A closer look at Michigan penalty stats

Submitted by taistreetsmyhero on November 6th, 2017 at 4:03 AM

As there have been several posts in the last couple weeks complaining about refs and asserting that there is a systematic bias against Michigan, I thought I would take a closer look at penalty stats. Specifically, I wanted to go through each opponent and compare their penalty stats against Michigan to their average penalty stats.

The stats come from Team Rankings. They do have the limitation that results against Michigan comprise 1/9th of the data, especially consider Michigan is ranked very low in both penalties against and penalties drawn. This breakdown also doesn't say anything about the legitimacy of penalties called for and against Michigan, or potential missed calls for and against Michiga. It is simply a closer look at opponents' penalty stats against Michigan compared to their average.


Opponent Penalties Per Game Stats:

Opponent Rank Penalties/Game Opponent Penalties vs. Michigan Difference
Florida 126 8.4 5 -3.4
Cincinnati 111 7.6 4 -3.6
Air Force 5 3.8 3 -0.8
Purdue 85 6.7 10 3.3
Michigan State 86 6.8 11 4.2
Indiana 77 6.4 5 -1.4
Penn State 19 4.6 1 -3.6
Rutgers 64 6.0 3 -3
Minnesota 3 3.7 3 -0.7
  • Michigan rank: 102
  • Opponent average rank: 64
  • Average difference: -1.0 Penalties/Game

Opponent Penalty Yards Per Game Stats:

Opponent Rank Penalty Yards/Game Opponent Penalty Yards vs. Michigan Difference
Florida 88 60 45 -15
Cincinnati 114 70.6 30 -40.6
Air Force 11 35.5 29 -6.5
Purdue 80 56.8 82 25.2
Michigan State 90 60.4 81 20.6
Indiana 95 62.4 55 -7.4
Penn State 30 44.6 10 -34.6
Rutgers 56 50.9 20 -30.9
Minnesota 3 30.8 10 -20.8
  • Michigan rank: 113
  • Opponent average rank: 63
  • Average difference: -12.2 Penalty Yards/Game

Opponent Penalties Drawn Per Game Stats:

Opponent Rank Penalties Drawn/Game Michigan Penalties Difference
Florida 56 6.4 7 0.6
Cincinnati 16 7.6 7 -0.6
Air Force 130 3.6 7 3.4
Purdue 19 7.4 7 -0.4
Michigan State 97 5.1 7 1.9
Indiana 13 7.8 16 8.2
Penn State 64 6.1 6 -0.1
Rutgers 17 7.6 3 -4.6
Minnesota 67 6.0 9 3
  • Michigan rank: #113
  • Opponent average rank: 53
  • Average difference: 1.27 Penalties/Game

Michigan Penalty Yards Per Game Stats:

Opponent Rank Penalty Yards Drawn/Game Michigan Penalty Yards Difference
Florida 73 50.6 55 4.4
Cincinnati 6 75.5 68 -7.5
Air Force 128 33.4 72 38.6
Purdue 39 61.2 57 -4.2
Michigan State 87 47.8 53 5.2
Indiana 14 70.2 141 70.8
Penn State 58 56.4 59 2.6
Rutgers 28 64.2 25 -39.2
Minnesota 52 58.0 85 27
  • Michigan rank: #111
  • Opponent average rank: 54
  • Average difference: 10.86 Penalty Yards/Game

Some Additional Michigan Penalty Stats:

  • Penalties/Play: #123
  • Opponents Penalties/Play: #88


  • Penalty Yards/Penalty: #71
  • Opponent Penalty Yards/Penalty: #107


  • Penalty First Downs/Game: #119
  • Opponent Penalty First Downs/Game: #100


  • On average, opponents are called for 1 fewer penalties and 12.2 fewer penalty yards against Michigan than their average opponents.
  • On average, opponents draw 1.27 more penalties and 10.86 more penalty yards against Michigan than their average opponents.
  • Michigan ranks at the bottom at both drawing and committing penalties.
  • Overall, Michigan's opponents are squarely average at committing penalties, so that does not explain why Michigan draws so few penalties.
  • Overall, Michigan's opponents are slightly above average at drawing penalties, but this may be attributed to Michigan, one of the most penalized teams in the country, contributing 1/9th of the data.
  • Michigan's bottom ranking in penalties committed may simply be due to youth and poor execution.
  • However, Michigan's bottom ranking in penalties drawn is harder to justify. One could argue that Michigan's anemic passing game decreases opportunities to draw penalties against defenses. But one would expect Michigan's strong defense to draw its fair shair of penalties. Maybe next time, I will look for a correlation between penalties drawn and Defensive S&P to see if that expectation is valid.



November 6th, 2017 at 7:36 AM ^

I think youth and experience ARE heavy factors.  The offensive penalties are either false starts or holding by an inexperienced OL.  The receivers are being called for holding or illegal blocks and that is a very young group.

On defense, we seem to be getting an unusual number of hands to the face penalties and a large number of offsides calls.  This just points to aggressiveness.  At a glance, I don't feel outraged at the pass interference calls.  We have received a number of phantom calls, but we have gotten away with plays that should have been called.

I am upset at the lack of respect our DL gets.  They are held on nearly every play.  Rashan Gary has to wonder what he can do to get a call.  Maybe he needs to just go to the ground like other teams do to draw a call.  Hurst, on the other hand, doesn't let holding stop him - he simply trucks the holder and runs through him anyway.

I long for the day when the game is called consistently and a hold for one team is a hold for the other.


November 6th, 2017 at 8:18 AM ^

I would only counter that last year Michigan got about half a call more on their opponents than themselves. And if you look at MSU, they have far more penalties called on them than their opponents. It really just feels like a young team with lots of moving parts messing up.


November 6th, 2017 at 12:30 PM ^

I don't think there is much room for fault in terms of the penalty stats against Michigan. Youth, poor execution, and the eye ball test all verify that most of the calls against Michigan are valid (within normal ref error).

The paucity of penalties drawn by Michigan is the real head scratcher, especially considering the numbers are so far below average for our opponents.


November 6th, 2017 at 1:36 PM ^

That is true.  But they did get 11 against MSU, so they have gotten weird spurts.

I looked back a couple of years and this is about half a penalty less called against their opponents than Michigan's historical averaged of around 5.4.  So it definitely is a "thing", but with such small sample sizes it's hard to tell if, say, they get 10 against Maryland they'll be right on average.  The distribution has been weird, absolutely.


November 6th, 2017 at 9:14 AM ^

I realize it’s last year vs. this year, but I just can’t get it out of my head that OSU was called for 2 penalties for a total of 6 yards in The Game last year. Those stats are so out of the norm that even the Big Ten must know something was amiss.

I’ve taken to calling my Bucknut co-worker “2 for 6.” Never forget!


November 6th, 2017 at 9:23 AM ^

I just get tired of seeing our defensive line get blatantly held with no flags thrown, and then we get called for marginal chop blocks or ineligible man downfield or whatever penalty wiped out a TD against Florida. If the refs are watching close enough to call obscure or questionable stuff, how do they miss our DL getting held constantly. Last season, Michigan did not have an opponent called for offensive holding during the last 5 games. That is unbelievable. 


November 6th, 2017 at 11:48 AM ^

Several games this year teams have gone with out a hold verse the dline. Rutgers got called twice and I believe that was the most anyone was called.
The dline has 3 guy that are elite at disrupting and getting penetration and we have played against some iffy lines. However, very few holds get called. It is crazy.


November 6th, 2017 at 9:44 AM ^

Nice job.  I wonder what the numbers would look like if you ran the same analysis over several seasons?  

I suppose all of this could really be explained away as mere incompetence.  But if it's more than that, here is one theory FWIW:

I do a lot of civil rights litigation.  With discrimination, there are two key theories: "disparate treatement" and "disparate impact."  Disparate treatment is a fancy term for intentional discrimination--it means we are going to treat people less favorably because of their race, sex, ethnicity, etc., and we are going to do it on purpose.  That's pretty easy to understand.

Disparate impact is a bit more complicated.  With disparate impact, that means you have have a policy that superficially treats everyone the same (i.e., it does not discriminate based on race, sex, ethnicity, religion, etc.).  Yet the policy tends to disproportionately harm members of a particular race, sex, etc.  To take an extreme example, let's say you have a Ann Arbor company that will only hire employees whose famiies have lived in Washtenaw County for at least three generations.  Well, that policy is obviously going to exclude immigrants and the children of immigrants, and may also dispropotionately exclude people belonging to racial or ethnic groups that have historically been underrepresented in Washtenaw County.  

A policy that has a disparate impact is not necessarily unlawful--even if it has a discriminatory effect, the person or entity using that policy can potentially justify it (e.g., perhaps the company in question is some kind of Washtenaw County historical society and they show that it's important for its staff to have enduring ties to the community or something).  But that part isn't really important in connection with officiating.  

If we look at officiating, I really don't believe that Big Ten crews go out onto the field with the intention of screwing Michigan or screwing Harbaugh.  But often you see officials adopt certain styles or ways of calling the game that are kind of arbitrary in comparison with the rulebook.  On offensive holding, for instance, it does seem that lots of officiating crews tend to swallow the whistle and only call egregious holds (such as where DL are tackled when about to sack QBs), or only call holding on outside plays, or only call holding once early to "send a message" and then swallow the whistle after that.  Well, if you are not going to call every instance of holding that you observe, then that policy is not going to affect all teams evenly.  It's going to disadvantage teams with faster, more athletiic defensive players--and work to the advantage of teams with stiffer, lower-skiller blockers.  So while you may not have set out to purposefully screw Michigan, your policy will nonetheless have the effect--i.e., it will have a disparate impact on Michigan--a team that would likely draw more holding penalties with its fast and well-coached defense than it would likely surrender with its janky OL.

You can look for the same kinds of "policies" at different spots on the field.  Pick routes are another area where M has tended to get hosed, as well as OL releasing downfield on passing plays.  

One area that seems to have worked out well for the most part for M is on defensive pass intereference.  We've all seen officials who call PI at the first sign of contact, but to their credit most Big Ten crews tend to let hand-fighting and incidental contact go so long as the defender is looking back for the ball.



November 6th, 2017 at 11:42 AM ^

According to espn team stats for the game you flip the penelty yards for the game. Michigan had 6-59 psu had 1 for 10.
That brings it to -3.6 instead on +1.4 for that game.


November 6th, 2017 at 1:12 PM ^

That was the game that really stuck out for me. I was watching in Phoenix with a buddy who hates harbaugh because of his time in SF. He has very vocal about how one sided it was for PSU.
There have been games this year that I really did not have a problem with the refs. Some correspond with your charts. For instance, this was the first msu game under harbaugh I did not spend the whole game yelling at the refs to call it fair.
However, there are games were Michigan gets a bunch of ticky tack stuff while the opponents don't get called. Michigan has played 2 top 2 teams in a 9 game span and those teams had 3 penelties for 16 yards and one game went to 2 over times? Ridiculous.


November 6th, 2017 at 1:20 PM ^

Moreover, you would expect the physically overmatched teams on the schedule to have more penelties verse michigan than their average, would you not? Because they would need to do things like hold or opi against this very good defense. Yet, only one truly overmatched team is above their average.
I think if we did this for the teams like Wisconsin, OSU, and psu, who have played a few teams this year where they had a huge physical advantage on, you would see an uptick in the opponents penelties compared to their average against teams completely overmatched.

UM Griff

November 6th, 2017 at 1:55 PM ^

Fascinating to see M penalties in relation to our opponents. The Indiana game stands out in terms of penalties called against us. That officiating crew was arbitrarily harsh in dropping the flags, in spite of the youth of our team.


November 7th, 2017 at 6:13 PM ^

Penalties that kept a drive alive with a 1st down when a punt was coming or took away a 1st down or big play.

That’s really where a ref can have more bang for his buck.