One of the ideas being tossed around in the wake of the disappointing loss to Wisconsin is that Michigan lacks mental toughness. The idea states that, moreso than other teams, when the going gets rough Michigan folds under the pressure.
I wondered how one might quantify such a behavior and see if there is data to support or deny this idea. The thing I decided to consider was this: How does a team perform in the second half of a game when it finds itself losing at halftime?
Now, you can argue that this does not really address mental toughness. You could argue it's more about teams that start poorly, or about coaches' abilities to make halftime adjustments. But I think it's a good way to at least start looking at this notion.
I decided to look at the time period that Jim Harbaugh has been Michigan's coach - the past two seasons plus all the games so far this season. I looked at the four teams who have seriously contended for the B1G East title during that time - Michigan, Penn State, Ohio State, and Michigan State.
I have grouped a team's second-half performance in a game they were losing at halftime into four categories, from best to worst:
Rally: The losing team comes back and wins the game.
Failed Rally: The losing team ties or wins the second half, but it is not enough to win the game.
Steady Decline: The losing team continues to fall behind at more or less the same rate it did in the first half.
Collapse: The losing team has a worse performance in the second half than it did in the first half.
|2015||Utah||Losing 10-3||24-17 Loss||Failed Rally||Harbaugh's first game|
|Minnesota||Losing 16-14||29-26 Win||Rally||4th quarter goal line stand|
|Ohio State||Losing 14-10||42-13 Loss||Collapse||Rudock shoulder ow|
|2016||Indiana||Losing 7-3||20-10 Win||Rally||O'Korn's 2016 start|
|Florida State||Losing 20-6||33-32 Loss||Failed Rally||Peppers injured pre-game, Butt later|
|2017||Florida||Losing 17-13||33-17 Win||Rally||SHARKBAIT OOH HA HA|
|Purdue||Losing 10-7||28-10 Win||Rally||Speight injured, O'Korn in.|
|Michigan State||Losing 14-3||14-10 Loss||Failed Rally||rained a bit|
|Penn State||Losing 21-13||42-13 Loss||Collapse||wait wasn't this just a nightmare I had|
|Rally||4 out of 9||44.4%|
|Failed Rally||3 out of 9||33.3%|
|Steady Decline||0 out of 9||0%|
|Collapse||2 out of 9||22.2%|
As you can see, 7 times out of 9 whan a Harbaugh team has found itself down at halftime, it comes out with an improved performance in the second half. It's not always enough to get the win, but 78% of the time it's an improvement at least. The Ohio State game where Rudock seperated his shoulder and this year's Penn State debacle are the only two exceptions to this list. If you're looking for Wisconsin, remember it was tied at halftime, so the game is not considered using this methodology. This might be an inherent flaw worth discussing.
|2015||Ohio State||Losing 21-3||Loss 38-10||Steady Decline|
|Northwestern||Losing 20-7||Loss 23-21||Failed Rally|
|Michigan||Losing 14-10||Loss 28-16||Steady Decline|
|Michigan State||Losing 20-10||Loss 55-16||Collapse|
|Georgia||Losing 17-3||Loss 24-17||Failed Rally|
|2016||Pittsburgh||Losing 28-14||Loss 42-39||Failed Rally|
|Michigan||Losing 28-0||Loss 49-10||Steady Decline||Sad Field Goal|
|Minnesota||Losing 13-3||Win 29-26||Rally|
|Ohio State||Losing 12-7||Win 24-21||Rally|
|Michigan State||Losing 12-10||Win 45-12||Rally|
|Wisconsin||Losing 28-14||Win 38-31||Rally||B1G Championship game|
|USC||Losing 27-21||Loss 52-49||Failed Rally||Rose Bowl|
|2017||Iowa||Losing 7-5||Win 21-19||Rally|
|Rally||5 out of 13||38.5%|
|Failed Rally||4 out of 13||30.8%|
|Steady Decline||3 out of 13||23.1%|
|Collapse||1 out of 13||7.7%|
Penn State's stats are very similar to Michigan's, with a somewhat higher number of samples. Penn State has rallied 69% of the time, but like Michigan the rally comes up just short almost as often as it succeeds. Penn State's history is notable in that they were terrible at rallying up to and including our 49-10 pasting of them last year. They went on a tear immediately afterwards, successfully overcoming their next four halftime deficits including the B1G championship. I think many of us are still struggling to see Penn State as a championship caliber team, instead of as a team we treated like a MAC opponent.
All right, everyone ready to feel crappy? Let's dive in.
|2015||Virginia Tech||Losing 17-14||Win 42-24||Rally|
|Indiana||Losing 10-6||Win 34-27||Rally|
|2016||Wisconsin||Losing 16-6||Win 30-23 OT||Rally|
|Michigan||Losing 10-7||Win 30-27 (2OT)||Rally||FUUUUUUUUUUUUUU|
|Clemson||Losing 17-0||Loss 31-0||Steady Decline||CFP semifinal|
|2017||Indiana||Losing 14-13||Win 49-21||Rally|
|Penn State||Losing 28-17||Win 39-38||Rally|
|Iowa||Losing 31-17||Loss 55-24||Collapse|
|Rally||6 out of 8||75%|
|Failed Rally||0 out of 8||0%|
|Steady Decline||1 out of 8||12.5%|
|Collapse||1 out of 8||12.5%|
Ohio State's record here is more similar to Michigan's than you might have suspected. They've been down at halftime only one fewer time in the past 2.9 seasons than we have. Like us, this is a mixture of tough battles against good teams and inexplicable first-half farts against the dregs of the conference. Like us, the Buckeyes are very likely to rally in the second half. The one major difference is that Ohio State successfully closed out all six of its rallies. "Coming up just short" is not something Ohio State has experienced lately when facing a halftime deficit. If you're part of the "this coin always comes up tails" crowd, here's the data for you.
Also, that Iowa game, man.
|2015||Michigan||Losing 10-7||Win 27-24||Rally||UUUUUUUUUUUUUUCK|
|Iowa||Losing 6-3||Win 16-13||Rally|
|Alabama||Losing 10-0||Loss 38-0||Collapse||CFP semifinal|
|2016||Wisconsin||Losing 13-6||Loss 30-6||Collapse|
|Northwestern||Losing 19-17||Loss 54-40||Collapse|
|Michigan||Losing 27-10||Loss 32-23||Failed Rally||Defeated with Dignity|
|Illinois||Losing 7-6||Loss 31-27||Steady Decline|
|2017||Notre Dame||Losing 28-7||Loss 38-18||Failed Rally|
|Ohio State||Losing 35-3||Loss 48-3||Steady Decline|
|Rally||2 out of 9||22.2%|
|Failed Rally||2 out of 9||22.2%|
|Steady Decline||2 out of 9||22.2%|
|Collapse||3 out of 9||33.3%|
I've seen it written that Michigan State possesses a toughness and intensity that Michigan lacks. Maybe... but it's not in the data here. Michigan State is the first and only team on this list more likely to get worse in the second half of a game it was losing at halftime. It is the only team that has collasped three times, starting with the hamblasting by Alabama in the playoff game. It's also a bit beyond the scope of this study, but it's interesting to note that the Spartans were tied or leading at halftime during 5 of last season's 9 losses.
Based on this data, Michigan does not appear to have a tendency to wilt in the face of adversity. That only team studied that has that tendency is Michigan State. Michigan, Penn State, and Ohio State will all come out strong after a halftime deficiit 70-80% of the time. The thing that sets Ohio State apart from everyone else is that once they start to rally, they always seem to finish the job. For everyone else, it's a lot closer to a coin flip.