Losing to your archrival sucks. Getting blown out by them in a year when you were favored to win in their stadium? That causes some fans to lose their shit. Unfortunately, with their shit often goes their perspective, and heated debates about WHAT WENT WRONG?!?!?!?!! ensue.
But did something go wrong? Didn't we get annihilated by OSU? What needs to be better for Michigan to get from "Top-10" to Juggernaut?
While Don Brown's defense absolutely failed against OSU, there is an element of this team that has had more pervasive issues and seems to be preventing Michigan from joining the truly elite class of CFB programs: the passing offense.
While Michigan's offense made dramatic improvements in 2018--and that is a fact--it lacks the pop of the nation's best. What is missing? What needs to be tweaked, changed, or eliminated? Why didn't Michigan's offense achieve its potential in 2018? TL; DR:
- Both traditional and fancystats demonstrate improvement in all aspects of the offense, including the passing game
- Fancystats have some weaknesses, and situational as well as individual statistics help explain some of those deficiencies
- One of the biggest problems with the passing attack is one of the easiest to fix: lack of use (and quickness of use)
- It seems the staff is aware of at least some of this and attempting to evolve, but either stubbornness or pure habit is holding that progress back a bit
- Michigan could vastly benefit from adding a creative passing game mind to its staff
- It's completely reasonable to recognize that the offense was NOT the core problem against OSU and still recognize that it needs adjustment to help Michigan reach elite status
Let's start with the good news--and there is lots of it. On its face, the 2018 passing offense (and offense in general) took a moon-sized leap from the 2017 version. Consider:
- Michigan's offense finished the 2018 regular season as the #24 S&P+ unit in the country, including the #32 rushing and #10 (!!!) passing ranking
- Shea Patterson's passer rating of 154.28 is the best for a Michigan QB in over a decade and is a whopping 43.96 points better than last year's combined QB rating. To put that in perspective, Shea's rating is good for 21st in the country and last year's rating is far outside the top 100 passers of 2018.
- The TD to INT ratio improved from 9:10 in 2017 to 23:7 in 2018.
In short, the passing game is clearly a vast improvement over 2017. So why does the #10 S&P+ passing offense need examination? Because fancystats don't tell the whole story.
For one thing, Michigan's offense ranked 49th in passing down efficiency. So, when opponents knew Michigan was going to pass, the offense was middling at best. Furthermore, the passing offense had significant deficiencies in other situations:
- 1st Quarter passer rating of 126.98
- 3rd Down passer rating of 130.39
- 3rd Down and 10+ rating of 80.84
- Field Position: Own 1 to 20 Yd Ln rating of 118.15; Own 21 to 38 Yd Ln rating of 122.67
- Red Zone completion percentage of 51.2%
These situational statistics tell a story: early in games and early in drives, the passing attack is not nearly as effective as its average. Obvious passing situations aren't very good to Michigan. And the red zone is essentially a 50/50 area for completions.
By contrast, 'Bama's 1st and 2nd quarter passer rating are higher than their average (which is a ridiculous 208.53). Their 3rd down rating--which you would expect to be lower than their average since defenses are playing pass--is just six points (3.1%) lower than their average, vs. Michigan's difference of 23 points and 15.2% less efficiency. Clemson's passer rating on 3rd down beats their average (which is less than a point better than Michigan's, FWIW) and OSU's is only fractionally worse.
Elite passing offenses don't have a hard time moving the ball on 3rd down. Michigan's #10 S&P+ rating is masked by excellent 1st down efficiency, as well as being far more effective after the 1st quarter and further down the field. The problem with this is that if Michigan is going to be a juggernaut, it needs to start faster and have a passing attack that can succeed when it's most needed (early in drives and on third down). The 2018 version falls far short of elite in these critical areas.
But wait, there's more...
Michigan's WR talent is on par with the best teams in the country. The 2017 recruiting class included four top-200 overall recruits at the WR position, including the #12 overall player, and all four WRs were among the top 30 at their position. Here are their individual stats from 2018:
- Donovan Peoples-Jones - 39 REC / 541 YDS / 13.87 AVG / 7 TDS
- Nico Collins - 33 / 552 / 16.73 / 6
- Oliver Martin - 11 / 125 / 11.36 / 1
- Tarik Black (injured) - 2 / 20 / 10 / 0
None of those stat lines are bad. Black's performance should probably be ignored after yet another foot fracture kept him out most of the season (but there's good reason to include him in this overall conversation). For the second straight season, no Michigan player caught 40 passes or broke 600 yards. 'Bama's Jerry Jeudy--ranked #21 overall in DPJ's class and the #3 WR--has 56 catches for 1,079 yds (19.27 avg) and 11 TDs. Three other players have over 600 yds (including a TE) and their top five pass-catchers average over 17.3 yds/catch. Clemson has three WRs with over 40 catches and two with over 600 yards, OSU has three players with more yards than our best WR's numbers and a predictably absurd pair of players with at least 64 catches.
All year long, Nico Collins has caught deep, contested passes thrown his way. DPJ had single coverage more than just that one time vs. MSU. Tarik Black has proven talent with deep ball and contested catches. Heck, Dylan McCaffrey came into a game and immediately tossed a couple of arm punts to Ronnie Bell for big gains and a TD.
This leads to one of the glaring problems: usage. Michigan's inflated S&P+ rating reflects the passing offense's effectiveness when a pass was simply unexpected. And who could blame opponents for not expecting a pass when Michigan ran the ball on 519 of its 829 plays? Almost two-thirds (62.6%) of our plays were hand-offs this season. Again, contrast that with Alabama running 57.7% of the time, despite being in blowout win mode more often. In fact, 'Bama averaged just 30:13 of possession because they were scoring so fast. Michigan averaged almost 35 minutes of possession each game. We just didn't throw the ball much.
One of the reasons offered for this is QB health. But the rest of college football has figured out how to keep running QBs as healthy as Michigan's passers and still take deep shots: arm punts. It's completely false that a deep pass play requires great protection in college football. Trace McSorely has made a living with a far weaker arm than Shea Patterson by throwing the deep ball quickly. And if you have tall, athletic pass-catchers (and we have a shit ton of those) than even if the play is well-covered you have a good chance at a completion and a good chance at getting a pass interference call on an incompletion. For years, Michigan fans (myself included) mocked the arm punts thrown by B1G QBs and ignored a ruthless truth: they work pretty damn well in college football. Michigan State's entire passing offense is centered around their guys making contested catches on back-shoulder deep routes, and their QB is often throwing the ball before the WR turns to look.
Michigan needs to embrace this aspect of college football and design plays that use deep passes that get out of the QB's hands more quickly. Collins, DPJ, and Black are ideally-suited to this type of play. So is Gentry, for that matter.
But, given that Michigan won 10 games and housed some quality opponents, why does this matter? Isn't improving the offense by 61 spots in S&P+ enough?
The answer was in the OSU game. Harbaugh plays to win. If he can beat you by just running the ball, why risk the pass? Why subject your QB to hits or put plays on tape you may need to win games down the road? Because if you don't run your offense at peak efficiency all of the time, it won't be ready to operate at peak efficiency when you need it. OSU prepares for Michigan everyday, and it's pretty clear at this point that comes at the expense of preparing for lesser opponents. Their base play is one of the best possible plays to run against Michigan's base defense. Michigan needs to start thinking the same way: how can we build a machine that can beat the elite competition in college football? Yes, that means passing more against Rutgers, WMU, SMU, Maryland, etc. It means refining a gameplan that can beat our archrival needs to start long before Hate Week commences. Because body shots just won't be good enough against an opponent that can throw a haymaker on every play.
What's most interesting about all of this is that Michigan seems to be at least faintly aware. The 2018 class had just three blocky-catchy types after zero in 2017. The 2018 class also added Michael Barrett and Ronnie Bell--two players whose build don't match the traditional prototype of Michigan's WR recruits, and that trend has become even more pronounced this cycle: Giles Jackson, Mike Sainristil, and George Johnson III are all under six feet tall and expected to contribute as slot/weapon types on offense. Actions speak louder than words, and Michigan is using valuable scholarships on the types of players that haven't been considered part of the plan since Rich Rod left. That speaks to a continued evolution on offense.
And yet...we ran more often this year than we have since 2011, when we had one of the best running QBs in CFB history on our team. It feels like the staff knows it needs to advance, but just can't quite keep themselves from the old-style of lining up and out-executing their opponent.
Stuck in outdated habits and stubborn adherence to failing principles, it's time to seek professional help. A bright, creative passing mind from an Oklahoma, Clemson, or even second-tier schools like WaSU, WVA--hell, even Purdue. The NFL has great models as well: Kansas City, the Rams, New Orleans, and even Tampa Bay. We don't necessarily need a new OC, but we need a passing game coordinator with the creativity and proclivity to increase our passing output.
Michigan's passing offense was ranked #10 in S&P+ this year. It has an embarrassment of riches at WR, TE, and even RB and QB. Yet it posted just 2,555 yards this season, good for the #84 passing offense in yards/game and 11 spots below Michigan State. We can't expect our offense to reach peak efficiency if we keep the best part of it locked in the garage most of the season, hoping it will be ready when are forced to use it. Our rushing S&P+ ranking was 32. Our explosiveness (ISOPPP+) was 57. And, as discussed, our passing down ranking was 49. Those numbers won't improve without a commitment to a more frequent, creative, and modern deployment of a college football passing attack.
It's a gross exaggeration to blame our two losses this year on our passing game. But it's just as clear that we won't reach elite status if we don't improve that component of our offense. It's time to take another step forward as a program, and the passing offense should be the top priority.