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The Numbers Game: U-M offense third most explosive, defense best at preventing big plays

October 27th, 2016 by Josh DeMille

speight-vs-illinois(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, Michigan offense doubles 2015 big play pace through 3 weeks, UM’s smothering defense narrows gap between 2015 D’s big play pace, U-M offense maintains big play pace versus tough Wisconsin D, Michigan out-big-plays Rutgers 16 to 1, Michigan’s big play stats continue to tell good news

One game after Michigan put up a season high 16 explosive plays on lowly Rutgers they came back and put up 17 on Illinois. They did however, give up four explosive plays to Illinois, which was three more than Rutgers managed.

Offensive big plays
Michigan offense – 2015 vs 2016 first seven weeks comparison
Year Big Run Plays Big Pass Plays Total Big Plays Big Play % Big Play Diff Toxic Diff
2016 58 29 87 16.38% 7.78% 60
2015 28 19 47 10.00% 1.52% 11

Those 17 explosive plays were fairly evenly distributed between 10 runs and seven passes. Coming in, Michigan had 22 total explosive passes through six games. The offensive outbursts over the last two games have vaulted Michigan up in the offensive rankings nationally. How high, exactly? Let’s dig in and see.

So far, Michigan has put up 8.29 explosive run plays per game (9th nationally) and 4.14 explosive pass plays (25th) for a total of 12.43 explosive plays per game (3rd). Yes, you read that right, only two teams in the country average more explosive plays per game than Michigan: Louisville (15.57) and Army (12.57). I think we can begin to put to rest the notion that this offense is a slow, plodding, pro-style offense.

Their big play percentage is 16.38 percent (9th), their big play differential is 7.78 percent (3rd), and their total toxic differential is 60, good for No. 1 nationally on a per game basis. Remember, teams that fare well in the toxic differential metric are usually the ones left standing at the end of the season.

Through seven games last season, the 2015 team — Harbaugh’s first — was averaging just four explosive run plays and 2.71 explosive pass plays for a total of 6.71 explosive plays — almost half of what the 2016 team is doing. Their big play percentage was 10 percent, their big play differential was 1.52 percent, and their total toxic differential was 11 (1.57 per game). I’ve hit this nail before but I’m going to keep hammering it: Jim Harbaugh is an offensive genius, and perhaps the greatest of our era. What he’s done with Michigan in just his second year is nothing short of miraculous.

Garbage time

Just under half (eight) of Michigan’s 17 explosive plays versus Illinois came during garbage time. So far this season, 41 of their 87 total explosive plays (47.13 percent) have come during garbage time. That means that more than half of Michigan’s explosive plays happen before the game is out of hand.

Defensive big plays allowed
Michigan defense – 2015 vs 2016 averages through six weeks
Year Big Run Plays/gm Big Pass Plays/gm Total Big Plays/gm Big Play % Big Play Diff Toxic Diff
2016 3.43 1.43 4.86 8.61% 7.78% 60
2015 3.14 1.71 4.86 8.15% 1.52% 11

Michigan gave up four total explosive plays to Illinois last week, which is just below their new season average of 4.86. If you’ll recall what I’ve said previously: anything under six explosive plays per game is in elite territory. Michigan is well below five.

Overall, Michigan is giving up 3.43 explosive run plays per game (16th) and 1.43 pass plays (2nd) for the aforementioned total of just 4.86 explosive plays per game (1st). The next best is Auburn and LSU with 5.43 allowed per game. Michigan’s big play against percentage is 8.61 percent (7th).

Last year at this time Michigan was just coming off the last second collapse against Michigan State and didn’t fare too well against that team, giving up seven total explosive plays, six in the passing game. Their totals through seven games in 2015 were 3.14 explosive run plays and 1.71 pass plays for a total of 4.86 explosive plays given up. Exactly what it is this year. Unfortunately for the 2015 defense, injuries took their toll and they could not maintain that pace, finishing with 7.2 explosive plays given up per game, which was still an impressive 24th nationally. I don’t want to jinx this team but even if they slow their pace (doesn’t look likely with the remaining schedule) they should still finish with fewer than six explosive plays given up per game.

Garbage time

Michigan gave up three of its four explosive plays to Illinois during garbage time last week. So far this season, 20 of the 34 explosive plays Michigan has given up (58.82 percent) have come during garbage time. That means that most of Michigan’s explosive plays given up come after the game is well in hand and the other team is highly unlikely to come back and win. Only Penn State (3-of-4) and Wisconsin (5-of-5) put up most of their explosive plays before garbage time kicked in (there was no garbage time vs Wisconsin).

Sacks and tackles for loss

Michigan only registered one sack last Saturday, but their season total and per game average are still up there. After eight weeks Michigan has 25 total sacks and is averaging 3.57 per game, both good for fourth nationally. They have 63 total tackles for loss (4th) and average nine per game (3rd). Remember, Michigan only averaged 2.46 sacks and 6.77 TFL per game last year. This season, they’re averaging over one more sack per game and almost three more tackles for loss per game, all while giving up the fewest big plays per game in the nation. The “high risk/high reward” nonsense has been laid down in a wooden box, pending the final nails in the coffin.

Big plays by down


Michigan has 87 total explosive plays on offense — 58 run and 29 pass. An explosive play is just as likely on first down as it is on second down (37 for each down). An explosive run is slightly more likely on second than first down (27 versus 26) and an explosive pass play is slightly more likely on first than second down (11 versus 10). Third down is highly unlikely to see an explosive run (only 8.62 percent of explosive runs happen on third down) but better than 27 percent of the explosive pass plays happen on third down).


On defense, Michigan is equally likely to give up an explosive play on first and second down (13 apiece) with third down a good deal behind (eight). Half of the explosive runs given up happen on second down (12), followed by first (seven) and then third (five). Explosive pass plays are more likely to occur on first down (six) than both second (one) and third (three) downs combined.

Big play percentage of total yards

I thought it might be fun to take a look at what percentage of yards Michigan gives up on explosive plays. It was eye opening when it came to what they do in the run game. Michigan has given up 672 total rushing yards and 501 of those came on just 24 explosive run plays. That means 74.55 percent of the total rushing yards Michigan has given up has come via an explosive run play at 20.88 yards a pop. So what are they giving up per play on non-explosive runs? A mere 0.83 yards per attempt.

To truly put that into some perspective consider this: Michigan has faced 231 total rushing attempts. Of those, 24 have resulted in explosive plays (501 total yards) and the other 207 rushes have yielded just 171 total yards. So what does this mean exactly? Michigan will give up an explosive run play about 10 percent of the time at just under 21 yards per rush. The other 90 percent of the time they give up just 0.83 yards per rush. You get a big gain once in a while, but most of the time you literally get almost nothing.

Let that sink in for a minute. Ninety percent of the time a team runs the ball against Michigan they average less than a yard per attempt.

On offense just over 63 percent of Michigan’s rushing yards come via explosive play and just under 53 percent of their passing yards come via explosive play. All in all, over 58 percent of Michigan’s total offensive yards come via explosive plays. I think they’ve come that long way already, eh Herbie?

Without the total explosive play yardage for the rest of the country we cannot see how Michigan compares. If you know how to get it without going through play-by-plays for every team/game hit me up at @jdemille9. But what we do know quantitatively is that Michigan has an explosive play 16.38 percent of the time — roughly one out of every six plays. Only two of the eight teams with a higher big play percentage than Michigan are in the playoff hunt — Washington (16.45 percent) and Louisville (20.11 percent). No, they are not quite in Louisville’s stratosphere percentage-wise, but their offense isn’t built to be basketball on grass.

UM’s big play leaders
Michigan’s 2016 big play leaders – Run
Name Number of Big Runs Average Gain Big Play Pct
De’Veon Smith 14 18.43 yards 17.72%
Chris Evans 11 23.55 yards 22.44%
Ty Isaac 10 14.82 yards 17.46%
Karan Higdon 9 25.11 yards 20.93%
Michigan’s 2016 big play leaders – Pass
Name Number of Big Receptions Average Gain Big Play Pct
Amara Darboh 11 35.00 yards 36.67%
Jake Butt 6 19.00 yards 23.08%
Jehu Chesson 5 28.40 yards 27.78%

With Chris Evans out with a concussion after just one carry, De’Veon Smith was able to climb back to the lead with 14 total explosive runs, he’s also the overall leader with 14. I’m still amazed that his explosive run average is so high (18.43 yards). It’s amazing what one can do when healthy. Karan Higdon took the opportunity presented in Evans’ absence and moved to the top in average per explosive run with 25.11 yards. As a team, Michigan is averaging 19.62 yards on 58 explosive runs.

Amara Darboh stayed atop the explosive pass play list for both total (11) and average yards per (35). As a team, Michigan is averaging 28.32 yards on 28 explosive pass plays. Overall, Michigan averages 22.45 yards on their 87 explosive plays.

Big play scoring drives
Michigan’s 2016 big play scoring percentage
Drives With Big Play Drives w/Big Play and Score Big Play Scoring Pct
Offense 56 39 69.64%*
Drives With Big Play Drives w/Big Play and Score Big Play Scoring Pct
Defense 26 8 30.77%*
*A drive with a big play typically yields points 75% of the time per recent NFL study

Against Illinois, Michigan had 10 drives in which they registered an explosive play and they scored on seven of those. Side note: one of those ten drives was the game ending drive in which Michigan ran out the clock, so that will skew the results downward slightly. Overall this season Michigan has had 56 drives with an explosive play and scored on 39 of them (69.64 percent). Just under 70 percent of the time they have an explosive play, they score on that drive. On a per game basis, they average eight drives with an explosive play and score on 5.57 of them.

On defense, Michigan surrendered four drives with explosive plays to Illinois and the Illini only capitalized on one of them. For the year Michigan’s defense has surrendered 26 drives with an explosive play and only allowed scores on eight of them. Opponents only score 30.77 percent of the time they register an explosive play. Remember, the NFL study we base this off of says that a team is likely to score on 75 percent of the drives on which they register an explosive play. Michigan gives up a score less than one third of the time. The Michigan defense is very good, in case you didn’t know already.

Next opponent
Michigan & Michigan State offense comparison
Year Big Run Plays Big Pass Plays Total Big Plays Big Play % Big Play Diff Toxic Diff
UM Off. 58 29 87 16.38% 7.78% 60
MSU Off. 28 21 49 10.47% 1.36% 0
Michigan & Michigan State defense comparison
Year Big Run Plays Big Pass Plays Total Big Plays Big Play % Big Play Diff Toxic Diff
UM Def. 24 10 34 8.61% 7.78% 60
MSU Def. 24 21 45 9.11% 1.36% 0

And now we take a look forward to our next opponent. This line from Star Wars always comes to mind when I think of East Lansing; “you won’t find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.” Unfortunately, Sparty isn’t who we thought they’d be, but they still consider this their championship game, a la Rutgers. We saw how well that worked out for the Scarlet Knights. For what it’s worth, Jim Harbaugh prepares for every team as if it’s a championship game. No one will ever say his Michigan teams weren’t prepared.

MSU is bad on offense — not Rutgers bad — but still very bad. They average four explosive run plays per game (102nd) and three explosive pass plays per game (75th) for a total of seven explosive plays per game (111th). Their big play percentage is 10.47 percent (101st) and their big play differential is 1.36 percent (53rd).

On defense it gets a little better, but not quite the Spartan teams of yesteryear. They give up an average of 3.43 explosive run plays per game (16th) — which is same as Michigan — and three explosive pass plays (53rd) for a total of 6.43 explosive plays per game (21st). Their big play against percentage is a decent 9.11 percent (15th) but their total toxic differential is a flat zero (70th). Still fairly solid on defense as far as explosive plays given up are concerned, but just awful on offense.

I expect Michigan State to bring their A-game this weekend. Unfortunately, their A-game is light years behind Michigan’s A-game. Don’t think Michigan’s players (or Jim Harbaugh for that matter) have forgotten last year and how the Spartans celebrated the way they did in Ann Arbor. I’ll have my full prediction tomorrow, but for now all I will say is that I fully expect something similar to 2009 Stanford versus USC to go down in East Lansing this Saturday.