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Inside the Numbers: What went wrong?

January 1st, 2014 by Drew Hallett


(MGoBlue.com)

On September 7, 2013, there was an excitement—a buzz—around the Michigan football program. The #17 Wolverines toppled #14 Notre Dame, 41-30, at Michigan Stadium. Offensively, Devin Gardner lit up the Fighting Irish, accounting for 376 total yards and five touchdowns. Many believed Gardner had just jumpstarted his Heisman campaign. Defensively, U-M allowed 30 points, but ND’s offense mustered only two touchdowns. The Wolverines nearly played a flawless game.

As a result, the Wolverines were 2-0, jumped to #11 in the Associated Press Poll, and were given 12-to-1 odds to win the BCS National Championship. On that date, only three teams had better odds to win the national championship: Alabama, Ohio State, and Oregon. Playing in a subpar Big Ten and having the luxury of hosting the Buckeyes in the regular-season finale, Michigan seemed to be in prime position to make a run at a historic season.

What went wrong?

After Michigan beat Notre Dame, only three teams had better odds to win the BCS National Championship (MGoBlue.com)

One-hundred-and-twelve days later, the Wolverines were smacked around by Kansas State in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl and ended the 2013 season with a 7-6 record. After starting 5-0 for the third time in four years, the Maize and Blue lost five of its last six games and six of its last eight. Not only did Michigan not contend for a national championship, U-M was eliminated from the Big Ten Legends Division race after only five conference games. The season—filled with so much promise in early September—completely fell apart.

What went wrong?

Initially, Michigan seemed to be a very good football team with one glaring weakness: ball security. In its first two non-conference games, U-M maintained a neutral turnover margin, outclassing Central Michigan, 59-9, and beating a top-15 Notre Dame squad. Then, in their next two non-conference games, the Wolverines committed eight turnovers and posted a minus-five turnover margin. Yet, Michigan still eked out two wins because U-M’s two opponents—Akron and Connecticut—were considered two of the worst FBS teams.

The Wolverines’ non-conference performances suggested that, if U-M could stop committing turnovers so frequently, U-M would play complete games and be a championship contender. Support for this theory became stronger after the Wolverines’ next performance. In its Big Ten opener, Michigan forced two Minnesota turnovers and, most importantly, was turnover-free for the first time in 26 games. Accordingly, U-M routed the Gophers—a team that would finish with an 8-4 regular-season record—by a 42-13 score. The Wolverines seemed to be back on track and ready to make a title run.

Then, disaster struck. Everything fell apart. As the following table shows, the Wolverines transformed from a team that outscored opponents by almost three touchdowns and outgained them by almost 100 yards per game into a team that opponents outscored and outgained, on average, for the rest of the season:

Michigan Statistical Breakdown – First Five Games vs Last Eight Games
First Five Games Last Eight Games
Record 5-0 2-6
Points Per Game 38.80 28.13
Points Allowed Per Game 19.40 31.50
Total Yards Per Game 396.00 358.75
Total Yards Allowed Per Game 305.00 413.00
Yards Per Play 6.07 5.06
Yards Allowed Per Play 4.66 5.65

Most expected there to be some decline in Michigan’s numbers because U-M’s competition would be much stiffer in the Big Ten than in non-conference play. But a decline that extreme? Highly improbable.

And what is even more improbable is how little turnovers affected Michigan’s regression. Notwithstanding a minus-three turnover margin in their first five games, the Wolverines had a plus-eight turnover margin in their final eight games. Further, U-M’s turnover margin was minus-five in non-conference play and plus-10 in conference play. Yes, the Wolverines committed a few turnovers during Big Ten games in critical moments. But, overall, turnovers prevented Michigan’s statistical regression from being even more significant.

Michigan was battered and bruised in East Lansing (MGoBlue.com)

So the theory that Michigan would be a contender if it stopped turning over the football? Kaput. The Wolverines’ ranks in key statistical categories plummeted, even though U-M’s turnover margin continued to improve. U-M’s issue with turnovers in non-conference play only masked what truly went wrong for Michigan football in 2013. The mask started to crack in Happy Valley and was finally ripped off in East Lansing.

What went wrong?

Here is what went wrong for Michigan—a program with a 7-6 record in 2013 and a fan base beginning to question whether Brady Hoke is the man to lead it: U-M was the epitome of inconsistency in 2013. Both U-M’s offense and defense displayed flashes of greatness in different games throughout the season. However, the problem was that both units also displayed that they could be just as bad.

For months, many Michigan fans have been campaigning for Hoke to fire his offensive coordinator, Al Borges. Those fans likely will be shocked to learn that the 419 points Michigan scored in 2013 were the eighth most since 1905. Michigan also topped 600 total yards in two separate games. U-M’s 751 total yards against Indiana were the most in a single game in school history. U-M’s 603 total yards against Ohio State were its most ever in The Game.

Yet, those U-M fans that want a new offensive coordinator are not unjustified. In a three-game stretch against Michigan State, Nebraska, and Northwestern, Michigan’s offense scored only 28 points total in regulation. No U-M offense had scored that few points in three straight regulations in 48 years. Additionally, the Maize and Blue gained less than 300 yards in five games and less than 200 yards in three of those.

That is the definition of inconsistency. And, to further prove that point, as the following table shows, Michigan averaged about four more touchdowns and 240 more total yards in about half of its games in 2013 than it did in the other half:

Michigan Offense – Six Highest Scoring Games vs Seven Lowest Scoring Games
Six Highest Scoring Games Seven Lowest Scoring Games
Points Per Game 47.67 19.00
Total Yards Per Game 502.33 262.29
Yards Per Play 6.85 4.05

If the Wolverines’ offense produced as much throughout the season as it did in its six highest scoring games, U-M would be ranked #3 in scoring offense, #12 in total offense, and #10 in yards per play. Conversely, if the offense produced as little throughout the season as it did in its seven lowest scoring games, U-M would be ranked #112 in scoring offense, #122 in total offense, and #123 in yards per play. Those ranks are out of 125 FBS teams, including those which reclassified to FBS in 2013.

One week, Michigan would have one of the most high-powered offenses in the nation. And the following week, U-M would look like it had never learned the modern offensive concepts of football.  For example, this is an offense that set a school record for total yards in a single game and then failed to net positive rushing yards in each of its next three halves.  This Michigan offense was one of the most inconsistent offenses in Michigan history, if not the most.

Although not as extreme as the offense, Michigan’s unit on the other side of the line of scrimmage was inconsistent, too. Through its first five games, the Wolverines’ defense allowed opposing offenses to score only seven touchdowns. Only Louisville, Florida, and Oregon had allowed fewer offensive touchdowns at that point of the season. And U-M allowed only six offensive touchdowns total to three other opponents later in the year.

But in the other five games? Michigan’s defense allowed 24 offensive touchdowns. Thus, it allowed an average of 1.63 offensive touchdowns in eight games and an average of 4.80 offensive touchdowns in the other five games. And, therefore, as the following table shows, U-M’s defense, like the offense, experienced the highest of the highs and the lowest of the lows with little in between the two.

Michigan Defense – Seven Best Defensive Scoring Games v. Six Worst Defensive Scoring Games
Seven Best Defensive Scoring Games Six Worst Defensive Scoring Games
Points Allowed Per Game 18.14 37.00
Total Yards Allowed Per Game 302.43 452.00
Yards Allowed Per Play 4.43 6.25

If the Wolverines’ defense performed as well throughout the season as it did in its seven best defensive scoring games, U-M would be ranked #10 in scoring defense, #7 in total defense, and #5 in yards allowed per play. On the other hand, if it performed as poorly throughout the season as it did in its six worst defensive scoring games, U-M would be ranked tied for #111 in scoring defense, #101 in total defense, and #106 in yards allowed per play. Those ranks are out of 125 FBS teams, including those which reclassified to FBS in 2013.

Michigan’s six worst defensive scoring games dragged down U-M’s statistics significantly. Michigan’s scoring defense regressed from #6 in 2011 and #20 in 2012 to #66 in 2013. The 349 points and 4,829 total yards U-M allowed in 2013 are each the second worst in program history. So, although Michigan’s defense played very well for about half the season, it performed so poorly when it did have a clunker that U-M’s record book will list it as one of the worst defenses in program history.

What went wrong?

This was not a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde situation for Michigan, when the whole team would either be very good or very bad. It was much more complicated than that. Both Michigan’s offense and defense were inconsistent, but they consistently were inconsistent in separate games:

Breakdown of Michigan’s Best Offensive and Defensive Performances
Six Highest Scoring Games Seven Best Defensive Scoring Games
Central Michigan X X
Notre Dame X
Akron X
Connecticut X
Minnesota X X
Penn State X
Indiana X
Michigan State
Nebraska X
Northwestern X
Iowa X
Ohio State X
Kansas State

Michigan played only three complete games this season. The table above provides that two of those were against Central Michigan and Minnesota. The third was against Notre Dame because ND’s 30 points overshadow that U-M’s defense allowed only two offensive touchdowns. On the other hand, U-M also had two clunkers as a team: Michigan State and Kansas State.

By season's end Hoke found himself squarely on the hot seat (MGoBlue.com)

Therefore, there were eight games this season in which one of Michigan’s offense or defense played well and the other unit completely fell flat. As the table above notes, U-M’s offense laid eggs against Akron, Connecticut, Nebraska, Northwestern, and Iowa, while its defense disappeared against Penn State, Indiana, and Ohio State.

Michigan went 4-4 in these games. All four of U-M’s wins in these games—against Akron, Connecticut, Indiana, and Northwestern—were against opponents that finished with below-.500 records. The Wolverines had enough talent on the unit that was playing well in those games to compensate for the absence of the other and pull out a victory. This is why Michigan still managed to open the season with a 5-0 record despite its offense stumbling against Akron and Connecticut.

However, the total absence of one of its units was too much to overcome when Michigan played teams with winning records, losing to all of Penn State, Nebraska, Iowa, and Ohio State. Each of those losses was by no more than four points. If Michigan’s missing unit had shown up for each of these games, it is very likely that Michigan would have won those games.

What went wrong?

Michigan had the talent to be a championship contender, but was unable to consistently showcase that talent in each and every game. As a result, the Wolverines played only three complete games in a 13-game season. U-M survived against lesser competition when one of its offense or defense performed poorly. But when that happened against teams with winning records, U-M suffered heartbreaking losses. That’s the difference between a disappointing 7-6 season and an acceptable 9-4 or 10-3 season.

You can follow Drew on Twitter: @DrewCHallett