Know Your Enemy: A UConn Preview

Submitted by The Mathlete on September 1st, 2010 at 5:30 PM

A look at Michigan’s opening opponent through the eyes of PAN*.

When Michigan Rushes

Let’s kick the season off with a nice chart, Michigan Rush Offense PAN vs. UConn 

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Last year the gap between the two was worth nearly two points a game and this year it is projecting to narrow slightly. This projection is probably on the pessimistic side for Michigan as UConn has four consecutive years of decline on rush defense and nothing would indicate that Michigan would see a drop versus last season’s performance on the ground.

Since Rodriguez had experience against UConn while at West Virginia, those matchups provide another, better data point of comparison. In four games from 2004-2007 West Virginia averaged 6 PAN/game offensively and UConn averaged 0 PAN/game defensively. In other words, West Virginia’s ground game average 6 points per game more than the average team that played UConn and the Huskies defended the Mountaineers about on par with the average team.

Based on both West Virginia and Michigan experience, the numbers indicate that Michigan should have an opportunity to do some damage on the ground on Saturday.

When Michigan Passes

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Michigan was pretty average passing the ball last year but UConn wasn’t great at covering the pass. The historical numbers are a bit all over the map, the Huskies had a 10 point negative swing from 2008 to 2009.

UConn returns a lot of their defense from last year but the one position group that will be replacing players is the secondary. In 2009 the team had to deal with the midseason murder of starting cornerback Jasper Howard, putting a little perspective on the mostly on-field issues Michigan’s secondary has faced. Of the top 11 UConn players in points taken last year, the only three not returning this year are cornerback Robert McClain, 25 PT, 2nd on team and first among DBs, DE Lindsey Witten, 20 PT, 4th on team and first among DL and S Robert Vaughn, 15 PT and 2nd among DBs.

With the year to year variance these two teams have shown in passing and defending the pass, it is difficult to tell who will pick up the advantage when Michigan puts the ball in the air.

When UConn Runs

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Michigan saw their first dip into negative PAN against the run last year, while UConn is coming off back to back strong seasons on the ground.

The UConn running back situation is one where PAN sheds an interesting light that is hidden by tradition stats. Last year UConn split the carries almost evenly between Jordan Todman and Andre Dixon (235 vs 239). Todman ran for 1188 yards and 14 TDs while Dixon had 1093 yards and 14 TDs as well. Despite those very similar stat lines, Todman’s performance was worth 16 points and Dixon’s nearly offset the gains with –15 points.

Unfortunately for Michigan Todman is back and Dixon is gone. The historical trend indicates that Michigan should have the advantage, but with a quality back in Todman returning, Michigan will need a much improved defense performance to limit the UConn rushing attack.

When UConn Passes

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After a dreadful stretch through the air in 2005-2008, UConn bounced back last year with their best showing in five years.

UConn has two QB’s with starting experience coming back. Cody Endres who took over in mid-season after an injury, was a modest 1.1 PAN whereas this year’s starter Zach Frazer was a worse –1.5 PAN in action at the beginning and end of the season. Frazer posted a similar –1.6 in 4 games in 2008.

Despite the higher value, Frazer beat out Endres again for the job this season and Endres went on to get suspended for the opener, leaving UConn with the sole experienced QB for Michigan. Unfortunately, Michigan’s secondary will make this matchup interesting, but at least the Huskies are able to trot out a world beater at QB even if he does have 2 years of experience.

History in Openers

When factoring in quality of opponent, Michigan best two games of the Rodriguez era have been the openers. 2008 felt very disappointing at the time, but taking an eventually undefeated and Alabama crushing Utah team to the wire, was the best performance of the season. 2009 saw a much much weaker opponent in Western Michigan, but the utter dismantling Michigan displayed made the 2009 the highest rated game Rodriguez had at Michigan to date. Success in openers had been the norm for Rodriguez at West Virginia. 3 of his last 4 were double digit PAN and two were over 20.

UConn’s sample size is much smaller. 3 of the last 7 years they have opened with 1AA opponents and the four years have seen performance within 5 points or so of average.

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Head to Head

In the last four meetings Rodriguez and West Virginia owned UConn. West Virginia average a PAN of 13 while UConn came in at –5 PAN. Even after giving the Huskies a break for how good West Virginia was for several years, they still did worse than average against them.

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The 2007 game is a bit of anomaly on this chart. It looks like UConn outplayed West Virginia but the Mountaineers completely dominated the Huskies in the game. The PAN is off because two first half fumbles by UConn meant the offense didn’t have to do much heavy lifting to build a 17 point lead after the first drive of the second half. A 17 point lead means that the plays stop counting towards the PAN, but WVU just kept going. To the tune of nearly 400 yards, 29 PAN all after they already had a 17 point lead. So in other words, 2007 looks like a good performance by UConn, but in reality a couple fluke plays got them in a hole and once they were there, West Virginia buried them.

The All In Look

 

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The history is on Michigan’s side, the two year trend is on Michigan’s side, the strength in openers is on Michigan’s side, the head to head coaching matchup is on Michigan’s side and with homefield, I have Michigan pegged at about a touchdown favorite with about a 75% chance of starting the year off in the win column.

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*PAN is calculated by assigning every play a value based on how much the play helped or hurt the offense’s chances of scoring. Every down, distance and line of scrimmage combination is assigned an expected value, the average points scored across college football in that same situation. If a play increases the expected value, the respective teams and players are credited with the amount of increase.

All plays are then adjusted based on strength of opponent. Plays against weak opponents are penalized and downgraded while plays against strong opponents are bumped to reflect the degree of difficulty.

Only games against FBS (D1A) opponents, games against FCS (1AA) opponents are non-existent in any numbers used in this work.

Qualifying Plays (QP) are all plays in the first half and plays in the second half when the game is within two touchdowns. End of half run out the clock drives are also excluded.

Comments

Jivas

September 1st, 2010 at 5:49 PM ^

For the information, but mostly for providing me with some optimism.  My guesstimation had us with about a 55% chance of victory (post-Woolfolk injury).  I would be very, very happy to be proven wrong!

MaizenBlueBP

September 1st, 2010 at 5:57 PM ^

Once again a nice post from the Mathlete.  I believe offensively we're going to have our best season in a long time here at Michigan.  I also believe that our defense will be much  better then people think (just slightly above middle of the pack).  A lot of people are high on UConn i've heard as good as a 10-2 prediction and as low as a 6-6.  Michigan has always been ready to play in openers under RR and in 3 days it will be no different.  We will put a hurtin on UConn in every facet of offense.  On defense if we're able to stop their power running game then it's going to be a long day.  Couple that with the fact that RR has never lost to Edsall and we have a recipe for an opening day W

Zone Left

September 1st, 2010 at 6:12 PM ^

As always, thanks for the work.  For some reason, I'm not really concerned about UConn. 

If our pass defense is a net positive this year, watch for some really surprised pundits come October 15th or so.  I'm still terrified to watch them play defense.

Fresh Meat

September 1st, 2010 at 6:16 PM ^

The fact that you consistently put out this level of analysis on your own initiative, for free, while (assuming) working a regular job, wow.  That's freaking sweet.  Never get sick of your work.

True Blue In Ohio

September 1st, 2010 at 6:20 PM ^

I like the statistics!  I am looking for a few forced mistakes by UM's quicker than expected defense and UM will get a 34-17 win. 

I like Edsall's little Greg Lloyd roster intrigue!  Unexpected and cute, but not enough!

GO BLUE!

desmondintherough

September 1st, 2010 at 6:55 PM ^

I don't put too much stock in these numbers, but I'll take all the reassurance I can get at this point!  I did think the number of factors in Michigan's favor was interesting, but none of those factors will be playing DB for us on Saturday.  Still, reasons to hope!  Go Blue!

UMaD

September 1st, 2010 at 8:13 PM ^

It seems optimistic to view Michigan's pass D a + and UConn's pass O a -.  Are you using data back to 2003 as shown?

It seems that, given the enormous changes in the programs over the last few seasons, the math would change dramatically if your 2010P was based on just the relevant samples (2008 and 2009).

Most evaluations that factor in enough historical data will favor Michigan.

Nick

September 1st, 2010 at 8:54 PM ^

I dont trust these numbers.  Michigan's PAN rush defense in 2006 was worse than any other year from 03-08.  What????

unless i'm interpreting it wrong, it might be back to the drawing board.

the_dude

September 1st, 2010 at 10:07 PM ^

The one thing that keeps going back and forth in my mind is a) Rich Rod has administered a thorough beatdown on UConn on a consistent basis so b) if Denard is in the game then we should be in good shape because he's our best run threat, right?  Your stats give me reason to believe what I want to believe but I'm not quite sold on yet.  It will be a beautiful thing if you are correct and we get to witness D-Rob ruthlessly running the spread 'n shred in all it's ground gobbling glory.

I can't wait until Saturday to find out!

BlockM

September 2nd, 2010 at 9:45 AM ^

My confidence is building. I love diaries like this. They give me ammunition to use when I talk to my crotchety old grandpa who's as pessimistic as they come when the subject of Michigan Football comes up.

D.C. Dave

September 2nd, 2010 at 6:43 PM ^

Hey folks, I am new to this site, which I turned to because some genius decided to stop publishing the Ann Arbor News, I cannot stomach the writing of Michael Rosenberg and Drew Not-So-Sharp in the Free Press, and I am so happy that someone else has stepped up. So good for the founders of mgoblog. While I thank god for Wojo in the News (and what a mismatch it is when he and Rosenberg write on the same days) I firmly believe this site is now the best thing out there covering Michigan football. I'm also in the media business, having previously run the East region sports coverage for The Associated Press before moving to D.C. a few months ago. So I have seen a lot of these East region football teams play and overall, I'm not all that impressed with the Big East. That great Cinci team of last year would've gotten drilled four times in the Big Ten.

In fact, I think one of the reasons Rich Rod's defenses at Michigan have struggled is because he came from the Big East, where teams are simply do not play the same physical, bruising style seen from teams that have given Rodriguez's Michigan teams a lot of problems.

This data is interesting and worth noting, but the problem is these teams play in different leagues, so it must be qualified. The Big Ten is stronger than the Big East, markedly so. No one in the Big East is great on defense. Cinci had one of the worst defenses I've ever seen, and they won the league. (A story for next week, but when it comes to not playing defense, Brian Kelly takes a backseat to no coach. Expect a porous Irish team.)

So, sure, UConn is a scrappy bunch and Edsall is a disciplined, Carr-like caveman who has done a great job. LET'S NOT GET CARRIED AWAY. 8-5 in the Big East doesn't wow me. Being picked as one of four teams that could win a league only tells us no one is that great. UConn has a lot of weaknesses. They don't have great team speed, the QB is very suspect (the better one got suspended), they essentially have one quality RB and they are burdened with - yes, it's true - a secondary that looks as bad as Michigan's only doesn't even have the potential upside of youthful talent.

They'll try to line up and jam the ball down Michigan's throat because, hey, it works for everyone else. That's the key thing to notice here: If we cannot stop a running team that doesn't throw it all that well, we've got problems. Again. Never mind the secondary. Can't stop the run? Done. I expect Michigan to be better against the run, if only because we literally cannot get much worse. And this may not be what anyone wants to hear, since the last thing we'd like is to ponder another new defensive coordinator, but Greg Robinson made Syracuse a lot better just by leaving. Doug Marrone comes in from the New Orleans Saints, has very little to work with, and the Orange defense is immediately, markedly better. Did anyone catch Robinson talking about his defensive philosophy on the Big Ten network? He is incomprehensible. If that's how he teaches it to players, no wonder we stink. The jargon-laden nonsense he spews makes everything sound a lot more complicated than it should. Let's hope 'simplifying' the defense started with getting another coach to handle explaining it to the players. He makes my eyes glaze over.

The only stat that really matters in games in which one team has significantly better talent - but perhaps lacks confidence - is turnovers. Michigan has a lot more talent than UConn - if the Wolverines don't put the ball on the ground or throw it to the other team, Michigan wins. WINS BY 10 POINTS OR MORE. The skill positions are a mismatch, with the possible exception of Todman (who piled up yards, but in the Big East.) UConn does not have great speed on defense or offense. The Huskies come with a very workmanline attack. Our problem going in is that, under Rodriguez, Michigan has become a turnover machine. Everyone seems to fumble. It's the biggest problem the team has had. Under Bo/Moeller/Carr, to beat Michigan, you had to beat us, and our defense was going to make it hard. You just did not often see Michigan beat itself. Under Rodriguez, you just wait for Michigan to screw up and pick up easy scores against our matador defense.

So, I know we all should be respectful and all that, but let's be honest: Michigan should shred this team if it doesn't bring about its own demise with the sloppy play that has been the hallmark of Rodriguez's tenure. 

jamiemac

September 4th, 2010 at 7:37 AM ^

Great stuff! This has been on my reading to-do list for a couple of days. Finally got to it. As always, interesting, confusing in spots (lol, reader error), but plenty to think about.

Enjoy the game today. Go Blue!!