rooting for it to get to 20 so I can get on with my life.

8:12 PM. Since NC State's best player went out they've outscored Michigan 44-18.

Harris hits a jumper. Offensive rebound for McCauley, then a wide open dunk. Near turnover. DeShawn Sims bricks a jumper. Drive for NC State pushes it to 18. Bricked three... now 2 for 14. One more NC State hoop and I can quit. Foul!

The tension! The horrible tension!

First one's down. Second one's down! NC State by twenty! WOOOOOOOOO.

8:20 PM. Heath Ledger is now macking on Julia Stiles in "Ten Things I Hate About You."


I'll let you know how it goes.


Theories And Axioms

Theories And Axioms Comment Count

Brian November 16th, 2006 at 3:01 PM

Things that are, in my opinion, that will inform the preview:

Both run defenses are kinda sorta overrated. Overrated by the stats, at least. Rushing defense is one of the strongest statistical correlations between numbers a team can put up and national championships, but -- like time of possession -- that can be understood as something of an effect stat, not a cause. What do teams that win national championships do? Win a lot, usually by big margins, because they're good. What do teams that win by a lot face a lot of? Pass attempts. What do they face not so much of? Rush attempts.

Anyone who thinks that Michigan and Ohio State are going to combine for 120 rushing yards is probably not so correct, and anyone expecting 1.4 YPC or 3.2 YPC out of Ohio State and Michigan's rushing games, respectively, is also probably not so correct. There will be movement on the ground by both teams, though I expect a good bit of OSU's to come from Troy Smith.

Michigan's offensive philosophy artificially holds down scoring against most teams. When you run 2/3rds of the time and lack a big play threat in your run game, you are going to have a lot of non-scoring drives. What scoring drives you do have are going to be long clock-mashers. Another way of saying that "Michigan leads the nation in time of possession" is "Michigan games don't have many drives in them." This artificially props the defense and deflates the offense.

... but not OSU. Balls, as they say, will be to the wall.

Michigan's gameplans to date do not have relevance. Michigan is not going to run on 80% of its first downs, nor is it going to close up shop with a two-touchdown lead. I've tried to note the divergent philosophies Michigan employs against teams they respect and teams they think they can roll over. The comparative scores of, say, the Minnesota games (28-14 Michigan versus 44-0 Ohio State) are more a function of philosophy than ability.

Turnovers -- especially fumbles -- are more luck than anything else. One thing causes turnovers consistently: quarterback pressure. Both teams have gotten a lot of it and thus a lot of turnovers. I don't think there's anything relevant in OSU's million interceptions versus Michigan's balance of fumbles and turnovers. If pressed, I'll admit that Henne is a tad more likely to make an inadvisable throw into coverage and that Chris Wells' tendency to fumble like whoah is unlikely to be relevant, but the turnover battle does not appreciably favor either team -- they're both amongst the nation's leaders -- and attempts to argue based on it are likely to result in ridicule and embarassment.

If you subscribe to the idea of "ownership," you are dumb. And I bet you wander by the roulette table, see four of five red, and go bet on black because it's a sure thing. Tressel's won four of five because his teams have been better over the last few years. Was it ownership when Michigan's worst team in the past 20 years was defeated with a last-second touchdown? Or when a sophomore John Navarre threw four interceptions? Ugh. The staggeringly fanciful idea that Carr, who neither goes on the field nor calls any of the plays, somehow becomes a much worse coach because he sees Tressel on the other side of the field is the sure sign of a diseased mind.

Even if OSU wins this year it will be more because of that whole senior-Heisman-winning-QB thing than some sort of mystical Sith crap Tressel uses to tighten Carr's sphincter.

(You'll note that not once in this blog's preview of the Penn State game did the concept of "ownership" come up.)