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The numbers game: U-M defense still better than 2016 heading into MSU showdown

October 6th, 2017 by Josh DeMille


(Isaiah Hole)

Previous: U-M offense lagging behind 2016 big play pace but defense allowing fewer; O’Korn leads U-M with six big plays in relief in Week 4;

After a bye week Michigan is back at it this week with a night game (yes, night game) against Michigan State. A team who, sadly, has already equaled their 2016 win total. They went 3-9 in case you forgot. I’ll never miss an opportunity to point that out.

After five weeks (but just four games) the Michigan offense comes in averaging 5.5 explosive runs per game (53rd nationally), 4.25 explosive passes per game (27th), and 9.75 total explosive plays per game (40th). Their big play percentage is 13.88 percent (40th).

After five weeks in 2016 Michigan had played five games so I decided to compare them at that point, instead of 4 games. Through 5 weeks they were averaging 7 explosive runs per game (25th), 3.8 explosive passes (42nd) for a total of 10.8 explosive plays per game (20th). Their big play percentage was 14.52 percent (30th).

Michigan has regressed, so far, compared to last year’s team through this point, except for the passing game, ironically, which is up almost a half play more per game. Call me crazy but I have a feeling the pass game numbers may actually improve by season’s end with John O’Korn at the helm.

On defense, they’re allowing 2.75 explosive runs per game (8th) and 2.75 explosive passes per game (49th) for a total of just 5.5 explosive plays per game (15th). Their big play against percentage is 9.52 percent (32nd) and their big play differential is 4.36 percent (27th). Their total toxic differential is 17, good for 22nd on a per game basis.

The 2016 team was allowing 4.2 explosive runs per game (47th) and 1.6 explosive passes per game (4th) for a total of 5.8 explosive plays per game (18th). Their big play against percentage was 9.57 percent (35th) and their big play differential was 4.95 percent. Their total toxic differential was 31, good for 7th on a per game basis.

All in all, this year’s defense has very similar stats to last year’s defense, and I expect that to continue.

Michigan’s 4.5 sacks per game is tops in the nation and their 8.5 tackles for loss per game is 7th.

Michigan’s big play leaders through 4 games
Name # Big Runs # Big Rec. Total Average Gain (Yds) Big Play %
Ty Isaac 10 0 10 24.0 17.54%
Chris Evans 6 1 7 20.5 12.77%
Karan Higdon 4 0 4 17.0 8.25%
Tarik Black 0 3 3 35.7 27.27%
Zach Gentry 0 3 3 33.0 50.00%
Grant Perry 0 3 3 28.0 23.08%
Donovan Peoples-Jones 1 1 2 40.5 50.00%
Kekoa Crawford 0 2 2 31.5 28.57%
Sean McKeon 0 2 2 26.50 20.00%
Nick Eubanks 0 1 1 48.0 50.00%

Ty Isaac leads the Wolverines with 10 total explosive plays, all runs, for 240 yards. Chris Evans comes in second with 6 for 123 yards. Tarik Black and tight end Zach Gentry are tied with three explosive pass plays each with Black’s 107 yards just edging out Gentry’s 99 yards. Unfortunately for Michigan, that is all Tarik Black will total this season due to injury. Sean McKeon, yet another tight end, is 2nd on the team with two explosive pass plays for 53 yards. With just one game under his belt it’s hard to tell if Gentry and McKeon will continue to be favorite targets for O’Korn. However, if I were a betting man I’d put my money on one of Gentry or McKeon to lead this team in explosive plays per game.

Michigan’s 2017 big play scoring percentage
Drives With Big Play Drives w/Big Play and Score Big Play Scoring Pct
Offense 22 15 68.18%*
Drives With Big Play Drives w/Big Play and Score Big Play Scoring Pct
Defense 16 7 43.75%*
*A drive with a big play typically yields points 75% of the time per recent NFL study

For the year, Michigan has had 22 drives on which they’ve recorded a big play and have scored on 15 of those, good for 68.18 percent, which is slightly below what it should be. You should score on about 75 percent of drives on which you have a big play.
The defense is fairing well allowing just 7 scores on 16 drives with big plays for 43.75 percent. Only Air Force scored on more than 50 percent of their big play drives.

Michigan has yet to record a garbage time big play. The caveat is that there has hardly been any garbage time opportunities save for the last drive or two. The defense has allowed one garbage time big play.

Next opponent
Michigan offense vs Michigan State defense
Year Big Run Plays Big Pass Plays Total Big Plays Big Play % Big Play Diff Toxic Diff
UM Off. 22 18 40 13.88% 4.36% 17
MSU Def. 18 13 31 10.16% 1.65% 7
Michigan State offense vs Michigan defense
Year Big Run Plays Big Pass Plays Total Big Plays Big Play % Big Play Diff Toxic Diff
MSU Off. 12 8 20 8.51% 1.65% 7
UM Def. 11 11 22 9.52% 4.36% 17

Michigan State comes into this game averaging 4.5 explosive runs per game (80th), 3.25 explosive passes per game (59th) for a total of 7.75 explosive plays per game (84th). Their big play percentage is 10.16% (92nd).

Their defense is allowing three explosive runs per game (16th) and two explosive passes per game (12th) for a total of just five explosive plays per game (9th). However, the eye test says this defense is definitely not as good as MSU defenses of the past and probably not as good as these numbers indicate either. Their big play against percentage is 8.51 percent (19th) and their big play differential is 1.65 percent (56th). Their total toxic differential is just 7, good for 55th on a per game basis.

You can throw all the records and stats away for this one. But Michigan presents a unique challenge with O’Korn having very limited Michigan tape to study. Don Brown will have his defense of rabid hyenas ready to roll but Michigan’s offensive line still gives me heartburn, especially knowing Michigan State will be coming strong with their double A-gap blitz. Should be a good, close game. Go Blue!