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The Numbers Game: As big play defense falls back to earth, U-M offense continues to soar

November 11th, 2016 by Josh DeMille

evans-vs-maryland(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, MSU wins big play battle, Michigan wins the war,

For the third time this season, and all in the past four weeks, Michigan’s offense topped 16 total big plays. They’ve had double digit big plays in seven of their nine games and have never had less than nine total (twice). I don’t care who you’re playing; topping 16 big plays in a game is huge and Michigan has done it yet again. Harbaugh for President!

Now some bad news, after having only given up more than seven total big plays to their opponents just twice — UCF (7) and MSU (12) — Michigan’s defense surrendered eight to Maryland last week, the majority of which came on the edge via screen passes. However, the silver lining of having a weakness exposed, yet again, is that it means they’ll be all the better prepared for the showdown in the Toilet Bowl, err, Horseshoe, in a couple weeks.

Offensive big plays
Michigan offense – 2015 vs 2016 first nine weeks comparison
Year Big Run Plays Big Pass Plays Total Big Plays Big Play % Big Play Diff Toxic Diff
2016 73 41 114 17.17% 7.00% 69
2015 37 26 63 10.24% 0.69% 8

Michigan came out of this one with nine explosive runs and seven explosive passes. Chris Evans added his name to the list of players with both explosive runs and passes when he deftly handled a bobbled screen pass and scampered into the end zone from 57-yards out. Okay, fine, the officials said it was only 56-yards and he didn’t score, but you and I know (and most definitely Jim Harbaugh knows) that was a touchdown.

On the season, Michigan’s juggernaut offense is averaging 8.11 explosive runs (12th nationally) and 4.56 explosive passes (14th) for a total of 12.67 explosive plays per game (2nd). Yes, through 10 weeks of the college football season only ONE team averages more explosive plays per game than Michigan. And it ain’t Clemson.

Read that again, and then tweet it to Kirk Herbstreit and his ESPN cronies. This may be a pro-style offense but it is innovative and explosive, and we have the numbers to prove it.

To make their case even better Michigan’s big play percentage is a whopping 17.17 percent (4th). Not only do they average the second most big plays per game in the country but they also do so at the fourth-best rate, averaging one explosive play for every six plays (it’s actually one per every 5.8-ish but we’ll round up). Their big play differential is 7 percent (5th) and their total toxic differential — the stat that got this column started — is 69, good for FIRST nationally on a per game basis.

Both Michigan’s big play and toxic differential numbers are phenomenal. Strange, because that’s exactly what happened with Harbaugh’s teams in San Francisco too. Greatest football mind of our era? Perhaps.

Michigan is one of only two teams to average at least eight explosive runs and 4.5 explosive passes. Again, Clemson isn’t the other one. It’s still Louisville, by the way.

Garbage time

Only five of Michigan’s 16 explosive plays came during garbage time. For the year, 40.35 percent (46-of-114) of Michigan’s explosive plays have come during garbage time. They do most of their damage before the game is out of hand.

Last year at this time Michigan’s offense was starting to come into its own as the “Rudockening” (as MGoBlog calls it) was underway. They were averaging 4.11 explosive runs and 2.89 explosive passes for a total of seven explosive plays per game, right about where they ended up for the year. Their big play percentage was just 10.24 percent and their big play differential was 0.69 percent. Their total toxic differential was 8, or 0.89 on a per game basis.

Defensive big plays allowed
Michigan defense – 2015 vs 2016 averages through nine weeks
Year Big Run Plays/gm Big Pass Plays/gm Total Big Plays/gm Big Play % Big Play Diff Toxic Diff
2016 3.89 2.11 6.00 10.17% 7.00% 69
2015 3.56 2.22 5.78 9.56% 0.69% 8

On the other side of the ball Maryland did have those eight big plays of their own. I haven’t gone back to watch the game this week but I do remember Channing Stribling missing a tackle or two on the edge. This is where Jeremy Clark was a much better cornerback in my opinion. He could tackle and was excellent in run defense. But alas…

So far, Michigan’s defense, which took a bit of a step back in recent weeks, is giving up 3.89 explosive runs (27th) and 2.11 explosive passes (5th) for a total of six explosive plays per game (4th). Their big play against percentage is 10.17 percent (31st).

They’re right about where I thought they’d be in this new defensive scheme, and still among the elite defenses in stopping big plays. Don Brown for Secretary of Defense!

Garbage time

Five of those eight explosive plays came during garbage time. Math whizzes will tell you that means only three came before the game was out of hand, which is not bad. The Michigan defense has given up slightly more than half — 51.85 percent — of their big plays during garbage time.

The 2015 defense through nine games was allowing 3.56 explosive runs and 2.22 explosive passes for a total of just 5.58 explosive plays per game. Their big play against percentage was 9.56 percent. Remember, those numbers did not hold over the course of the season though, as Michigan ended up giving up over seven big plays per game when it was all said and done.

Sacks and tackles for loss

Michigan’s defense had a party in the Terrapin backfield last week, racking up three sacks and 13 tackles for loss. Their season totals are now 30 sacks (8th) for 3.33 per game (7th) and both their 83 total tackles for loss and 9.22 TFL per game are ranked first. Through just nine games they are only five tackles for loss and two sacks shy of matching their 2015 season 13-game totals.

Big plays by down

Michigan has registered 114 total explosive plays on offense — 73 run and 41 pass. They surpassed last year’s season total of 95 after the Michigan State game (98) but I forgot to add it in.


An explosive play is slightly more likely on second down (51) than it is on first down (47). An explosive run is more likely on second (37) than first down (31) and an explosive pass play is slightly more likely on first (16) than second down (14). Third down is highly unlikely to see an explosive run (only 6.85 percent of explosive runs happen on third down) but better than a quarter (26.83 percent) of the explosive pass plays happen on third down.


On defense, Michigan is more likely to give up an explosive play on second down (22) than first down (20) with third down a good deal behind (11). They’ve only surrendered one fourth down explosive play. Almost half of the explosive runs given up happen on second down (18), followed by first (11), and then third (6). Explosive pass plays are more likely to occur on first down (9) than second (4), third (5) and fourth (1) downs.

Big play percentage of total yards

The Michigan defense has given up 967 total rushing yards and 720 of them (74.46 percent) have come via explosive play. They give up just under 20.57 yards per explosive run carry. On carries that do not yield an explosive run Michigan gives up just 0.89 yards per carry. Of the 311 rushing attempts Michigan has seen they have given up an explosive run on just 35 of them (10.17 percent) or roughly one out of every ten opponent carries.

In the passing game, 53.6 percent of the yardage Michigan surrenders comes via explosive pass (670 of 1,250 total). They yield 35.26 yards per explosive pass completion but just 7.44 yards per non-explosive pass completion.

Overall, 62.7 percent of the yards Michigan gives up come via explosive play, at 25.74 yards per play.

Big play scoring drives

Maryland had six drives with at least one explosive play against Michigan, but only scored on one (16.67 percent) of those. Michigan had just nine drives with at least one explosive play but scored on eight of them (88.89 percent). For the year, Michigan has had 72 total drives in which they’ve had at least one explosive play, and they’ve scored on 53 of them, or 73.61 percent of the time. On defense, they’ve surrendered just 13 scores on 33 drives with an explosive play — just 33.33% of the time. What this means is that two-thirds of the time an opponent has a drive with an explosive play (which doesn’t happen often) they still can’t score on this Michigan’s defense. Remember, teams are likely to score 75 percent of the time they have an explosive play on a given drive.

Next opponent
Michigan & Iowa offense comparison
Year Big Run Plays Big Pass Plays Total Big Plays Big Play % Big Play Diff Toxic Diff
UM Off. 73 41 114 17.17% 7.00% 69
UI Off. 73 18 91 16.37% 3.99% 17
Michigan & Iowa 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% 7.00% 69
UI Def. 56 18 74 12.37% 3.99% 17

This weekend is a game I had circled and predicted would be a loss in the preseason. My, how a couple months will change all that. Iowa is not who we thought they’d be and Michigan is far better than most thought. Still, Iowa City at night is a scary venue. At least we know Harbaugh will never be satisfied and will always seek to be improving each and every day. This team, and every Harbaugh team, will be absolutely prepared for every single game. Let’s look at the Kirk Ferentz-led Hawkeyes’ numbers, keeping in mind he was signed to a 10-year extension (essentially a lifetime coaching gig).

The Iowa offense is averaging 4.56 explosive runs per game (97th) and 2.89 explosive passes (81st) for a total of 7.44 explosive plays per game (99th). Yikes. Their big play percentage for is 12.16 percent (68th). Their big play differential is 2.04 percent (41st) and their total toxic differential is just 8, good for 54th on a per game basis.

The defense is a little better, but not much. The Hawkeye defense surrenders four explosive run plays per game (31st) and 3.22 explosive passes (67th) for a total of a not un-respectable 7.22 explosive plays per game (31st). Their big play against percentage is 10.12 percent (29th).