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The Numbers Game: U-M’s dynamic big play offense stalls in Iowa loss

November 17th, 2016 by Josh DeMille


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, As big play defense falls back to earth, U-M offense continues to soar

I’ll start with the good news: Michigan held Iowa to just six explosive plays. Now, the bad news: Michigan managed only three of their own –all coming in the first half — and they lost Wilton Speight for the foreseeable future. Just when I was beginning to believe he was capable of leading Michigan to the promised land.

This was just the second-time this season that Michigan lost the explosive play battle, and the third time in 10 games they were held to single-digit plays of their own. As I’m sure you’re aware, Michigan missed on several shots downfield. I haven’t been able to bring myself to go back and re-watch the game yet but I feel like there were at least three or four downfield shots that would have been touchdowns had they been on target. Just one of those missed explosive pass opportunities probably would have won the game for Michigan.

Despite the crushing loss, the big thing to take away here is this: Michigan is still 100 percent in control of their destiny. No other Big Ten team can say that. Win out and they’re in the Big Ten Championship game. They had to beat Ohio State regardless of what happened in Iowa City, and that is still on the table. Better to lose at Iowa, regroup and then win in Columbus than to have won last weekend only to fall in Columbus.

Don’t forget, we saw a Michigan State team enter the Horseshoe with a back-up quarterback last year and somehow pull out the win. And as much as I hate to mention it, Ohio State won the inaugural College Football Playoff with a backup quarterback. Michigan’s playoff hopes are still just as alive as they were before last weekend; there’s just no margin for error now.

And now on to the explosive play stats.

Offensive big plays
Michigan offense – 2015 vs 2016 first 10 weeks comparison
Year Big Run Plays Big Pass Plays Total Big Plays Big Play % Big Play Diff Toxic Diff
2016 75 42 117 16.14% 6.12% 65
2015 42 33 75 10.89% 0.30% 4

Despite averaging over eight explosive runs per game, Michigan managed just two — both by Chris Evans — versus Iowa, and neither went farther than 12 yards. Speight connected with Jehu Chesson for the lone explosive pass, a 27-yarder in the second quarter.

For the year, Michigan is averaging 7.5 explosive runs per game (17th nationally) and 4.2 explosive passes per game (25th) for a total of 11.7 explosive plays per game (5th). Those numbers are down from the past few weeks but still impressive overall. Their big play percentage is 16.14 percent (11th), big play differential is 6.17 percent (6th), and their total toxic differential is 65 — good for fourth on a per game basis. All very solid numbers, especially compared to last year at this time.

Through 10 games in 2015, Michigan averaged 4.2 explosive runs and 3.3 explosive passes for a total of 7.5 explosive plays per game, which is right about where they ended up (7.3). To be averaging over four more explosive plays per game this season is borderline absurd. That is an improvement of 56 percent. James Joseph Harbaugh is an offensive genius. The 2015 team’s big play percentage was just 10.89 percent, their big play differential was 0.3 percent, and their total toxic differential was just 4.

Garbage time

There was no garbage time in this game. For the season, only 39.32 percent of Michigan’s big plays have come during garbage time.

Defensive big plays allowed
Michigan defense – 2015 vs 2016 averages through 10 weeks
Year Big Run Plays/gm Big Pass Plays/gm Total Big Plays/gm Big Play % Big Play Diff Toxic Diff
2016 4.00 2.00 6.00 10.02% 6.12% 65
2015 4.40 2.30 6.70 10.58% 0.30% 4

While the offense failed to generate the big plays it usually does, the defense held on par and gave up just six total big plays to Iowa — five run and one pass. Much like against Michigan State, there was one player responsible for most of the damage. In this case it was Akrum Wadley, who had four of the five runs and the lone reception for an incredible 83.3 percent of Iowa’s big plays. Of course Iowa had to figure out he was their best running back against us. Such is life.

At this point in 2015 Michigan had just come off a major scare versus Indiana. The loss of Ryan Glasgow had reared its ugly head as Michigan gave up 15 explosive plays (12 runs and three passes) to the Hoosiers.

The totals through 10 games in 2015 were: 4.4 explosive runs per game and 2.3 explosive passes for a total of 6.7 explosive plays per game, creeping up towards where they’d end the season, 7.2. Their big play against percentage was 10.58 percent.

Garbage time

As mentioned above, there was no garbage time in this game. For the season Michigan surrenders 46.67 percent of their big plays during garbage time.

Sacks and tackles for loss

While they didn’t have quite the party in the backfield they did last week, Michigan still managed to rack up three sacks and six total tackles for loss. They have surpassed their 2015 total in both categories in three fewer games. On the year, their 33 sacks and 3.3 per game average are both eighth nationally and their 89 total tackles for loss and 8.9 TFL per game are both third nationally. Michigan was 32nd and 42nd nationally for sacks and TFL on a per game basis overall in 2015. This is what the Don Brown defense does, ladies and gentlemen.

Big plays by down


An explosive play is slightly more likely on second down (51) than it is on first down (50). An explosive run is more likely on second (37) than first down (33) and an explosive pass play is slightly more likely on first (17) than second down (14). Third down is highly unlikely to see an explosive run (only 6.67 percent of explosive runs happen on third down) but better than a quarter (27.44 percent) of the explosive pass plays happen on third down.


On defense, Michigan is more likely to give up an explosive play on first down (25) than second down (23) 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 (16) and then third (6). Explosive pass plays are more likely to occur on first down (9) than second (5), third (5), and fourth (1) downs.

Big play percentage of total yards

Iowa had five drives with at least one explosive play against Michigan, but only scored on two of those (40 percent). Michigan had just three drives with at least one explosive play but scored on two of them (67 percent). For the year, Michigan has had 75 total drives on which they’ve had at least one explosive play and they’ve scored on 55 of them, or 73.33 percent of the time. On defense, they’ve surrendered just 15 scores on 39 drives with an explosive play, just 34.09 percent 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.

Big plays by player

In the running game, De’Veon Smith holds on to the overall big play lead with 17, but Chris Evans and Ty Isaac aren’t far behind with 15 and 14, respectively. Karan Higdon maintains the highest average per qualifying runs (at least 10) with 23.9 yards per big play. Amara Darboh is still by far the leader in big pass plays with 16. He’s also the yardage leader as well, averaging a whopping 33.81 yards per explosive pass reception. Chesson comes in second with 10 and Jake Butt has eight.

Chris Evans, Ty Isaac, Eddie McDoom, Jehu Chesson, and Bobby Henderson have all recorded at least one explosive run and pass. Overall, 12 different plays have notched at least one explosive run and 10 have grabbed at least one explosive pass.

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. 75 42 117 16.14% 6.12% 65
IU Off. 51 44 95 12.32% 0.19% -2
Michigan & Iowa defense comparison
Year Big Run Plays Big Pass Plays Total Big Plays Big Play % Big Play Diff Toxic Diff
UM Def. 40 20 60 10.02% 6.12% 65
IU Def. 57 34 91 12.13% 0.19% -2

#CHAOSTEAM — a.k.a. the Indiana Hoosiers — comes to town this weekend and chaos will most likely ensue. Michigan stole a win in Bloomington last year on their senior day and Indiana looks to return the favor against a reeling Wolverine team on their senior day.

Statistically, Indiana is very similar to Iowa, except this time it’s a home game and something tells me Michigan won’t come out flat and looking ill-prepared like last week. You have to go back to 2009 to find the last time Jim Harbaugh lost back to back games (43 straight without suffering back to back losses) at the college level. Nonetheless, games are not played on paper and Michigan can once again expect to see their opponent’s best effort. Here’s how the Hoosiers stack up.

On offense, Indiana is averaging 5.1 explosive runs per game (80th) and 4.4 explosive passes per game (18th) for a total of 9.5 explosive plays per game (52nd). Their big play percentage is 12.32 percent (65th) and their big play differential is 0.19 percent (74th). On defense, the Hoosiers are much improved but their big play numbers aren’t that great, but then again neither were Iowa’s. The Hoosiers surrender 5.7 explosive runs per game (70th) and 3.4 explosive passes (77th) for a total of 9.1 explosive plays per game (74th). Their big play against percentage against is 12.13 percent (68th) and their total toxic differential is -2, good for 75th nationally.