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The Numbers Game: MSU wins big play battle, Michigan wins the war

November 3rd, 2016 by Josh DeMille

peppers-vs-msu(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, U-M offense third most explosive, defense best at preventing big plays

First, the good news. Michigan won and was in control of this game from just about the beginning, with a three-possession lead at halftime and at least a two-possession game throughout (save for with one-second left on the clock when Michigan State cut it to seven only to have Jabrill Peppers subsequently return it back to nine).

Now, the bad. Michigan allowed double digit explosive plays for the first time all season and lost the total explosive play battle, also for the first time. Rivalry games are a strange thing indeed.

Coming into this match-up Michigan had yet to surrender more than seven explosive plays to an opponent (Colorado and UCF each had seven). Michigan State proceeded to almost double that number with 12. The silver lining is that three of those came on two drives in the fourth quarter during the brief amount of garbage time in this game. Regardless, Michigan State found a way to run the ball effectively against the vaunted Wolverine defense. Michigan got the win though, so we can look at the numbers without crying, right?

Offensive big plays
Michigan offense – 2015 vs 2016 first eight weeks comparison
Year Big Run Plays Big Pass Plays Total Big Plays Big Play % Big Play Diff Toxic Diff
2016 64 34 98 16.39% 6.50% 52
2015 31 19 50 10.00% 0.07% 2

Michigan did manage 11 explosive plays of their own — six run and five pass — which is slightly below their season average of 12.43. On defense, the 12 they surrendered eight were runs and four passes. L.J. Scott was the main culprit, accounting for five of the eight runs and six of the 12 total plays, with an average explosive run of 21.4 yards and an explosive play on 25 percent of his touches. Please keep in mind L.J. Scott is an excellent running back who will be playing on Sundays and — like it or not — Mark Dantonio is a great coach who came up with a great game plan for Michigan. All great seasons usually have a game or two like this, a wake-up call if you will, and Michigan will be better for the adversity going forward.

Adding Michigan’s 11 explosive plays from this game into their season total, we arrive at an average of eight explosive runs per game (12th nationally) and 4.25 explosive passes (24th) for a total of 12.25 explosive plays per game (3rd) with a big play percentage of 16.39 percent (7th). Roughly one out of every six plays is an explosive one. Their big play differential is 6.5 percent (7th) and their total toxic differential is 52, good for second on a per game basis.

Michigan is one of only two teams to average eight or more explosive runs per game AND four or more explosive passes per game. Louisville is the other. I wonder if we can send these stats to ESPN to distribute to Joey Galloway and Kirk Herbstreit so they stop with all the old-fashioned, non-explosive offense talk.

Through eight games last season, Michigan was averaging just 3.88 explosive runs per game and 2.38 big passes per game for a total of just 6.25 explosive plays per game — almost half of their 2016 average. Their big play percentage was 9.14 percent and their big play differential was just 0.07 percent. Their total toxic differential was just two. Here’s how those explosive play numbers would rank nationally this year: 3.88 runs (110th), 2.38 pass (109th), 6.25 total (123rd). To say there’s been a massive improvement on offense would be an understatement.

Garbage time

None of Michigan’s explosive plays versus Michigan State came during garbage time. This was the third game in which Michigan did not record an explosive play during garbage time. Not because they were ineffective but because there was no, or little, garbage time during the game. There was only about seven minutes of garbage time versus Michigan State. On the season, 41.84 percent of Michigan’s explosive plays come during garbage time.

Defensive big plays allowed
Michigan defense – 2015 vs 2016 averages through eight weeks
Year Big Run Plays/gm Big Pass Plays/gm Total Big Plays/gm Big Play % Big Play Diff Toxic Diff
2016 4.00 1.75 5.75 9.89% 6.50% 52
2015 3.38 2.13 5.51 9.07% 0.07% 2

On defense, Michigan did surrender those 12 explosive plays, most of which were runs (eight). L.J. Scott was responsible for 62.5 percent of the explosive runs and half of the total explosive plays given up. While he did average over 21 yards per explosive run this was only about half a yard more than Michigan’s season average given up on said runs, so it wasn’t out of the ordinary. Not a single one of Michigan State’s 12 explosive plays came on third down. One did come on fourth, but who’s counting?

Overall, Michigan is surrendering four explosive runs per game (31st) and 1.75 explosive passes (2nd) for a total of 5.75 (5th). The total is a big fall from last week’s 4.86 and number one overall but still well under the six per game threshold of an elite defense in this metric. Their big play against percentage is 9.89 percent (27th). Their big play rankings took a tumble, but overall these are very excellent numbers given the level of competition they have faced.

Michigan is the only team in the country to allow four or fewer explosive run plays and less than two explosive pass plays per game. And they are one of only four teams to allow less than two explosive pass plays per game.

This point last year is where the wheels started to fall off for the defense in the explosive play department. They went into Minnesota and gave up 10 explosive plays and that trend would continue as the season progressed. After eight games the 2015 team was averaging 3.38 explosive runs allowed and 2.13 explosive passes allowed for a total of 5.5 per game with a big play against percentage of 9.07 percent. Better than this year’s numbers through eight games, but remember, those trends did not continue as they ended the season with over seven explosive plays surrendered per game.

Garbage time

As mentioned, three of the 12 explosive plays surrendered did come in garbage time. For the season, Michigan is giving up 50 percent of their big plays during garbage time.

Sacks and tackles for loss

The Wolverines defense bounced back after a one sack, four tackles for loss performance against Illinois to record two sacks and seven TFLs. Despite a couple ‘down’ weeks their sack and TFL numbers are still fairly high in the national rankings. Michigan has 32 total sacks (if you recall this was their 13-game season total a year ago) and they are averaging 3.38 sacks per game good for 11th and 9th, respectively. They have 70 total tackles for loss (5th) and average 8.75 per game (4th). They should pass the 2015 season total for tackles for loss (88) in the next two or three weeks.

Big plays by down

um-offense-big-plays-by-down-week-9Michigan has registered 98 total explosive plays on offense — 64 run and 34 pass. An explosive play is slightly more likely on second down (43) than it is on first down (41). An explosive run is slightly more likely on second (31) than first down (28) and an explosive pass play is slightly more likely on first (13) than second down (12). Third down is still highly unlikely to see an explosive run (only 7.81 percent of explosive runs happen on third down) but better than a quarter (26.47 percent) of the explosive pass plays happen on third down.


On defense Michigan is almost equally likely to give up an explosive play on first (18) or second down (19) with third down a good deal behind (eight). They’ve only surrendered one fourth down explosive play. Half of the explosive runs given up happen on second down (17), followed by first (10) and then third (five). Explosive pass plays are more likely to occur on first down (eight) than second (two), third (three) and fourth (one) downs combined.

Big play percentage of total yards

The Michigan defense has given up 889 total rushing yards and 669 of them (75.25 percent) have come via explosive plays. They give up just under 21 yards per explosive run carry. On carries that do not yield an explosive run Michigan gives up just 0.91 yards per carry. Of the 273 rushing attempts Michigan has seen they have given up an explosive run on just 32 of them (11.72 percent) or roughly one out of every eight opponent carries.

In the pass game, just over 50 percent of the yardage Michigan surrenders comes via explosive pass (484 of 961 total). They yield 34.57 yards per explosive pass completion but just 7.23 yards per non-explosive pass completion. Overall, 62.32 percent of the yards Michigan gives up come via explosive play, at 25 yards per play. The rest of the time Michigan has given up just 697 yards on 419 plays, 0.61 yards per play.

The only way you will get any yards on Michigan is to have an explosive play here or there, and Michigan doesn’t surrender many (5.75 per game). Nor do they allow you to score that often on drives with explosive plays. Speaking of which…

Big play scoring drives

Michigan State had seven drives with at least one explosive play against Michigan, but only scored on four of those, or 57.14 percent. Michigan also had seven drives with at least one explosive play but scored on six of them, 85.71 percent. For the year, Michigan has had 63 total drives on which they’ve had at least one explosive play and they’ve scored on 45 of them — 71.43 percent of the time. On defense they’ve surrendered just 12 scores on 32 drives with an explosive play — just 36.36 percent of the time. Basically, two-thirds of the time an opponent has a drive with an explosive play (which doesn’t happen often) they still don’t score on Michigan’s defense. On average, teams are likely to score 75 percent of the time they have an explosive play on a given drive. Michigan is holding teams to less than half of that.

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 15 18.53 yards 16.67%
Chris Evans 12 22.64 yards 22.42%
Ty Isaac 11 16.67 yards 14.82%
Karan Higdon 10 18.87 yards 23.90%
Michigan’s 2016 big play leaders – Pass
Name Number of Big Receptions Average Gain Big Play Pct
Amara Darboh 14 34.79 yards 36.84%
Jake Butt 7 20.00 yards 24.14%
Jehu Chesson 6 27.50 yards 30.00%

Our explosive play leaderboard stays about the same. De’Veon Smith leads the way with 15 total, averaging 18.53 yards per carry. Karan Higdon holds the largest yards per explosive run at 23.9 yards. Amara Darboh refuses to give up his stranglehold on the top explosive reception list with 14, double the next highest, Jake Butt, who has seven. Darboh averages a whopping 34.79 yards per explosive reception. Jehu Chesson is next at six for 27.5 yards and Jake Butt has seven for 20 yards a catch. No one else has more than two.

Michigan averages 19.52 yards per explosive run and 27.76 per explosive pass for a total average of 22.38 yards per explosive play. And they average over 12 of them per game, or about one out of every six plays. Knowing what we know about Michigan’s offense I can’t help but cackle when I hear comments about how they’re not explosive or high-powered enough.

Next opponent
Michigan & Maryland offense comparison
Year Big Run Plays Big Pass Plays Total Big Plays Big Play % Big Play Diff Toxic Diff
UM Off. 64 34 98 16.39% 6.50% 52
MD Off. 73 18 91 16.37% 3.99% 17
Michigan & Maryland defense comparison
Year Big Run Plays Big Pass Plays Total Big Plays Big Play % Big Play Diff Toxic Diff
UM Def. 32 14 46 9.89% 6.50% 52
MD Def. 56 18 74 12.37% 3.99% 17

And now we look ahead to a familiar face, D.J. Durkin and his Maryland Terrapins. I was going to make a veiled comment about just running Ohio State’s offense against them since Durkin clearly doesn’t know how to stop it, but let’s just look at how Maryland stacks up numbers-wise.

Maryland likes to run the ball, to the tune of 9.13 explosive runs per game (6th nationally), but they don’t seem to care for the pass much, 2.25 explosive passes per game (111th) but overall they’re a solidly explosive team, averaging 11.38 per game (17th). Their big play percentage for is 16.37 percent, just two-hundredths of a percent and one ranking spot below Michigan. Their total toxic differential is 17, good for 31st on a per game basis.

The Terrapins give up seven explosive runs per game (112th) and 2.25 explosive passes per game (15th) for a total of 9.25 explosive plays allowed per game (82nd). Their big play against percentage is 12.37 percent (80th) and their big play differential is 3.99 percent (24th). I’ll have more in my prediction tomorrow, but I’d fully expect Michigan to have great success running the ball this weekend.