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The numbers game: Michigan offense doubles 2015 big play pace through 3 weeks

September 22nd, 2016 by Josh DeMille


peppers-vs-colorado(Isaiah Hole, 247 Sports)

Previously: Is Don Brown’s defense high-risk? The numbers say noMichigan’s Harbaughfense will be more explosive in Year 2, Run game makes big plays in Week 1, While UCF loaded the box Michigan went to the air for big plays

Well, I did not panic at all during the first quarter last weekend. Nope, not one bit.

But in the end Michigan pulled off the comeback and now we can look at the numbers. Spoiler alert: they’re not quite as bad as you might think given how the first quarter played out.

Okay, let’s just rip the Band-Aid off and get the defensive numbers out of the way first.

Michigan gave up seven total big plays, four of which came in the first quarter. Colorado had four big run plays (10-yards or more) and three big pass plays (20-yards or more), which is right about in line with their season average of 6.5 big plays against per game coming in. After that horrendous first quarter, Michigan settled down and Colorado had just two runs of over 10-yards and only one big pass play, although it was a 70-yard touchdown pass. Hooray for a coaching staff that makes adjustments!

Through three games the 2015 Michigan defense gave up 4.33 big run plays per game, 1.33 big pass plays per game for a total of 5.67 big plays given up per game and a 9.19 percent big plays against percentage.

Adding in the Colorado numbers, the 2016 iteration of the Wolverines now gives up five big run plays per game (75th), 1.67 big pass plays per game (14th), for a total of 6.67 big plays per game (44th) and a big play against percentage of 10.26 percent. All are slightly higher than this point last year. Keep in mind that All-American cornerback Jourdan Lewis has yet to play this season and starting defensive linemen Taco Charlton and Bryan Mone have missed the last two games.

Michigan offense – 2015 vs 2016 first three weeks comparison
Year Big Run Plays Big Pass Plays Total Big Plays Big Play % Big Play Diff Toxic Diff
2016 20 16 36 16.98% 6.72% 18
2015 10 8 18 8.57% -0.62% -1
Michigan defense – 2015 vs 2016 averages
Year Big Run Plays/gm Big Pass Plays/gm Total Big Plays/gm Big Play % Big Play Diff Toxic Diff
2016 5 1.67 6.67 10.26% 6.72% 18
2015 4.33 1.33 5.67 9.19% -0.62% -1

Despite a slight uptick in big plays given up by the defense, Michigan’s offense fared quite well in the big play department against Colorado, with 10 total — four big running plays and six big passing plays. However, despite a solid offensive outing, Michigan’s 10 total big plays were less than their season average of thirteen. Let’s see how Michigan’s offense compares to last year through three games.

In 2015, Michigan averaged 3.33 big runs per game and 2.67 big passes per game, for a total of six big plays per game and a big play percentage of 8.57 percent.

Through three games in 2016 Michigan has averaged 7.33 big run plays (19th), 4.67 big pass plays (21st), for a total of 12 big plays per game and a big play percentage of 16.98 percent (12th). That is literally double the amount of big plays on offense compared to last year and nearly double the big play percentage. Let that sink in for a moment. Michigan has had twice as many total big plays through three games this year than they did through three games in 2015. That is remarkable, even given any quality of opponent caveats.

Michigan’s big play differential is 6.72 percent (18th) and their total toxic differential is 18 (15th on a per game basis). Last year, those numbers were -0.62 percent big play differential and a total toxic differential of -1. I actually had to go back and double check my numbers because the difference was so glaring. I figured the offense would get better but this is just an astronomical improvement thus far.

To sum up: through three games Michigan is giving up one big play more per game over last year (6.67 versus 5.67) while putting up twice as many big plays of their own (12 versus 6). Their big play differential has gone from a negative, -0.62 percent to a solid 6.72 percent and their toxic differential has taken a massive jump from -1 to 18. The toxic differential number is not inflated by a lot of forced turnovers either, which are mostly random anyway. Michigan is only plus-2 in that category. The jump is due to the plus-16 difference in big plays for/against compared to a plus-1 in big plays for/against at this time last year. This is not your grandfather’s three yards and a cloud of dust pro-style offense.

Michigan’s Week 3 big plays
Quarter Down & Distance Player Yards Gained Run/Pass
1 1st and 10 De’Veon Smith 12 Run
1 1st and 10 Jabrill Peppers 10 Run
1 1st and 10 Eddie McDoom 10 Run
1 1st and 10 De’Veon Smith 10 Run
2 1st and 10 Wilton Speight to Jake Butt 21 Pass
2 1st and 10 Jehu Chesson 17 (TD) Run
2 1st and 10 Wilton Speight to Amara Darboh 45 (TD) Pass
3 2nd and 7 De’Veon Smith 42 (TD) Run
3 1st and 19 Wilton Speight to Ty Isaac 21 Pass
3 3rd and 14 Wilton Speight to Grant Perry 54 Pass
Colorado’s Week 3 big plays
1 2nd and 12 Sefo Liufau to Devin Ross 37 (TD) Pass
1 2nd and 7 Phillip Lindsay 10 Run
1 1st and 10 Sefo Liufau to Bryce Bobo 50 Pass
1 2nd and 8 Phillip Lindsay 11 Run
2 2nd and 3 Phillip Lindsay 15 Run
3 1st and 10 Sefo Liufau to Shay Fields 70 (TD) Pass
4 2nd and 12 Steven Montez 10 Run

What stands out here is the obvious improvement in the offensive numbers. And of course, the slight regression in the big plays given up by the defense. Any concern we may have about the defense though has been mitigated by a massive explosion in offensive production.

Earlier I predicted the offense should be able to add about one big play more per game via Harbaugh’s magic touch and the defense would be able to eliminate about one total big play per game with Don Brown’s scheme. I also predicted there would be some hiccups in the early going regarding the defense.

The offense is way ahead of schedule; did I mention they’ve literally doubled their total big plays? The hiccups we’re seeing on defense now are likely compounded with the absences of Mone, Charlton and Lewis. I don’t think either of these trends — the offense recording an inordinate amount of explosive plays and the defense continuing to give up more than expected — will continue though. However, I should note that the 6.67 big plays given up per game by the defense is still about half a big play less per game than their final 2015 total.

As the season progresses and competition level increases I think we’ll see the offensive numbers drop a bit (likely around the 8-9 total per game range) and as the team gets more comfortable in Don Brown’s scheme (and the three missing starters return) the defense should start to contain some of those big plays. The defensive improvement may not quite reach that one less big play per game I predicted but even if they keep it steady at around 6.5 plays per game I think they’ll be fine. Based on 2015’s numbers anything under 6.5 per game should have them in the top 15 nationally, while anything under 6 per game and they’d be around the top 10 (fewest given up).

And now let’s take a peek at our first conference opponent, Penn State, and see how they stack up in the big play department.

Michigan offense vs Penn State defense
Year Big Run Plays Big Pass Plays Total Big Plays Big Play % Big Play Diff Toxic Diff
UM Off. 20 16 36 16.98% 6.72% 18
PSU Def. 20 3 23 11.39% 1.37% 0
Penn State offense vs Michigan defense
Year Big Run Plays Big Pass Plays Total Big Plays Big Play % Big Play Diff Toxic Diff
PSU Off. 11 5 16 12.76% 1.37% 0
UM Def. 13 4 17 10.26% 6.72% 18

The Nittany Lions’ offense currently averages 3.67 big run plays per game (105th) and 4.67 big pass plays (21st), for a total of 8.33 big plays per game (78th) with a big play percentage of 12.76 percent (57th). I’ll admit, I was a bit surprised to see Penn State’s big pass plays higher than their run plays given that Saquon Barkley is one heck of a running back.

On defense they give up an average of 6.67 big running plays per game (101st), only one big pass play per game (4th) for a total of 7.67 total big plays per game (65th) with a big play against percentage of 11.39 percent (71st). Their big play differential is a paltry 1.37 percent (70th) and their toxic differential is zero, good for 75th on a per game basis.