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The numbers game: U-M offense lagging behind 2016 big play pace but defense allowing fewer

September 21st, 2017 by Derick Hutchinson


(Kaitlyn Cole)

Michigan’s offense has struggled at times early in the 2017 season, especially when it comes to red zone touchdowns. But it has been able to move the ball fairly well. The defense has been a pleasant surprise after losing 10 starters to the NFL. Now, a fourth of the way through the season, let’s start taking a look at how the Wolverines stack up in terms of explosive plays on both sides of the ball.

Offensively, Michigan is averaging 9.33 explosive plays (runs of 10 or more yards and passes of 20 or more). Of those 28 explosive plays, 17 have been rushing plays and 11 have been passing plays. Here’s how that compares to the past two seasons through three games:

Offensive big plays
Michigan offense – First three weeks comparison, 2017 vs past two seasons
Year Big Run Plays Big Pass Plays Total Big Plays Big Play % Big Play Diff Toxic Diff
2017 17 11 28 13.59% 4.75% 13
2016 20 16 36 16.98% 6.72% 18
2015 10 8 18 8.57% -0.62% -1

The Wolverines currently rank 78th nationally in most total plays of at least 10 yards, 48th in rushing plays of at least 10 yards and 38th in passing plays of at least 20 yards.

Ty Isaac is leading the way with 10 plays of at least 10 yards, which ranks 17th in the country. He also has five plays of at least 20 yards, which ranks sixth in the nation. Chris Evans is second on the team with four rushes of at least 10 yards. Tarik Black leads the way in the passing game with three receptions of at least 20 yards, averaging 35.7 yards apiece. Isaac’s big runs have averaged 24 yards and that number would be higher if not for two touchdowns called back against Air Force. Among players with at least two big plays, Donovan Peoples-Jones leads the Wolverines with an average of 40.5 yards per (a 44-yard run and a 37-yards reception).

To put Michigan’s current pace in perspective, last year’s team averaged 12 explosive plays per game through the first three games of the season. While this year’s offense has looked stagnant at times, the addition of faster and more athletic players has improved Michigan’s overall potential for big-plays, and it’s still far better than Jim Harbaugh’s first season, which averaged just six explosive plays a game through the first three.

For example, the majority of last season’s carries went to De’Veon Smith, who was more of a bruiser than a home run threat. He led the team with 22 explosive runs in all of 2016. With Isaac and even Chris Evans taking over those carries, there’s far more potential to turn the corner around the edge and pick up first downs on first and second down.

Michigan’s big play leaders through 3 games
Name # Big Runs # Big Rec. Total Average Gain (Yds) Big Play %
Ty Isaac 10 0 10 24.0 21.28%
Chris Evans 4 0 4 15.5 12.12%
Tarik Black 0 3 3 35.7 27.27%
Donovan Peoples-Jones 1 1 2 40.5 66.67%
Zach Gentry 0 2 2 33.0 66.67%
Kekoa Crawford 0 2 2 31.5 40.00%
Grant Perry 0 2 2 30.5 20.00%
Karan Higdon 2 0 2 24.0 8.70%
Nick Eubanks 0 1 1 48.0 50.00%

From the wide receiver position, Michigan replaced veterans with superior athletes such as Donovan Peoples-Jones, Tarik Black, Kekoa Crawford, Nico Collins and Oliver Martin. Black is now out for the season, but Peoples-Jones and Crawford have already racked up four explosive plays in limited playing time, and the other two will likely take on larger roles going forward.

Even Eddie McDoom should add to Michigan’s big-play potential. He’s only caught two passes and received two carries through three games, but he’s sure to get more touches with Black out of the offense.

So despite averaging about 2.5 fewer explosive plays per game at this point, I think the offense will become more explosive by the end of the year as the young players grow more comfortable in the offense. Michigan also hasn’t played Rutgers yet, which is an opportunity to rack up dozens of big plays, so the year-to-year stats haven’t exactly evened out yet.

On defense, Michigan is about as good as it gets in terms of shutting down big plays. Among teams that have played three games this season, only Auburn has allowed fewer plays of at least 10 yards. Here’s how the defense stacks up to the past two seasons through the first three games:

Defensive big plays
Michigan defense – 2017 average to date vs past 2 seasons
Year Big Run Plays/gm Big Pass Plays/gm Total Big Plays/gm Big Play % Big Play Diff Toxic Diff
2017 2.67 2.67 5.33 8.84% 4.75% 13
2016 5.00 1.67 6.67 10.26% 6.72% 18
2015 4.33 1.33 5.67 9.19% -0.62% -1

The Wolverines have allowed 16 total explosive plays (eight run and eight pass), and surprisingly, 11 of those have gone for at least 20 yards. Don Brown’s defense has mastered the art of dropping opponents for negative plays, but when the blitzes don’t get to the quarterback, the defense is susceptible to big plays.

Michigan also has an extremely young secondary, made up of three true sophomores and a junior – all of which are first-year starters. While all four are solid playmakers, they’ve also made a few mistakes as a result of their inexperience, so that explains many of the big plays allowed.

Michigan ranked 13th among teams that have played three games in terms of big rushing plays allowed, and only 14 teams have allowed fewer long passing plays. Through the first three games, Michigan’s defense is actually allowing explosive plays at a lower clip than last year’s vaunted defense did — about one and one-third fewer per game. This year’s defense has given up one more long pass per game to date, but has yielded just eight long runs compared to 15 at this point in 2016.

Obviously, it’s no surprise that Michigan’s defense has been more effective than the offense in terms of big plays. That has been reflected in the overall production, as well.

Michigan’s 2017 big play scoring percentage
Drives With Big Play Drives w/Big Play and Score Big Play Scoring Pct
Offense 17 12 70.59%*
Drives With Big Play Drives w/Big Play and Score Big Play Scoring Pct
Defense 14 6 42.86%*
*A drive with a big play typically yields points 75% of the time per recent NFL study

The defensive line is critical to shutting down big running plays, as running backs rarely get to the second level without contact. Chase Winovich and Rashan Gary have done a nice job setting the edge and stopping ball carriers from getting outside.

When opponents do rush outside, or on screen plays, Michigan’s athleticism at linebacker stops most plays before 10 yards. Devin Bush has led the charge for the most part, but Khaleke Hudson has also been critical in this regard.

Overall, Michigan hasn’t been outstanding on offense, so it seems about right that it ranks in the lower half of the FBS in total big plays thus far. The defense, however, is among the absolute best in every category, which also matches what our eyes have told us.

This week, Michigan hits the road for its first true road game of the season against an upstart Purdue Boilermakers squad. Here’s how the Wolverines and Boilermakers stack up so far.

Next opponent
Michigan offense vs Purdue defense
Year Big Run Plays Big Pass Plays Total Big Plays Big Play % Big Play Diff Toxic Diff
UM Off. 17 11 28 13.59% 4.75% 13
PU Def. 13 11 24 12.12% 0.92% 9
Purdue offense vs Michigan defense
Year Big Run Plays Big Pass Plays Total Big Plays Big Play % Big Play Diff Toxic Diff
PU Off. 17 13 30 13.04% 0.92% 9
UM Def. 8 8 16 8.84% 4.75% 13

Purdue’s offense has been one of the surprises of college football under first-year head coach Jeff Brohm. Through the first three games of the season it has churned out two more explosive plays than Michigan’s offense has (both passes), although it has done so at a slightly lower rate, having run 24 more plays than the Wolverines. The Boilermakers are averaging 10 explosive plays per game (5.7 runs and 4.3 runs).

Defensively, they’re not quite as good, allowing seven explosive plays per game. They’ve given up 13 explosive runs (4.3 per game), which ranks 67th nationally, and 11 explosive passes (3.67 per game) which ranks 94th. They’ve also given up 33 passes of at least 10 yards, which ranks 103rd nationally. By comparison, Michigan’s defense has given up just 12.

We’ll have another breakdown of the big plays next week after Michigan takes on Purdue in the young team’s first road test.