Beating The Shotgun Horse

Submitted by Brian on July 7th, 2011 at 2:14 PM

MGoBlog: where no sleeping dog is left to lie, and no dead horse is to remain unbeaten.  -Blue in South Bend


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In re: shotgun + Denard + site obsession with Denard in shotgunFootball Study Hall put up a post with interception rates that highlights one of the many problems Michigan had turning yards into points last year: Denard's interception rate. Amongst a sample of 100 D-I quarterbacks* he finishes 84th. The only BCS quarterbacks to do worse were Garrett Gilbert, Stephen Garcia, Jeremiah Masoli, Steven Threet, BJ Daniels, and Jacory Harris. This is not good company. Harris and Garcia are 1-2 on this list


1. Jacory Harris. The nation's leader in zesty interceptions won't let being benched stop him. If it gets too bad with new boss Al Golden, he'll just go throw 'em in the street if he has to, because swag like Jacory's never sleeps, and when it does it lands wherever it wants.

2. Stephen Garcia. With confidence. With verve. With GARCIA.

…and the omission of BJ Daniels, who either throws an 87 yard touchdown or three interceptions every play, must have been an oversight thanks to South Florida's ability to fade into the background.

Denard's interceptions weren't zesty. They were like—and I say this in all seriousness—watching the cutest puppy in the world fly headlong into another puppy's head, killing both. The defense was like watching the puppy blood run into the gutter. This is the most precise analogy ever made. Also the field goal kicking was like watching the deceased puppies reanimate just so they could poop all over everything. The Rich Rodriguez era: defined.


Right. So forwards into the endless and admittedly pretty pointless discussion about the best thing to do for the team the next couple years when they have a 5'11" dreadlocked bolt of lightning at quarterback. My position is blindingly clear: Shotgun Today, Shotgun Tomorrow, Shotgun Forever. For the next two years, at least.

Objections raised from the comments largely revolve around the idea that last year's turnover and redzone performances were flukes that should be expected to magically repair themselves. An example:

I think its a pretty big reach to say there's any "evidence" to suggest that the offense will revert to the mean.  College Football  red zone offenses are not random occurrences within a normal population.  Oregon and Auburn weren't so good in the red zone because they got randomly lucky.  Michigan wasn't terrible because we weren't randomly unlucky.

The offense was terrible in the red zone because:

1) Nobody could make a FG longer than 25 yards (this isn't something that will revert until someone can kick the ball)

2) Our offense simply didn't work as well in the red zone (I don't know why---playcalling, B1G defenses, nerves, but it isn't something that happened because of random chance)

There is no guaranteed regression to the mean in nonrandom circumstances, like football.  Michigan was terrible in the red zone because being terrible in the red zone WAS the mean for Michigan in 2010.

You hope #1 will be solved by the addition of Matt Wile. We are all gunshy about this but highly rated kickers—which Wile was by the end of the year—usually do well. That actually turns out to be irrelevant, about which see this long footnote**. The redzone issues come down to two things: turnovers, about which see above, and giving the ball back on downs.

Michigan did the latter four times last year, all of them late in already-decided games (one against Wisconsin and OSU, two against Mississippi State). They missed one field goal. They failed to score eleven more times because they straight-up turned the ball over.

As far as #2, the whole reason people do these study things and use stats is to have something to argue against people who use the word "simply" as their conversational gambit. Oh, it's simple to you, is it? Well, fine then. I guess you and your galaxy-spanning intellect win. It is possible that NFL football is so different than college football that studies do not cross over, but it is extremely unlikely, and that FO study showed really good redzone teams one year are almost precisely average the next.

In Michigan's case they should expect more than randomness to work in their favor. The common thread of Rich Rodriguez's tenure at Michigan was young or terrible quarterbacks. Three years of Threet/Sheridan, Forcier/Denard, Denard/Forcier should see you give away turnovers like they're candy. There are no upperclassmen on that list except the walk-on; there's only a few confused snaps from a hopelessly raw Denard preventing that list from having any sophomore starters.

The spread 'n' shred in general and Rodriguez in particular haven't shown they are turnover-prone. On the contrary, being able to run 70% of the time and have a good offense should cut down on turnovers since passes are inherently more risky.

From Maize 'n' Brew:

And that is what this comes down to. Common sense. Your eyes. If your eyes are telling you that you're watching a turd of a football game, well... you are. If your reaction to the Wisconsin Michigan game was that Michigan just got completely curb stomped by Wisconsin in the first half, mounted a minor comeback when Wisconsin took a third quarter nap, and then still got blown out by 20 points at home, well... that's what you saw. Perhaps the stats tell a different story. Maybe. But while the stats say that Michigan ran up an astounding 442 yards against Wisconsin they don't relate what actually happened at the game.

I try to back up my opinions with statistical evidence because the use of tools is the thing that separates bloggers and chimpanzees from other primates like newspaper columnists and sports talk radio hosts not on WTKA.

If you want to go on your gut, I can do that too: Michigan has a 5'11"-ish quarterback who ran for 1700 yards last year and an offensive line that's now 100% recruited to zone block all day. They don't really have a promising running back. I feel, like, not good, man, about Michigan in the I-form.

Or I could say that "common sense" suggests that Wisconsin was not trying to let Michigan score in the third quarter and that the overall results should be taken in appropriate context, but then we're back to feelings, man.

What Is The Core?

I just don't see how the spread offense is responsible for turnovers except insofar as it puts an erratic Denard Robinson on the field instead of a finely-polished artillery piece, and who wants to fix Michigan's issues by replacing Denard Robinson?


/Munn Ice Arena

/people stapling each other's hands to their sides just in case they have a hand-raising seizure

Not having Denard drop back from center does not make his throwing mechanics worse. If anything it allows him to ignore a complicated facet of football—NFL coaches are constantly bitching that college quarterbacks no longer know how to execute a five-step drop—and focus on throwing it to the guy who's really open because you're not running the ball.

Meanwhile, the run game was kind of good last year despite having the worst set of tailbacks at Michigan since at least that year BJ Askew got half the carries. This is directly attributable to putting Robinson in a position to run, something an I-form doesn't.

There are quarterback draws and waggle plays, yes. Opponents will be all over them because those are constraint plays—not your base. Smart Football on how you build an offense:

The idea is that you have certain plays that always work on the whiteboard against the defense you hope to see — the pass play that always works against Cover 3, the run play that works against the 4-3 under without the linebackers cheating inside. Yes, it is what works on paper. But we don’t live in a perfect world: the “constraint” plays are designed to make sure you live in one that is as close as possible to the world you want, the world on the whiteboard.

Constraint plays thus work on defenders who cheat. For example, the safety might get tired of watching you break big runs up the middle, so he begins to cheat up. Now you call play-action and make him pay for his impatience. The outside linebackers cheat in for the same reason; to stop the run. Now you throw the bubble screen, run the bootleg passes to the flat, and make them pay for their impatience. Now the defensive ends begin rushing hard upfield; you trap, draw, and screen them to make them pay for getting out of position. If that defensive end played honest your tackle could block him; if he flies upfield he cannot. Constraint plays make them get back to basics. Once they get back to playing honest football, you go back to the whiteboard and beat them with your bread and butter.

The argument here is about the core of the offense: in the I-form that's Denard dropping back to pass or handing off to someone else. In the shotgun it's the zone running game. As the core of the offense you can't remove Denard from the game. You cheat and then there's a guy wide open. While Denard's legs are a terrifying constraint, Michigan has to force the opponent to cheat to use them.

I'll believe these tailbacks and this offensive line and this almost total lack of fullback and tight end can do that running power up the middle when I see it. If they can't you've just taken the most dangerous weapon in college football*** out of the game. You shouldn't do that. It's common sense.


*[I'm not sure why there were 100 quarterbacks instead of approximately 120 + a few injury replacements, so keep that in mind.]

**[Long aside on Michigan's historically awful field goal kicking goes here. Nonnair posted a diary asserting that the lack of field goal kicking was not a factor in red zone efficiency because Michigan actually scored more points than they could have if they kicked it:

The other seven fourth-down attempts I am dividing into two groups: (1) FG is the likeliest option and only a riverboat gambling coach or a team without a FG kicker would go for it, and (2) FG is only a possible option, either because it'd be very long, or because there was only 1 yard to gain for a first down so going for it is a viable option.

Bottom line?  If we had tried FGs on all seven of those drives last year, even if we had Adam Vinatieri circa 2002 and he went 7-for-7, the most UM could have scored was 21 points.

As it was? UM got 27 points out of those drives. Six more points.

This is only one half of the equation, though, because Michigan did attempt a bunch of field goals and they went like this:


All that red in the Michigan zone is value earned by the offense that was lost by the kicker on obvious kicking opportunities. So on the field goals Michigan tried last year, we threw away 16 points, versus the six this study shows M getting back by being forced to do a statistically correct thing that teams don't usually do because their fans don't trust statistics.

Misopogon threw this behind a jump on Sunday.

Nonnair turns out to be right: the field goal kicking did not have much of an impact on the red zone efficiency because Michigan's misses are all clustered just outside. However, the statistically correct behavior Michigan engaged in also had no effect. Six of the seven attempts were outside the red zone and the one that was inside it, a fourth and one from the Penn State 13, was converted and led to a field goal anyway.

So we're down to just the massive turnovers. I hope this section has highlighted how goofy red zone efficiency is.]

***[Other than Charles Robinson.]


Mitch Cumstein

July 7th, 2011 at 5:41 PM ^

That he loves the spread and shred and claims it gives a distinct tactical advantage b/c of a running QB over other college offenses.  So I don't think he is really flip-flopping, I just think he wants the shotgun QB running type spread more than anything else.


July 7th, 2011 at 5:58 PM ^

Holy Mother of God.  If there is one thing that I hope our new coaching staff learned by witnessing the RR fiasco is that we are not a patient fanbase.

Forget the Soviet Five Year Plan.  You can't tell us to be patient and go away for years until the players are fully suited to the new system and it finally works as intended.

Fair or not, you've got to feed us along the way . . . a bowl game, a winning season, a win over a big rival, not getting blown out by the top tier of the conference, etc.

Get some intermediate victories along the way, and live to fight another day.  If that means running a bunch of RR-esque zone read option plays while we have Denard, so be it.  

A few more Lloyd-esque handoffs to Brandon Minor in the Pro-I may have bought RR more time early on when he needed it most.   


July 7th, 2011 at 6:06 PM ^

He absolutely siad that....but the reason for that belief lies in the fact that if you have Threet/Sheridan, it doesn't matter what offense you run, you are going to suck anyways.  May as well start the transition as soon as possible.  

With Denard, you have an offense that can be otherwordly (now that he is not an underclassman anymore) OR you can hit the reset button and see a significant downtrend in offensive production.  I prefer we stay in the spread since DR has proven to be quite effective when not throwing INT's - something that would have happened in a pro set as well.


July 7th, 2011 at 7:19 PM ^

2008 was different. There was a mass exodus of talent on offense that year and I think everyone knew in the back of their minds that it was going to be a throwaway season. Even if Lloyd had stayed, we were looking at a 6-6 year given the dearth of talent on offense. Not the case this year.

Kilgore Trout

July 8th, 2011 at 9:16 AM ^

But man, that would have been so much better than 3-9.  Rodriguez probably still has the job if he goes 6-6 and builds from there.  I know the general belief is that with Sheridan and Threet being what they were, Rodriguez should have just implemented from the start, but I disagree with that.  If you have bad QBs, don't run an offense that puts so much of a burden on them.  I still think Threet could have been an equal to Navarre if put in the right situation.

Fuzzy Dunlop

July 7th, 2011 at 5:39 PM ^

Brian oftentimes seems to take advantage of the fact that most of us don't have the time or, admittedly, ability to compile statistical evidence for a certain position to suggest that no such statistical evidence can possibly exist, without bothering to marshal the evidence in support of his countervailing theory.

Hence, he mocks those of us who think that our offensive performance against Wisconsin was not as impressive as pure points/yardage suggest -- "Or I could say that 'common sense' suggests that Wisconsin was not trying to let Michigan score in the third quarter and that the overall results should be taken in appropriate context, but then we're back to feelings, man" -- yet he never bothers to present the evidence that yards and points are just as hard to come by when a team is down by three scores as in a tie game.

I'd like to see the statistical evidence, either way.  What are the average yards given up by a typical team on a defensive drive when they are up by 21, versus when the game is tied?  It may very well be that my gut is wrong, and our points against Wisconsin were equally impressive as if they had come in the second half.  But I think its funny that Brian is mocking us for presenting a theory without supporting stats, when he's doing the same thing.

Drowning Man

July 7th, 2011 at 5:35 PM ^

With reference to this question (regarding turnover margin regressing to the mean), I would argue that the NFL is a league in which regression to the mean is the intended outcome of most league policies. The way schedules are made, the way the draft is structured: all of this is intended to encourage parity. Is it unreasonable, then, to think that regression to the mean in many statistical categories is what makes the NFL the NFL?

College football is different of course; there are no built-in tools that effect regression to the mean for statistical categories. Ohio State probably always has a positive turnover margin (and Purdue doesn't) because they are Purdue and Ohio State. This is not a chicken/egg thing either; Ohio State has dudes who make more turnovers. 

So, while I wouldn't discount the fact that experienced QBs tend to turn it over less, I also wouldn't assume that an NFL study on turnover margin is directly applicable to CFB. 


July 7th, 2011 at 5:37 PM ^

Forget stats.  I'm going for asthetics.

It just looks awkward seeing Denard under center.  Like a Shriner on one of those little motorcycles in a parade.



July 7th, 2011 at 5:58 PM ^

Shouldn't the shotgun be better for a QB who is 5'11? I know this isn't groundbreaking but it should be easier to see over the giant lineman. Just a question, don't pound me into oblivion!

The FannMan

July 7th, 2011 at 6:41 PM ^

Sweet holy mother of Bo, can we actually wait until we see the new offense to argue about whether Rich Rod's offense would have been better?  




July 7th, 2011 at 7:13 PM ^

In their public statements, the coaches been so vague and contradictory on their plans for the offense this fall that I've decided to take it all with a big grain of salt. The only definitive thing I've heard Borges or Hoke say is that Denard won't run for 1700 yards this year. But they've also said contradictiory things like "we're blowing it all up" followed by "we'll be using shotgun formations more than we ever have". It's possible that they're being coy and that they don't intend to deviate wildly from what Rodriguez did last year. It's also possible that they're planning on going full-on round hole MANBALL, square pegs be damned. Personally, I don't think Borges really knows yet what exactly he's going to do, and that he'll build his offense based on how much progress he thinks the running backs and Denard's passing have made in the offseason. He won't know that until fall practice starts.

Having said that, this was a great post for early July.


July 7th, 2011 at 9:58 PM ^

Maybe it's too nuanced for a message board.


I'm not saying Michigan NEVER did well except in garbage time, I'm saying against Wisco (and PSU and OSU) they ONLY did well in garbage time.  See the difference?  It's a fairly big one and strikes at the heart of the point I'm raising, which is I disagree with the way Brian uses stats to argue that our offense was actually more effective than average against Wisconsin.


July 8th, 2011 at 2:24 AM ^

How do you define "doing well?"

In the first half of the OSU game (when we were still in the game and was definitely not "garbage time"), we had over 225 yards and a TD. Against one of the best 5 defenses in the nation, I would think that was a pretty good half. But I guess you are free to make whatever agument you want, even if it is ridiculous.


July 8th, 2011 at 10:02 AM ^

OSU has a bend and don't break defense, they'll give up the yards to have the other team execute more plays in the hopes of getting a to or a 3'rd down stop.  The UM offense had six possessions, five of which ended with zero points:


- 2 missed 4'th down coversions

- 2 turnovers

- 1 punt

- 1 TD


In what world is this a good offensive half?


July 7th, 2011 at 10:52 PM ^

I'd wager a large sum of money that the people agreeing with Brian are engineering, physics and math majors, and the people disagreeing aren't.

Mitch Cumstein

July 8th, 2011 at 11:57 AM ^

And I'm not sure I completely agree with Brian.  I mean, at this point I'm not even sure what he is arguing.  That RR's spread is better than an offense we don't know about yet?  I think he takes advanced stats too far in my opinion, especially with football.  Football is a bad sport for stats in general.  Baseball is a pretty good sport for advanced stats.


July 7th, 2011 at 11:02 PM ^

I agree with Brian, we need that threat of DROB running through defenses to be effective. The shotgun will rule through DROBS reign. Eventually we may migrate towards a Stanford style offense as our D becomes dominating in three to four years.  DROB will improve in decision making and that will help cut down the turnovers.  My main concern for this season is the defense. I hope the coaches can works some magic and we dramatically improve our defensive game this season!


July 8th, 2011 at 12:01 AM ^

"They don't really have a promising running back. I feel, like, not good, man, about Michigan in the I-form."

Mike Cox will start at RB for Michigan in the Fall.  That seems somewhat promising to me.


July 8th, 2011 at 6:40 AM ^

Maize and Brew.  The eye test is all that was needed.  We racked up numbers... and also losses.  We couldn't score against good teams, especially when it counted.  Moving up and down the field against tOSU doesn't really matter when you lose by 30.  

The abundance of turnovers can be explained by the fact that we stunk.  No matter how many yards we racked up on Indiana, UMass, or even Wisconsin (once we were down) 24... we STUNK.

Analyzing the reasons for our odor the last three years is becoming mind-numbing.  


July 8th, 2011 at 7:30 AM ^

going to be an every other day thing until the season starts? two articles pissing and moaning about the offense before they even start fall practice. we were top 10 in total offense last year but only had 57 TD's, which ranked us somewhere in the high teens. that means one of two things, we either turned it over or the offense stalled in the red zone.

you love rich rod and the offense. we get that. you've been blindly preaching that the last 3 years. fact is, it didn't work. the offense was a blast when we played indiana, illinois, nd and mac teams but where was it against msu, the first 3 quarters against iowa, the first half against psu and wisconsin or last two games against osu and miss st? all i saw was a bunch of 3 and outs or turnovers that forced our swiss cheese defense be on the field even longer than usual.

you were against hoke and company from the beginning, so i don't expect you to be fair in your analysis once games begin in september.

finally, i double dog dare you to post one rant without mentioning rodriguez or the 'spread and shred'. it's over. let it die.



July 8th, 2011 at 8:28 AM ^

I read the Maize 'N' Brew blog the other day and agreed with the Wisconsin explanation.  After the game the Rodriguez cool-aid drinkers were happy with the performance.  I believe the Wisconsin defense did lose their intensity after half time.  I played basketball and if we were winning by a large margin at half time it was hard to come out in the second half with the same intensity.  RR COOL-AID DRINKER:  "We just racked up over 400 yards of offense against a stout Badger defense".  BEER DRINKER: " Ya we did, but we still lost 48-28 at home".   RR COOL-AID DRINKER: " Offensive yards are more important than points scored".  Thank god that mess is behind us.  I do agree that Robinson should still operate out of the shotgun 50% of the time especially if the RB's continue to perform the way they have in the past. 


July 8th, 2011 at 9:57 AM ^

The flaw in your position is that the "beer drinker" would have been praising the offense, had the defense managed to hold Wisconsin to 27.

Nobody thinks yards are "more important" than points.  But there is a convincing argument that there are better indicators of offensive prowess than points scored.  


July 8th, 2011 at 10:20 AM ^

My stats predicted that Mgoblog would regress to the mean at around January 2011, with other Michigan blogs eventually taking over as the premier, above-the-mean blogs.  My tools allowed me to abstract from, and thus measure the combination of overly-stylized writing, overly-abstracted and falsely generalized statistical analyses, and biased religious adherence to one particular coach and system. My R value allowed me to predict that Mgoblog would indeed be fall behind. Perhaps the void of common sense evident in the qualitative arugments proferred by the site's lead analyst would have led me to this conclusion without having to engage in my own version of highly abstractive and questionably generated and generalized stats, but I can't rely on just qualittative analysis, for its not "scientific". 

Yes, you guys may not get or understand my magical statistical analysis and complicated reasoning, but unless you can counter it with your own complicated reasoning backed by magical statistical analysis, you cannot make an argument. Those are my criteria. And thus any argument you make is dumb. Which relationally means I am smarter than you are. I use my stats to make points that you cannot argue against, using my criteria of what counts as an argument, so that I may feel smart. 

That hugely run-on-sentence? That complicated language? Case in point. Unless you can counter my arguments with the same, I am smart and you are dumb. 

Now if we could just get guys like Magnus, TomVH, jmblue to move to one of those now above-the-mean blogs. 


July 8th, 2011 at 10:27 AM ^

and more speicifically, the main writers went to the shitter midway through the Rich era. brian and company were so blinded by their mancrush on rich that they failed to see what was right in front of epic failure. brian's utter disgust of the hoke hire portrayed him as a hypocrite and most times he came off as a monumental d-bag. x-pacs little brother will now spend the next few years tearing hoke apart after every game regardless of the outcome when he blamed everyone else but the previous staff for their failures.

thank god for TomVH.


July 8th, 2011 at 12:17 PM ^

I don't have stats to back this up....but I think the offense was pretty good.  By itself.  But what makes a great offense, great, is its defense.  It is tough to be a great offense if you are constantly trying to catch up or have no margin for error.  This is what plagued the offense last year.  No margin for error.  Needed to score on almost every possession to keep the team in the game...

For this year, I think Hoke/Borges will be smart enough to keep Denard as Denard.


July 8th, 2011 at 12:29 PM ^

I find it interesting that one of Brian's complaints with RR was that RR forced Gerg to run a defense he probably was not comfortable with and didn't know much about.  Now, Borges is supposed to run an offense he might not be entirely comfortable with and/or know much about?


July 8th, 2011 at 1:49 PM ^

Brian, plus over half of the people posting here, know more about football strategy than I do, but I'm curious as to what the counter-argument is to running the shotgun.  The shogun obviously gives the QB a better view of field, and puts him further from rushers.  Yet, most teams, including almost all pro teams, go from under the center.

The pro-under center arguments that come to mind are:

1.  The running back (and the QB on sneaks) hits the line faster.

2. Screens and other quick passes can be initiated faster.

3. less risky transfer from center to QB.

I agree with Brian that as long we have Denard we should emphasize shotgun, but I'm wondering in general if there are other counter-arguments besides those?


July 9th, 2011 at 9:37 AM ^

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